INDIAN TRAIL, N.C. – As he drilled the U.S. National Sled Hockey squad through workouts at the 2012 International Paralympic Committee Sled Hockey World Championships in Hamar, Norway, coach Jeff Sauer noticed a swarm of amateur scouts diligently examining his work.
South Korean coaches and players watched. They shot video. They took notes. They were attempting to learn from the Americans — and gain a competitive edge.
“They were trying to get all of our secrets,” Sauer said Tuesday. “As a team, they came to every one of our practices. They are fairly new to the sport and trying to catch up.
“I was impressed with their diligence.”
As South Korea puts in extra time studying the habits of the powerhouse U.S. team, a seed of an international rivalry is taking root.
Team USA claimed a gold medal after handling upstart Korea in the final of last year’s world championships. For South Korea, it was the program’s first silver medal.
South Korea also placed second last Saturday during the inaugural USA Hockey Sled Cup in Indian Trail, N.C. Despite offering its opponents two 5-on-3 situations in the first period of the final, the Americans recovered to top Korea, 5-2.
“They are well-coached and have a couple of skilled players,” Sauer said. “(The programs are) in the process of building a rivalry.”
Sauer said South Korea gained valuable tournament experience during the four-team Sled Cup at Extreme Ice Center.
“I think coming to North Carolina gave them a lot of ideas on how to host a tournament,” Sauer said. “(The rivalry) is just going to get more intense.”
South Korea is poised to become a major player in international sled hockey community. It is scheduled to play host the 2013 IPC Sled Hockey World Championships in Goyang, South Korea, April 12-20. It will be the first time South Korea has hosted the event.
The Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games also will be staged in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018.
At the upcoming eight-team world championships, Team USA and South Korea are not scheduled to meet in the opening round. The United States will compete in Group A with Czech Republic, Norway and Sweden, while South Korea is classified in Group B with Canada, Italy and Russia.
Over the past three years, Team USA has dominated opponents, capturing the past three major tournaments. South Korea, meanwhile, has steadily improved its international standing. In 2009, South Korea appeared in its first world championships and placed seventh. At the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, it finished sixth. Then, last December, the underdogs earned a silver medal, sending a strong message to the united nations of sled hockey.
“All us Korean players got confident through the games,” forward Seunghwan Jung was quoted as saying at the world championships. “Now, we know how it goes and what we have to do. Korean ice sledge hockey will now be stronger with the confidence.”
When Jung speaks, Team USA should listen.
“He is their best player,” Sauer said.
Despite being overwhelmed by the United States in a 3-0 group-stage loss last Friday, South Korea qualified for the Sled Cup final. Sauer said South Korea changed tactics for the rematch.
“Smart coaching,” he said. “They saw they couldn’t skate with us man-for-man. They made a decision to try and slow us down.”
Not known for a physical style of play — “Korea does not like to hit,” rugged U.S. defenseman Nikko Landeros said with a chuckle — the visitors confronted the Americans, who tended to retaliate aggressively. Landeros was called for two minors.
“Maybe they surprised us a little bit,” Sauer said. “They definitely came at us Saturday to take us off the puck. We took some poor penalties.
“Bottom line … we didn’t play as strong as our first game against Korea.”
Sauer recognized a coaching lesson in how the match developed. The United States now “knows they have two different (playing) styles,” he said.
Fighting through checks and fending off South Korean power plays last Saturday, the United States secured a 2-0, first-period advantage on goals by forwards Paul Schaus and Dan McCoy. Up until Jung connected 1:29 after McCoy’s first of two goals, Team USA had pitched a tournament shutout of 157 minutes 34 seconds. Goalie Steve Cash was credited with four wins, turning aside 31 of 33 shots.
Forward Josh Pauls paced the tourney in scoring with two goals among seven points. Jung was tied for second with six points, including five goals.
At the upcoming world championships, the host program may not be slated to play its budding rival in the early round, but Team USA players can be certain South Korea will be watching their every move.