When you think about North Korea, hockey may not be the first thing that comes to your mind, but a Vancouver resident has found that the sport is very popular in the People’s Republic.
Founder of The Friendship League, Scott Howe, brought a team of international amateur hockey players to North Korea for a series of games and practices hosted by their national team last year.
He plans on doing the same trip this year, promoting the country’s first known sports programs for individuals with intellectual disabilities.
Howe cites his dad’s involvement with Special Olympics BC as his inspiration.
“It’s something that’s been in the family,” he says. “When I went over to the DPRK with this hockey thing, we figured this would be an excellent way to build relationships beyond hockey.”
Howe is still in the process of organizing the necessary stakeholders in Canada and get clarification from the government over sanctions to keep things legal.
“The programs that we did start, I think is an excellent start, but it’s mainly local to Pyongyang at this point,” he adds.
He says his goal is to expand the program across the country and he’ll be heading back in early March, 2017.
The stigma behind intellectual disabilities is one of the main reasons that motivated Howe to start the project.
“In Korea, it’s viewed as a sort of karma, if you have an intellectual disability, it’s believed that you had some negative experiences in previous lives,” Howe explains. “People get kept away in their homes, they don’t really get seen by the community; that has negative implications on their health, their happiness, and their overall well-being.”
“Getting people involved in sports is a great way to get them back into the community and live healthier more active lives,” he adds, noting that the hockey community is vibrant.
“The sport was introduced by Russian expats way back in the 1940’s, today there are about 1,500 people that play hockey in the DPRK indoor and it’s played casually outdoors around the country,” he says. “They take it quite seriously, both the men’s and women’s national teams compete in the IIHF World Championships and the men’s team was just promoted to Division 3 to Division 2B this year.”
Howe’s experiences in North Korea has opened his eyes to the country. “I have travelled to over 50 countries across the world and I have to say, in the DPRK I feel very safe, there’s not very much violent crime, not very much traffic, so there’s not very much road traffic,” he says. “As long as you can follow the local rules and regulations, there won’t be a problem.”
“I just encourage people to keep an open mind and if this sounds like something they might be interested, I hope they get in touch,” he says.
You can find out more at Friendship League.org.