Photo/IllutrationA still image from the documentary "Closing the Gap" showing players with the Taesongsan Winter Sports Club, a North Korean professional hockey team. Over the past year, five Canadian filmmakers have tried to peel back the layers of a long-existing hockey subculture in one of the world’s most mysterious nations. (Matt Reichel via The New York Times)

  • Photo/Illustraion

VANCOUVER, British Columbia--The dated but majestic Pyongyang Ice Rink is adorned with timeless symbols of a country in isolation.

In the arena’s upper bowl, portraits of North Korea’s past leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, hang like championship banners.

On the ice below, the national men’s hockey team often simulates a five-on-four penalty killing drill that was introduced to the North Koreans by the Soviets several decades ago.

Over the past year, five Canadian filmmakers have often been at the rink with the team, sometimes even on the ice. They are documenting the slap shots and the post-practice speeches, but are also trying to peel back the layers of a long-existing hockey subculture in one of the world’s most mysterious nations.

Why were their pads and equipment old? Why did they repeatedly run the same predictable plays? Where did these players come from?

“All of the questions that I’m sure a lot of people have about North Korea and hockey over there, I had when I first went,” said Nigel Edwards, 27, director of the coming documentary “Closing the Gap.”

The opportunity to get answers to those questions raised even more. How did a film crew from Vancouver, British Columbia, acquire unparalleled access to shadow North Korean sports teams?

Matt Reichel, one of the film’s producers, worked and lived in Asia on and off over the past decade. A 2009 graduate of Brown University’s international relations and East Asian studies program, Reichel started nonprofit and digital marketing ventures while living overseas, building connections in the process.

He estimated that he had been to North Korea more than 60 times. On one of those visits, he discovered that North Korea had a pastime in common with his home country.

“I saw that there was a hockey tournament one year around the time of Kim Jong Il’s birthday, so I decided to go check it out,” he said.

Back in Vancouver, his hometown, Reichel teamed up with Edwards, a former television production assistant.

“We wanted to use media arts as a way to look at something about North Korean society that’s not political,” Reichel, 30, said. “We focused on a very tiny slice of North Korean society and wanted to see what we can learn about it in a very earnest, very honest way.”

It took two years of leveraging Reichel’s contacts and forming new ones with the Ministry of Sports and the Korean Ice Hockey Association, a league of seven clubs, for the filmmakers to get permission for the project.

In November 2016, the production crew went on the first of three trips to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, to shadow the men’s national team and a professional team, Taesongsan Winter Sports Club. Reichel and Sunny Hahm, an associate producer, a translator and a Seoul native, provided insight into North Korean culture for the new visitors.

“They told us the first time you go there you’re a stranger, the second time you’re a friend, and the third time you are family,” Edwards said.

To break the ice with the athletes during the first days of filming, the crew played the Canadian card.

“I think from a hockey standpoint, they were very interested in us being Canadians,” Edwards said. “I think they were a little more disappointed that my entire production team couldn’t skate.”

But Hahm, a competitive recreational hockey player, could skate and was critical to building rapport. Aside from being able to speak Korean, he often practiced with the Taesongsan team, making suggestions to the coach and players.

In a game during the crew’s first trip, the Taesongsan coach presented Hahm with a jersey and an offer to sit with the team during the game, though Hahm did not play because of Korean Ice Hockey Association rules.

For the rest of the crew, trust and relationships were built on consistency and gestures. Edwards made a point of learning each player’s name; in turn they remembered his. While shooting interviews, members of the crew were cognizant of their subjects’ skepticism.

“We spent lots of conversations just sort of talking about, how do we frame these questions?” Edwards said. “How do we try to show and prove to them that we mean well and we’re not going to like rip them off or show them in a bad light?”

Every morning after breakfast, the crew made the five-minute trek from its downtown hotel to the arena.

Many competitors in ice sports like speed skating, figure skating and hockey have the arena on a given day. The schedule is planned to the minute, Edwards said.

Sharing the facility is efficient, but not conducive to ideal hockey practice. The ice is worn from overuse, and divots courtesy of the figure skaters are visible throughout the rink. The glass is scratched, and the boards lack compression.

The hockey play is also behind the times.

“It was a very conservative, traditional style of play,” Hahm, 29, said. “You can tell there was a sense of real lack of creativity when it comes to formulating plays.”

According to the filmmakers, North Korean teams still abide by the training materials and methodologies passed on from the Soviet Union in the 1950s. While South Korea’s hockey program has evolved in recent years, qualifying for the 2018 Winter Olympics as the host country, North Korea’s has remained stagnant. The lack of outside exposure and information sharing--televised NHL games, foreign-exchange skills clinics and access to the internet--has significantly impeded the progress.

“The vast majority of the team comes from the countryside, and they are recruited as kids 12, 13 years old, based on who has athletic talent in those small villages or towns,” Reichel said.

Most of the team’s equipment is used and is donated by the International Ice Hockey Federation, which is based in Zurich. The film crew tried to help, contributing tape and new composite graphite hockey sticks.

“We wanted them to feel they were on equal levels of playing,” Hahm said.

What the North Korean players lack in knowledge, gear and size (no one on the national team is over 6 feet tall), they try to make up for through discipline and heart.

“You must rise higher and faster because if you are running, the opposite player is flying, and in order to catch up them, you need to train harder,” Hong Chun Rim, a star forward, said through an interpreter in “Closing the Gap.”

The filmmakers shadowed the Taesongsan team for 11 days during their first trip in November. When they returned to film last spring for three weeks, they focused on the 20-man national team, which was training for and competing in the IIHF world championship in Auckland, New Zealand.

A Division II team in international competition, North Korea was in a pool that also included China, Israel and Mexico.

Hong, the fastest and most skilled player on the team, scored a hat trick in North Korea’s only victory in Auckland--an 11-3 win over Turkey. The team had suffered several injuries, mainly from the intense play against bigger and stronger opponents.

The yearly change of scenery for international tournaments provides an opportunity for the players to explore things they cannot find in Pyongyang.

“When we were in New Zealand, there was a group of them that would always be looking at YouTube videos in the lobby,” Edwards said. “They are very aware that there is the NHL and big players. So, when they travel abroad, they always learn more.”

In December, the crew will make one last trip to Pyongyang to conclude filming. The filmmakers are seeking a distributor and hope to show the documentary at the top film festivals next year.

“We said this story is going to be a real interesting tile,” Reichel said, “as if North Korea is this giant mosaic and there’s all these different components to what North Korean society is.”

He added that he did not expect the recent rising tensions between North Korea and the United States to have much impact on the players’ day-to-day lives.

“They are all seeking what we all seek, which is self-worth,” Edwards said. “They are just looking for a place to prove themselves, and that, for them, is winning gold on an international stage. Even though, how realistic is that?

“But they will keep pushing that forever, because that is their job.”

(Nov. 9, 2017)