Gangneung Style

Cat’s Whiskers Podcast presenter Jono Bullard recently travelled to South Korea as part of the broadcast team covering Pool A of the World Para Ice Hockey Championships. He writes about the experience.

Since leaving a conventional 9 to 5 job and setting up on my own as a freelance broadcaster I’ve been lucky enough to be presented with some great opportunities over the past 12 months. One of those was to travel to Gangneung, South Korea to be part of the broadcasting team for the World Para Ice Hockey World Championships, which would also serve as a test event for next years Paralympic Winter Games.

Gangneung
My only previous experience of Asia was a two hour stopover in Singapore on the way to Australia, so it’s safe to say I didn’t really know what to expect when I landed in Seoul after a 12 hour flight from Heathrow. The transfer to Gangneung took a further four hours and after a freshen up I was able to explore my new surroundings with a couple of colleagues. What we found was a vibrant city with plenty of bars, restaurants, hotels and convenience stores. The streets were also lined with cherry trees in blossom which added to the charm, as the picture shows.IMG_0685 The streets were also spotless, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a place that was so clean and it was clear that the locals took great pride in their city. Another added bonus was that there was wi-fi virtually everywhere, even free public connections in the middle of the street. With technological giants such as Samsung and LG being from Korea some would expect it, but it was an eye opener seeing how far ahead the Koreans are when it comes to ease of online access.

While appearing quite Westernised at first glance there were cultural differences. For example there isn’t really a drinking culture in South Korea, bars don’t open until around 4pm, and all serve food. Many will go out for a couple of drinks and a meal but that’s really it. I don’t know what they made of several Brits/Canadians who just wanted a couple of beers after a hard day!

There was local culture though. Several Buddhist temples were dotted around the city and on the tournament rest day we visited a temple high in the mountains overlooking Gangneung. The buildings were beautiful and the views were outstanding and of course there was wi-fi so we could post our pictures direct to social media!IMG_2217One of the greatest things about South Korea for me though was the people. I’ve never met such a polite, welcoming race of people. Nothing was too much trouble, manners were an absolute given. There’s many around the world who could learn a lot about how to present yourself as a human being from the South Koreans.

Olympic Park & Hockey Centre
The 2018 Winter Olympic & Paralympic Games are just 10 months away and all the indoor winter sports (figure skating, speed skating, curling & hockey) will take place in Gangneung. The Olympic Park consists of the Gangneung Curling Centre, Gangneung Hockey Centre, Gangneung Oval (long track speed skating) and Gangneung Ice Arena (figure skating & short track speed skating). The venues are all completed with just minor cosmetic work being carried out around the park.
The alpine sports will be taking place in PyeongChang, around a 45 minute drive away.

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The obligatory photo with the Olympic Rings. Gangneung Hockey centre in the background.

The Gangneung Hockey Centre is a 10,000 seat facility that will host the Mens Ice Hockey tournament at the Olympics and the Para Ice Hockey tournament at the Paralympics. The Womens Ice Hockey will take place at the Kawndong Hockey Centre, a 6,000 seat facility in the grounds of Kwandong University approximately 6 kilometres from the Olympic Park. Prior to our arrival the IIHF Women’s Senior Championships & Men’s U18 Championships had been taking place at both hockey venues as test events for the 2018 games. The Hockey Centre reminded me of Sheffield Arena with its inner concourse and sharp corners, albeit with an end filled in, and a top of the range video scoreboard.

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An internal view of the Gangneung Hockey Centre

Broadcasting
The logistics of moving a broadcast crew and their kit from various parts of the world to Korea was challenging, thankfully I wasn’t the one organising it!
The team consisted of a director (Steve), replay specialist (Callum), graphics specialist (Paul), seven camera operators (David, John, Rio, Jack, Liz, Adam & Paul), three commentators (Mike Kelly, Brent Pope & Jonathan Ball), a translator (Josh), a liaison (Francesca) and a floor manager (me). As well as the manned cameras we also had a camera behind each goal, cameras for the commentators and overhead cameras which were provided by Hawkeye, who were at the venue providing facilities for video review.

Prior to the tournament starting control desks had to be set up for directing, editing, graphics & replays; cable laid for the cameras, microphones, communication systems, internet & monitors as well as hours of testing to make sure everything worked as it should, not only prior to the tournament starting but also during the 24 games of the tournament itself. It was a well oiled machine, everyone knew their roles and what was expected of them for each broadcast.

My role was as floor manager which sounds incredibly generic. To give the specifics I was sat on the timekeepers bench for every game where I had equipment to communicate with the director & camera operators plus a radio to connect directly with our graphics specialist. The essence of my job was to communicate who scored goals when they were scored (so the camera could follow the goalscorer), if the referee gave a penalty who it was on and the offence (from the referee’s hand signals), manage the TV time-outs (two 70 second breaks each period for commercials) and report anything happening on the ice that may not be immediately clear to the commentators or camera operators (player injuries, problems with the ice etc.) It is a role where you have to be alert and responsive while each game was in progress, if I was to give out the wrong information it could have a detrimental effect on the production

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My view from the timekeepers bench

The Tournament
For those that don’t know, Para Ice Hockey (formerly known as Sledge Hockey), is played by participants with lower body disabilities. The players are in a sledge with a skate runner underneath. They have a hockey stick for each hand, the butt of which has a metal pick which the players dig into the ice to propel themselves forward.
This was my first experience of Para Ice Hockey live and two things struck me, the rapid speed of the game and the immense upper body strength that the participants need displayed.

Seven teams featured in the tournament, USA, Canada, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Norway and hosts South Korea. Each team played each other in a round robin format and at the end of that stage the team in 7th place was eliminated. This left a 5th/6th place play-off, a bronze medal match and the gold medal match for the final day of competition. The other sweetener was that the top 5 teams would automatically qualify for the 2018 Paralympics (South Korea automatically qualify as host nation.)

It’s fair to say that there is quite a skills gap between the top and bottom teams of Pool A. At the top USA & Canada, below them the rest! That’s not to be disrespectful to the other five teams, it’s just that the North Americans are a long way ahead of the rest, but given time, training and more importantly exposure, the other countries could close the gap. The hosts South Korea took their chance winning the gold medal. They suffered preliminary round defeats to Canada (2-0) & USA (5-0) as well as a shock penalty shoot-out defeat to Italy after leading 2-0. They did win the rest of their group games though which saw them secure a bronze medal play-off against Norway, which they won 3-2 in a close game that saw Norway threaten to take the game into overtime after coming back from 3-0 down.

Italy beat Sweden 4-0 in the 5th/6th place play-off to secure the coveted 5th place and qualification for the 2018 Paralympic Games at the same venue. Sweden will have another chance to qualify in a tournament later in the year as will Germany who finished 7th out of seven and didn’t make it to the final day.

The final, as expected, was between defending champions USA & Canada. The USA were favourites having overcome their neighbours 2-1 in their preliminary round clash, a brutal battle were no quarter was taken or given. The final was fought in the same vein, however this time it was the Canadians who came away victorious with a 4-1 win, two goals for Tyler McGregor in 17 second period seconds ensuring that Canada took the gold medal.

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The victorious Canadian team await their gold medals

Once the final was over it was time to pack up the broadcasting equipment and make it flight ready once again, a process that took us until 2am the following morning (if anyone tells you broadcasting is glamorous, they’re lying!)
Our tournament was over and it was time to return home, the end of a wonderful and unique experience for me personally. I hope I’m able to return to Gangneung for the Olympics & Paralympics. If the test events are anything to go by it’ll be one hell of a show.

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The broadcast team photograph, centre ice.

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