American and Korean hockey teams meeting on the frozen Taedong River in 1933
A simple sheet of ice, ephemeral and certain to disappear when winter gives way to spring, is of special significance to anyone involved with hockey. Generation after generation of children in Canada and the northern United States have learned the game on frozen ponds that are the spiritual home of the sport, which the National Hockey League attempts to emulate each year in its annual outdoor Winter Classic game. Over 80 years ago, sheets of ice in the city of Pyongyang were where Korean and American teams competed in what was then the furthest outpost of the game from its North American roots, in a world that has disappeared as completely as the ice that they played on.
1934 Pyongyang Foreign School team photo. Goaltender Samuel Moffett is at the center, flanked by teammates including his brother, defenseman Howard Moffett.
During the era when the Japanese Empire ruled Korea in 1910-45, the first recorded ice hockey games in Korea occurred in 1928, and an organized national hockey league and a national championship followed in 1930. In the Chosun Hockey League (Chosun being the name of Korea under Japanese rule), in which teams of all age groups from schools and adult athletic clubs competed, Americans from the Christian missionary communities were central to this formative period of the game in Korea. The first national champion in 1930 was Chosun Christian College in Seoul, a school founded in 1915 by American Presbyterian missionaries. In Pyongyang, the leading team was from Pyongyang Foreign School, the elementary, middle and high school of the American community in Pyongyang. Hockey was the school’s leading winter sport, played on an outdoor ice rink on land and on the frozen Taedong River, and the team competed each season against schools in both Pyongyang and Seoul.
Players clearing snow from the Pyongyang Foreign School land ice rink, with the rink’s low boards visible behind them
Hockey games in 1930s Korea occurred in conditions that were as elemental as can be imagined. With no indoor rinks anywhere in the country, the games were played in the open in Korea’s bitterly cold winters. Rough natural ice, improvised boards barely more than ankle high, and wind and snow were normal conditions for the players, and spectators had to stand all game in the open on the edge of the ice, sometimes on it. Reminiscent of pickup games on frozen ponds in North America, the conditions of these early games challenged the dedication of players and spectators alike.
The Pyongyang mission (upper left, outlined in blue) and the Kwangsung School, with Pyongyang Foreign School on the western edge of the mission and the ice rink in its southeast corner
The most frequent opponent of Pyongyang Foreign School was the Kwangsung School, a local high school just outside of the front gate of the Pyongyang mission. The game results that have survived attest to early American superiority but also to a rapid narrowing of the disparity as the Koreans learned the game. In their series in 1933, Pyongyang Foreign School easily won the first game by the ridiculous score of 37-0, the second game by 16-2. In 1934, Kwangsung lost 8-1 in the first game but played a close second game that ended 2-0.
Pre-game bows with Chosun Christian College on the frozen Taedong River in 1933
The location of the 1933 game, dead center beneath the footbridge
The big game each year was the annual match against Chosun Christian College, the best team in Korea. The Chosun Christian College team visited Pyongyang each year to play Pyongyang Foreign School on its home ice, which could be the school’s outdoor rink or the frozen Taedong River. In 1933, Pyongyang Foreign School had crushed its neighbor Kwangsung School by two lopsided scores and also soundly beaten its American rival school in Seoul, Seoul Foreign School, by a score of 8-0. Against Chosun Christian College on the iced-over Taedong River, the older, bigger and more experienced Korean college players proved to be the better team, with Chosun Christian College winning 5-2.
In 1934, a more experienced Pyongyang Foreign School team played its closest game against Chosun Christian College. It returned four of its six players from the previous year and added brothers Samuel H. Moffett and Howard Moffett, sons of Pyongyang mission founder Rev. Samuel A. Moffett, who anchored the defense as the starting goaltender and left defenseman. This time the two teams played a hard-fought game to a scoreless tie, with Pyongyang Foreign School keeping play on Chosun Christian College’s side of the ice for most of the first two periods but failing to score, and heavy snow impairing both sides during the final period.
