When Israel Met North Korea on the Ice

They look alike, are totally disciplined and never leave their hotel rooms or mix with other players. Israel’s ice hockey team gets a rare glimpse into the world’s most cut-off country.

Israel North Korea ice hockey
Nimrod Glickman

From the first gathering before the opening of the Men’s World Ice Hockey Championships Division II, Group B tournament in Mexico City last week, the Israeli national team realized that they were facing some unique circumstances. The other teams in Mexico City were the host country, New Zealand, Australia, Bulgaria and North Korea. All the teams were required to submit their players’ passports for confirmation to the International Ice Hockey Federation.

At this stage, the heads of the teams divided the task among them. Eli Maaravi, the head of the Israeli delegation and the one responsible for the teams in the IIHF, found himself with the Australian representative leafing through the documents that had come from Pyongyang. “You pick up a passport and you see something amazing,” he recalled. “[The players] all look the same. I checked the passports one by one, and they were all photographed in suits and ties.”

This unified format was the prominent motif of the conduct of the North Korean delegation during the tournament. Since all the teams were staying in the same hotel, the Israelis were exposed to the method of operation and the organization of the representatives of the most cut-off country on earth.

Actually, they weren’t all that organized, as it turned out. Some of the North Korean coaches met the Israelis in the lobby and asked for assistance regarding equipment.

“We helped them as much as we could,” says Maaravi. “We had no access to their players, but we did talk and take pictures with their coaches and other staff members. They are like robots, but are very kind and gentle. We only talked about sports, and politics didn’t bother them. They are very modest and lower their heads when they speak. Two of them spoke English and they had no problem approaching us, knowing we were Israelis.”

Israeli team members with North Korean counterparts at the Men’s World Ice Hockey Championships Division II, Group B tournament in Mexico City.
Evgeny Gussin

The Korean players cannot decide on their own where to go or whom to talk to, Maaravi stressed.

“Our players would talk to the other teams, but the Koreans are very disciplined and they stayed in their corner. They don’t talk, apparently because they don’t let them. Everything by them is done en masse – they get off the bus as a group, they go straight to the dressing room and that’s it. Only the coaches walk around outside. An Israeli player sometimes takes off a layer and walks around in just a shirt. With them there’s no such thing – they always walk around with their training suits with the national symbol. You’ll never see anyone in ‘civilian’ clothes.”

The tournament began on Saturday and lasts a week, during which all the teams play each other. In the first round, North Korea beat Bulgaria 9-3, while Israel suffered an unexpected 6-3 loss to New Zealand.

On Sunday, Israel and North Korea met on the ice. “They beat Bulgaria easily and apparently thought they’d do the same to us, but they were mistaken,” says Maaravi, as he described how the blue-and-white team stormed the ice to a 4-0 lead, eventually winning 8-4.

Hockey is an aggressive sport that sometimes gets violent and always puts the players into complex situations. But when the North Koreans take to the ice, the Israeli team found, something different happens.

“They are very introverted; what the coach says is exactly what’s meant to happen,” says Maaravi. “He issues orders calmly, like in the military. Usually there’s a lot of pushing, cursing and hitting in a hockey game, but with them there’s no such thing. I’ve seen Chinese players who’ve become semi-Westernized and very aggressive, but there’s no militancy among the Koreans. They show no emotion during the game. Even if you knock into a player, he’ll just move on. They don’t argue any call by a referee and accept what they are told in a remarkable fashion.”

After scoring a goal, the Koreans would gather for a group hug and were cheered loudly by fans waving the national flag. After the game, the national anthem of the winning team is played and afterward the coaches and players of both teams shake hands. After their loss to Israel, Maaravi said, the Koreans seemed a bit subdued, but the look on their faces was the same as when they trounced the Bulgarians.

No politics

“I saw no joy or noise, they are very well-behaved and programmed like soldiers,” he said.

While the Israeli team got a visit from the Israeli ambassador to Mexico, the Koreans were observed being visited by various men in suits.

Israel-North Korea ice hockey
Nimrod Glickman

“It looks like there’s some senior official here,” said Maaravi. “We know who the coaches are but yesterday we saw some other people. It could be that there’s a representative of the government checking that there’s no trouble. In general, they are very isolated, they leave their rooms only to eat or to practice. Today we got a day off and visited with the Jewish community. I don’t believe they ever left the hotel, certainly not after yesterday’s game.”

The game was the third meeting between the countries’ hockey teams, which met for the first time on the ice in 1993 and faced each other again in 2009. Evgeny Gussin, today the chairman of the Ice Hockey Federation of Israel, played in the game 23 years ago.

“From our perspective it was a team we were facing and that we had to beat, without too much politics,” said Gussin, who dismissed the possibility that the Koreans wouldn’t show up. “They’re familiar with the IIHF’s strict constitution and wouldn’t take chances. We came to this game focused, and after a very painful loss. In ’93 they were also disciplined and much more closed than the other teams. We usually had polite conversations with the heads of their delegation, nothing friendly. On the other hand, there was no resistance [to playing against Israel] at all; the whole political issue is very far from the world of hockey.

“These are people who live under a dictatorial regime, they don’t have lots of options, but they adapt to the framework in which they play,” Gussin added. “I’m an immigrant from the Soviet Union and come from a state that was very close to what they are experiencing today, which is why I actually understand them. They will cooperate with whom they must, but nothing beyond that. I assume they are also afraid to forge too many external ties. At conferences abroad they are also generally not open to casual conversations.”

What’s it like to play against them?

“They’re strong, small and very quick. Against other teams you see a lot of unplanned moves. I personally had it easier against them because they are programmed and I knew what their next move would be. On the other hand, it’s hard when your rival is disciplined and makes fewer mistakes. Hockey in general, however, requires you to think out of the box, to initiate and be creative, and they try to do that on the ice.”

This time you met them in Mexico. Is there a chance that in the future it will happen in Pyongyang or in Israel?

“They’ve never hosted a tournament and so we’ve never had a chance to set foot there, nor have we succeeded in doing it in Israel because we don’t have the financial wherewithal to host. But I think that if we were hosting the championship here, the North Koreans would come. We need both teams to be at the same level, and we’d also need a sponsor to help us to the tune of $250,000. If all that happened, I can promise you that we’d make every effort to bring them here.”