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Winter Olympics: Ex-UMD player Murray thawing the ice as coach of Korean women's hockey team

Former Minnesota Duluth women's hockey player Sarah Murray is the head coach of Korean women’s hockey team. Clint Austin / 1 / 3
Former Minnesota Duluth women's hockey player Sarah Murray, head coach of the Korean women’s hockey team, smiles while coaching during a game against Minnesota Duluth at Amsoil Arena in January. Clint Austin / 2 / 3
Members of the Korean women's hockey team listen to the Korean national anthem before a January exhibition game against Minnesota Duluth at Amsoil Arena. Several players from North Korea are joining the South Koreans for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Clint Austin / 3 / 3

Once an afterthought in the grand scheme of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, former Minnesota Duluth ironwoman Sarah Murray and the Korean women's hockey team have been thrust into the world spotlight.

And Murray has her father, Western Michigan coach Andy Murray, to partially thank for putting her there.

"I was in Kalamazoo (Mich.) and I was sitting at the kitchen table and my dad came home and told me, 'You're going to do a job (interview) to be the head coach of the Korean national team," Sarah Murray said in early January during her team's visit to Duluth. "I was like, 'What? Are you kidding me? Is this real?' He was like, 'Yeah, you're going to do the interview.' "

Four years ago, Sarah Murray abandoned a comeback to professional hockey to take on her first head coaching job with the South Korean national team. Now the 29-year-old coach and her team find themselves caught in the middle of an international political firestorm that includes the controversial merging last month of the women's hockey teams from South and North Korea.

As part of a late agreement that will see athletes from both countries march under a unified flag of the Korean Peninsula on Friday, 12 North Korean players have been added to Murray's original 23-player South Korean roster, per a special exemption.

Only 22 players will be allowed to suit up on game day and of those 22, three must be North Koreans. The new-look squad played its first game together Sunday — a 3-1 exhibition loss to Sweden — and they open Olympic play at 6 a.m. CT Sunday against Switzerland.

Andy Murray said he recommended his daughter for the job in 2014 because he believed she'd be a great coach. He knew she could handle the job then, and believes even more strongly she can handle what's been thrown her way now.

"When you think of your own daughter and what she's doing now, it's taken on a whole new dimension," Andy Murray said. "It was unbelievably special before without this North Korean thing.

"It's kind of surreal right now."

Joining the family business

Andy Murray is in his seventh season coaching the Broncos, but before that, he spent six seasons as an NHL assistant with the Philadelphia Flyers, Minnesota North Stars and Winnipeg Jets. He was head coach of the Los Angeles Kings from 1999-2006 and St. Louis Blues from 2006-2010.

Along the way Murray befriended Jim Paek, a Korean-Canadian who won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992. Paek later went on to serve as an assistant coach for the American Hockey League franchise just north of Kalamazoo, the Grand Rapids Griffins, but when Murray ran into his old friend at a wedding in 2014, Paek had just taken over as director of South Korea's hockey association and he needed a women's coach.

And Andy Murray happened to know the perfect person, someone who grew up around the game at the highest level, often accompanying her father on NHL road trips. She also played for what Andy Murray called "a great coach" in Shannon Miller at UMD, winning NCAA titles in 2008 and 2010.

There was just a couple small issues, however, on both sides.

The first was on Sarah Murray's end. She was in the middle of a professional comeback that summer.

After winning a second national title and graduating from UMD in 2010, Murray went on to play professionally in Switzerland before finally putting her education degree to good use teaching in Beijing, China. There she continued to play hockey recreationally in a men's league and discovered she still had the passion to play.

Meanwhile back in South Korea, the hockey association was struggling with Paek's choice of head coach because of her age. Sarah Murray said in Korean culture, "the older you are the better you are at your job, so they were really nervous."

Sarah Murray said the Korean hockey association took so long to make a decision, she wound up signing with a professional team in Zurich, Switzerland, where her brothers were living and playing.

Not long after settling in to her new life, she heard back from Paek.

"I was living with my little brother and enjoying my life. I remember telling him I'm happy to be here. It's nice to be around you," Sarah Murray said. "Then I got my contract in my email two days later.

"I had a hard time deciding, too, because I really liked my team and my coaches. I had retired and come out of retirement. I was talking to my brothers and they were like, 'Are you crazy? You can play for maybe two more years. This is a career choice and national team program.' "

Challenge of a lifetime

Sarah Murray already had faced plenty of challenges in her first head coaching gig well before the politicians decided to get involved in her team.

She has found Korean to be a tough language to learn, and while many of her players speak or at least understand English, Murray said she still requires a translator at times.

An 11-month season means as a coach she has to constantly keep things fresh. That's especially hard when you are the only women's hockey team in the country. The team practices a lot, and when it does play "home" games they are against high school boys teams.

"We grew together," Sarah Murray said of her and the program over the last four years. "It's been a challenge, but it's been a good challenge. Me being inexperienced coming into this made it a little easier. I didn't have a set way of this is how it should be run and this is how we should do things. I was a little more flexible."

Murray, whose 153 career games and streak of 119 straight games played rank second all-time at UMD, said she draws from a number of influences as a coach, and not just her father. For instance, motivation and team building exercises come from Miller, and Murray has even incorporated a few faceoff plays and power-play tactics from her days as a Bulldog.

That experience as a player is what Murray's team loves most about her, according to the Korean-born, Minnesota-raised Marissa Brandt — one of the very few exports on Team Korea. Brandt played at Gustavus Adolphus and is the adopted sister of Team USA's Hannah Brandt, the former Gopher.

"(Murray) is great, she's played the game and is very knowledgeable. She brings that component to this team," said Brandt, who will go by her birth name of Yoon Jung Park in the Olympics. "Playing hockey in Korea, it's not a very popular sport and people don't know a lot about it. Just the knowledge she has brought, especially from being a player, it's really relatable."

Proud papa

Four seasons in, Sarah Murray still turns for advice to the man who lined her up for a life-changing job interview.

And the man who highly recommended her is using the South Korean coach as an example to his own Broncos squad.

Andy Murray said last year he showed his team video of a power play that South Korea scored on at the World Championships. It was the exact play the Broncos often ran, only Korea did it better, he said.

This season Andy Murray turned to a news conference his daughter held when she and her team returned to Korea from their most recent trip to the U.S. The merger of the Korean hockey teams had just been announced.

With his Broncos missing a number of key players due to injury, Andy Murray wanted to show his team how someone deals with real adversity.

"She has a pretty good handle on things. She might be doing a better job than I'm doing right now. She is a good coach," he said. "She's impressed her dad for sure."

Matt Wellens

College hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune covering the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs men's and women's teams, as well as the NCAA Division III programs at St. Scholastica and Wisconsin-Superior.

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