Hockey Night in Korea?
Some might think it an unlikely combination. But in this story of a war between Koreans, a fierce on-ice battle between Canadian brothers-in-arms and an enduring legacy, we find the Canadian spirit in its purest form — one of courage and honour.
In Ottawa this past November, and coming up in Paju City, Korea on January 19, 2018, friends who live an ocean apart but close at heart are reuniting to play the good ol' hockey game. They’ll lace up their skates once more to commemorate a game played between the regimental teams of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI or "Princess Pat's") and the Royal 22nd Regiment (R22R or "Van Doos"), on Korea’s Imjin River in 1951.
More than six decades later, the wounds of the Korean War remain open. In one of the first conflicts of the Cold War, from 1950 to 1953, the Korean peninsula burned as families were torn apart — including my own — and loved ones were killed. Leaving behind a hot stalemate, the threat of resumed conflict lingers in the air just as it does on TV screens and the front covers of newspapers across the globe.
But amid this tragedy and from across an ocean, an army of Canada’s bravest — only five years after many returned from the Second World War — stepped up to stop the spread of communism and volunteered to fight in Korea. They knew little of Korea, but knew that someone else’s fight for freedom was their fight too. And Canadians made the difference on land, in the air, and on the seas. 516 Canadians made the ultimate sacrifice. Thousands more were wounded, in body and spirit.
One winter during the war, those serving along the frozen Imjin River, longing for home, decided to play a friendly game of hockey on the ice. Of course, they would not have known then that their game, immortalized in a photo, would become legendary.
Behind enemy lines, the anglophone Princess Pat’s faced off against the French-speaking Van Doos. With smiles on their faces reminiscent of children on any frozen pond across Canada, these perfect strangers from all across our vast country came together in the spirit of hockey.
When the war ended, the game faded into history. Until decades later.
In 2010, I saw the iconic photo at an exhibit in Vancouver curated by Chang-Uy Hong, a Korean-Canadian, who had devoted more than 20 years of his life archiving photos from the Korean War. He was 5 at the time of the Korean War, and like me, swore he owed his life to Canadians and others who saved South Korea from doom.
I was struck by the juxtaposition of this real war between North and South and this friendly battle on ice between French and English Canadians. The symbolism was palpable. The game deserved to be remembered. It had to be revived.
With the help of a ragtag contingent of enthusiasts from both Canada and Korea and with great support from the Government of Canada, we brought the historic game to life for the 60th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice in 2013. On Ottawa’s frozen Rideau Canal, parliamentarians, ex-NHLers and guest players competed against a combined PPCLI/R22R military team, for the Imjin River Memorial Cup — a trophy brought over from Korea that Canadian expats award at the their annual tournament in Seoul. Veterans of the war gathered to remember their fight on the ice. Even Don Cherry talked about it on Coach’s Corner on the eve of the inaugural "Imjin Classic".
Every year since, the Imjin Classic is played in Ottawa as it was during the war: Princess Pat's vs. Van Doos, with veterans and fans cheering from the stands.
In January, as the Olympic torch passes through Paju City, the historic game will be played near the original spot. I first began pitching this idea to Korean officials soon after the announcement of Pyeongchang winning its Olympic bid. It's a dream come true to be able to share this hockey legacy of the Korean War with the world.
I dream, like all Koreans, of a peaceful reunification on the Korean peninsula. Sometimes it seems impossible. But when I see this pure Canadian spirit overcoming war, it gives me hope for Korea.
Yonah Martin is a senator representing British Columbia. Her bill, the Korean War Veterans Day Act, created a national day of remembrance to honour Canadian who served in the Korean War. Senator Martin, whose father was born in the North in 1932, was born in Seoul, Korea.
This article appeared in the December 26, 2017 edition of The Ottawa Citizen.