By Yoo Jee-ho – Yonhap News Agency
Korean-American hockey player Grace Lee has come a long way — both literally and figuratively — to join the South Korean women’s national team, just in time for next year’s Winter Olympics on home ice.
The 17-year-old native of Boulder, Colorado, holds dual Korean and American citizenship, which allows her to play for the country of her parents’ birth. She played her first game for South Korea in a friendly against Sweden on Friday at Gangneung Hockey Centre in Gangneung, 230 kilometers east of Seoul.
It’s the same venue that will host hockey action at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games, and Lee said she can’t wait to be a part of the experience as South Korea makes its Olympic debut on home ice.
And just making the national team here was two years in the making.
In South Korea’s 3-0 loss, Lee played center on the top line, flanked by two of South Korea’s most skilled forwards — captain Park Jong-ah and Kim Hee-won. Lee showed flashes of skill and speed that made her a coveted player when head coach Sarah Murray saw her last year.
But it was actually in 2015 that Lee wanted to approach Murray about playing for South Korea. Lee’s school, Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault, Minnesota, hosted the South Korean national team for friendlies in 2015. But Lee wasn’t available for action because she was sidelined with a concussion.
South Korea faced Shattuck-St. Mary’s, which also happens to be Murray’s alma mater, in 2016 again. Lee was able to play, and it was Murray who sought out Lee after a game.
“Sarah approached me, and she just asked if I had dual citizenship and if I was interested at all,” Lee told Yonhap News Agency after Friday’s game. “As soon as she said that, I was just, ‘Go for it.’ I got my transfer card from USA Hockey to (the Korea Ice Hockey Association). And then I flew over here a couple of weeks ago.”
Lee said she has enjoyed her time in South Korea so far, thanks in large part to “really supportive” teammates.
“It’s just been an incredible ride,” she said. “It’s just amazing getting to play for South Korea, especially with the teammates that I have.”
Lee isn’t here just to enjoy the ride. Murray threw the teenager right into the fire against Sweden, putting her on the first line alongside Park and Kim for some spark on offense and speed on defense.
Lee has already proven her worth in the United States. Lee, who started skating at age seven, scored 29 goals and picked up 28 assists in 56 games for Shattuck-St. Mary’s in the 2015-2016 season.
Murray said she wanted a fast line that could shut down the other team’s top unit and said she was pleased with her first line’s effort.
Lee said it has become “pretty easy to play with” Park and Kim because the three can complement one another.
“I think what I can do best is I can control the puck a lot,” Lee said. “Jong-ah and Hee-won are two really aggressive players. I am able to kind of slow the game down. We have a lot of skills in that sense because we’ll be able to do a lot with the puck.”
Lee allowed herself to look ahead to PyeongChang 2018 and mused on just how much competing there will mean to her.
“I have a lot of family (in South Korea), especially my grandparents here,” she said. “It’s incredible just to be able to come here and show them what I can do. We’ll represent the team the best we can.”
After PyeongChang, an Ivy League career awaits Lee. She received multiple offers from NCAA Division I schools, and she has elected to play for Yale starting in the fall of 2018.