1936 game action, Chosun Christian College in white and Pyongyang Foreign School in blue
With Chosun Christian College continuing to elevate its game for the rest of the decade, competing against it became increasingly difficult for a team of teenage high school students, and the games in Pyongyang soon became one-sided affairs. In 1936, the record states only that “though fighting a hard, and sometimes brilliant game,” Pyongyang Foreign School “succumbed to the superior weight and experience of the college men, and lost by a wide margin.”
Goal for Chosun Christian College
The Second World War ended this founding era of hockey in Korea. Wartime austerity curtailed athletic competitions in Korea, and Pyongyang Foreign School closed in 1940, evacuated from Korea to the United States after a U.S. Department of State warning of impending war with Japan. The Pyongyang mission and Pyongyang Foreign School never returned, barred by the Communist regime that the Soviet Union imposed on North Korea after the war.
The hockey players of Pyongyang Foreign School in the 1930s, all of them of military age in their twenties and thirties in 1941, went on to serve in the U.S. armed services in large numbers in the Second World War and afterward merged into the American mainstream. Many of them served in the Army Air Corps and the U.S. Navy Air Service, their athletic ability making them suitable for service as pilots. The first to be lost during the war was a 1933 team member, Dwight Thompson, a senior who had played defenseman, who went missing and presumed dead in Burma in April 1942 while serving as a civilian administrator of Lend-Lease assistance.
Goaltender Samuel Moffett became a Presbyterian clergyman, who left behind one of the few repositories of information about the Pyongyang mission, the Moffett Korea Collection at Princeton Theological Seminary.
The site of the 1933 game, then and now, with Kim Il Sung Stadium on the left bank and Rungra-do May Day Stadium on the now-extended island.
In North Korea today, the places where the Americans of Pyongyang Foreign School once played continue to be the center of the world of sports in Pyongyang. The two largest sports arenas in North Korea, Rungra-do May Day Stadium (capacity 114,000) and Kim Il Sung Stadium (capacity 50,000), are within sight of the location on the Taedong River where Pyongyang Foreign School and Chosun Christian College played in 1933. A large amusement park opened on the island of Rungra-do in 2012, Rungra People’s Pleasure Ground, overlooks the exact spot. None of the North Korean people or foreign tourists visiting these places have been aware that they have been looking at a historic site for hockey and the American Christian presence in what is now North Korea.
Jim Paek lifting the Stanley Cup (left), Richard Park celebrating a goal for Team USA (right)
In South Korea, the legacy of the American roots of Korean hockey is still alive and about to appear on the world stage for the first time at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
Chosun Christian College continues today as Yonsei University, one of South Korea’s leading universities and still the country’s top hockey program. Its team, wearing the same blue and white colors as in the 1930s, regularly wins South Korea’s national championship and produces most of the country’s professional players. With South Korea preparing to compete in ice hockey for the first time at the 2018 Winter Olympics, with an automatic entry as the host nation, most of its national team consists of players from Yonsei University. It is a connection to the American Christian missionary past in Korea of which few are aware.
Americans have returned to a leading role in Korean hockey in another way, in the form of former National Hockey League players of Korean descent who are coaching the South Korean national team. Jim Paek, a U.S./Canada dual citizen who played five seasons in the NHL and has his name on the Stanley Cup twice, with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1990-91 and 1991-92, became national team head coach in 2014 with the mission of preparing the team for its Olympic debut. Richard Park, who played 14 seasons in the NHL and represented the United States on U.S. national teams six times, twice in the World Junior Championships and four times in the World Championships, is an assistant coach. Their presence harks back to the role of Americans in the origins of Korean hockey in the 1930s and resumes this long-forgotten part of the relationship between the United States and Korea.
All game photographs are from the yearbooks of Pyongyang Foreign School, in the archives of the Presbyterian Historical Society. Maps excerpts are from the 1946 U.S. Army map of Pyongyang. The aerial view of Kim Il Sung Stadium and Rungra-do May Day Stadium is from Google Earth.