Apr 30, 2017
South Korean players pose for pictures after finishing second at the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship Division I Group A in Kiev, Ukraine, on April 28, 2017. (Yonhap)
The South Korean men's national hockey team made a triumphant return home on Sunday, having secured the country's first berth in the top-tier world championship.
Coached by former National Hockey League (NHL) defenseman Jim Paek, South Korea finished in second place at the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship Division I Group A in Kiev, Ukraine, last week.
It is the second-highest level of men's international hockey, and as one of the top two teams there, right behind Austria, South Korea
has been promoted to the top-tier IIHF World Championship for next year.
South Korea has never before played at the highest level. It had to claw its way into hockey relevance after playing in Division I Group B, the third-tier competition, as recently as 2015.
At the six-nation event in Ukraine, South Korea was the lowest-ranked team at No. 23. But it defeated Poland (No. 20), Kazakhstan (No. 16) and Hungary (No. 19) in succession. The 17th-ranked Austria snapped South Korea's winning streak, but South Korea bounced back to beat 22nd-ranked Ukraine in a shoot-out on Friday to clinch the World Championship spot.
It was an encouraging performance for South Korea as it prepares for an Olympic debut on home ice at PyeongChang 2018. South Korea will face world No. 1 Canada, along with the Czech Republic and Switzerland, in Group A.
The government has fast-tracked North American players to South Korean citizenship in hopes of boosting the team's competitiveness. The Canadian-born goalie Matt Dalton was outstanding, but homegrown skaters like Ahn Jin-hui, Kim Ki-sung and Shin Sang-hoon also played key roles, scoring crucial goals in victories.
The top-level World Championship features 16 nations divided into two groups. The top four from each group reach the playoff round, while the last-place team from each group will be relegated to Division I Group A the following year.