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Ice hockey: Korean women score again but bid farewell with fifth loss

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) - The unified Korean women’s ice hockey team ended their historic Olympic run with a fifth straight loss on Tuesday but they signed off by adding one more goal to their total in front of another bumper audience of adoring fans.

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The Koreans fell 6-1 to Sweden in a classification game after having previously been eliminated from medal contention, their squad of 23 players from the South and 12 from the North ending the tournament in eighth and last place.

Han Soo-jin scored a first period equalizer on a power-play, doubling the team’s total tally after Randi Heesoo Griffin netted in a 4-1 pool play loss to Japan, with that puck being sent to the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Hall of Fame.

Six different Swedes scored in their second victory over the Korean team, and third overall in Pyeongchang, to ensure they finished in seventh place.

After the game, the players skated around the ice and saluted the fans, who have come in droves to see a team that has become a symbol of peace between the two Koreas, technically still at war since the 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce.

The team has drawn an average of 3,979 spectators to their games, the third highest attendance among the eight teams in the women’s tournament, with almost 20,000 fans in total watching all of their encounters.

“When I was standing there I was just so proud of them just watching them skate around salute to fans there,” Korean coach Sarah Murray said.

“With everything that happened to them, prior to the Olympics, for them to come together like this and to compete like this in the Olympics, it’s remarkable.”

Murray, a 29-year-old Canadian, had to grapple with the challenge of reshaping a team of South Koreans she had coached for four years to make room for the players from the North with only a couple of weeks to go before the Winter Olympics opened.

While that was highly disruptive, she said the team found a way to gel in only a handful of practice sessions before the Games began, as well as with the incessant attention of the media.

Their games have become a political showcase as well, with the first attended by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong.

North Korea’s official cheerleading squad attended all three of their group-stage games.

Murray called her players’ attitudes and commitment to one another “incredible” and said it was a testimony to the bonding power of sport.

“I’ve never imagined our team connecting this well. After our last practice yesterday, we had eight players from the North and five players from our team and they were hugging and taking pictures together,” Murray said.

“Sports are breaking down the barrier.”

Writing By Dan Burns; Editing by John O’Brien