GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) – Japan carried the day on Wednesday when the long-time national rivalry with its North Asian neighbors North and South Korea spilled onto Olympic ice, topping Korea’s unified women’s ice hockey team 4-1 before thousands of delirious Korean fans.
It was a game of firsts for both teams, however.
For the Japanese, it marked their first Olympic win ever in women’s ice hockey. The Koreans, meanwhile, found the back of the net for the first time, and it set the house on fire.
Randi Heesoo Griffin took a pass from Park Yoonjung and fought her way up the right wing, managing to get the puck on the Japan goaltender Akane Konishi, and it dribbled between her pads.
Korea had come close a few times before, particularly in the later periods of their second game against Sweden, but hadn’t been able to capitalize. When they broke through finally almost exactly halfway through the game, the crowd erupted with a roar, with thousands of white and blue unification flags.
It was easily the most evenly matched game the two teams have played so far, especially for Korea, who had been outscored by 8-0 margins in both their previous games.
Japan opened the scoring just over a minute into the game when Hanae Kubo one-timed a pass in front of the net from team mate Haruka Toko past Korean goalie Shin So Jung.
About two minutes later, Shoko Ono scored on the power play with Korea’s Griffin in the penalty box for cross checking, knocking home a rebound on a shot from Shiori Koike.
Japan’s Koike provided an insurance goal late in the third period, and then Rui Ukita put it away with an empty netter with just over a minute to play.
The event was rife with political and cultural overtones, with fans waving flags depicting a unified Korea, some showing the disputed Japanese islands of Dokdo.
Tensions have long simmered between the two countries following Japan’s colonization of the Korean peninsula between 1910 and 1945.
The Korean women’s team have become a showcase at the Olympics since it was decided to include 12 players from the North on the team.
At their first game on Saturday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong were both in attendance.
North Korea’s cheerleading squad was on hand for a third straight game as well.
At the end of the game, fans showered the ice with soft toys as the Korean players bowed to their coaches.
Reporting By Dan Burns; editing by Sudipto Ganguly