No matter what happens in the Para ice hockey bronze medal match on Saturday (17 March), one nation will be taking home its first Paralympic medal in the sport.
Host nation South Korea, backed by what has been a thunderous crowd at the Gangneung Hockey Centre at PyeongChang 2018, will take on European silver medallists Italy in a battle for bronze.
“We’re very confident about the bronze medal game,” said defenceman Ji-Hoon Lee, who previously served in South Korea’s military and took up the sport after he saw it broadcast during the Sochi 2014 Games. “We hope to develop as a powerhouse in Para ice hockey by winning our first medal in the sport at the Paralympics hosted by our home country.”
The last time the two teams faced each other on the international stage, Italy stunned South Korea in a thrilling penalty shootout, 3-2, at the 2017 World Para Ice Hockey Championships, which also served as the PyeongChang 2018 Test Event.
South Korea finished in sixth place at Vancouver 2010 and seventh at Sochi 2014, and has two World Championship medals to its name, including silver in 2012 and bronze in 2017. The host nation will be relying heavily on speedy forward Seung-Hwan Jung, who leads the team with three goals and two assists, and captain Han-Min Su, who started these Paralympics by climbing up a rope to the Paralympic cauldron with the torch at the Opening Ceremony.
Both players will look to feed off the crowd’s energy and put the finishing touches on what has been nearly a decade-long building process of the nation’s Para ice hockey programme in the lead-up to these Games.
“We’ve had two consecutive difficult games against the US and Canada. Now, we have what’s the most important for us left ahead of us,” Su said. “I live for the rough play. I’ve been doing it for 18 years. I’m pretty masculine, don’t you think?”
Italy has been just as potent on offense, with contributions from the likes of sharp-shooting forward Sandro Kalegaris, defenceman Gianluigi Rosa and rising star Nils Larch. The Italians have come leaps and bounds since starting up a Para ice hockey programme in advance of the Torino 2006 Games, where they finished eighth and were outscored 38-3. They were seventh at Vancouver 2010 and moved up a spot to sixth at Sochi 2014.
Last year’s upset of South Korea was a pivotal moment for Italy, with both Kalegaris and Rosa scoring in the penalty shootout.
“The last two years, we have recruited some new players and we have blended really well to improve and are really happy with where we are at,” Rosa said. “We beat the Koreans on the penalties at last year’s World Championships, so you never know what can happen next.”
Every competition as well as the Opening and Closing Ceremonies can be watched live right here on the International Paralympic Committee’s website. Highlights of each day’s action will also be made available.