When sports and politics collide -- what happened when North and South Korea unified on the ice

    February 10, 2018, the unified Korean team took to the ice for the first time in Winter Olympics history

    (CNN)On the opening night of the 2018 Winter Olympics, journalists and photographers from around the world assembled in a large cabin in the shadow of the Kwandong Hockey Centre. Some sipped tea, having stepped indoors from the teeth-chattering cold, others were seated by tables; reading, typing, preparing for the historic evening ahead.

    From the public address system, a voice issued a warning in English, reminding the media of the importance of the occasion, of the stature of the dignitaries who would be present in the arena they were about to enter. Equanimity, they were told, had to be maintained at all times.
    There is always brouhaha when history is made. But when the world has time to foresee a momentous event, when sport and politics collide, anticipation builds into a chaotic crescendo, the intensity burning like a red-hot flame, as it did on the south east coast of South Korea when a unified Korean ice hockey team made its Olympic debut.
      North Korean cheerleaders wave unified Korean flags.
      Just months previously, there were fears there could be conflict on the peninsula. but the Winter Olympics had given North and South Korea, two countries still technically at war, reason to talk again.
      And so, on the grandest sporting stage of all, sport became secondary.
      Given just weeks to train together, to assimilate and to bond, little was expected on the ice of the hastily-assembled group of 35 players. Then again, this wasn't about winning.
      The team was part of a political message, a tool for rapprochement in an attempt to slow down the North's nuclear program and the outcome of a plan cobbled together by representatives of both governments during discussions at the demilitarized zone that separates the two countries.
      Creating an inter-Korean team was a controversial move -- many in South Korea protested against it -- but what was it like to be on the team, at the center of a geopolitical drama?
      Coaches and players cheer during a welcoming ceremony.

      'I thought it was a scam email'

      Growing up in Canada, Caroline Park was obsessed with ice hockey. She would watch her older brother Michael play with his friends on the street and feign illness before piano lessons to join them.
      One day, when watching a segment on the news about South Korean ice hockey, Park dreamed big like every child should. "It'd be so cool if one day I could play for them," she marveled.
      As the years went by, Park continued to play, her mum accepting that her daughter would not become a pianist or a gymnast, but over time aspirations of sporting stardom were replaced with ambitions of becoming a doctor.
      It was while working as a clinical research assistant at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City in 2013 that the Princeton graduate received an unexpected email from the Korean Ice Hockey Association.
      "I initially thought it was a scam email," she says, laughing before continuing the story.
      Park at the Kwandong Hockey Centre, playing against Sweden.
      "I texted my dad and asked: 'Did you send this to me?' I know we joked about it when I was young but it's not really funny.'"
      Her father, Sandy, persuaded Park to reply and a week later she flew to Korea for the first time for a two-week tryout in the country of her parents' birth which led to a place on the team.

      Unsettling, distracting, mixed emotions

      There is not much passion for ice hockey in South Korea. The women's team was formed in 1999 and lost its first international, against Kazakhstan, 17-1.
      Neither the men's or women's team had competed at a Winter Olympics prior to 2018 but, as hosts, South Korea did not have to qualify for PyeongChang 2018.
      To avoid humiliation at a home Games, the Korean Ice Hockey Association (KIHA) searched the globe and recruited several North Americans of Korean heritage -- Park was one of five on the roster -- and backed the team financially.
      The investment paid dividends. In the years leading to the 2018 Olympics, both the men and women improved, with the women climbing above Italy, Great Britain and the Netherlands in the world rankings and winning a second-division world championship tournament. But then came upheaval.
      North Korea's women's ice hockey players watch South Korea's women's team train on January 26, 2018.