Don't put these fellows on ice just yet

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Don't put these fellows on ice just yet

It's late Saturday afternoon around dusk, and a group of the middle-aged and older men can be seen near an ice rink at Korea University, Anam-dong in northern Seoul. The men's hair may be silver, but all of them shoulder weighty sacks.

Inside a locker room, those who arrived early are getting ready for a game that starts at 8 p.m. Everybody looks a bit tense but happy. It's the day when members of the Polar Bears meet to train and play a few games.

The Polar Bears are an ice hockey team comprised of only those over 40. In one corner, the oldest member of the group, the Reverend Kim Jung-ho, 63, is all ready to go -- he's the goalie. Mr. Kim weighs 86 kilograms, but he has to wear 20 kilograms of equipment. Mr. Kim was an ice hockey player many years ago for Gyeonggi High School. He is now one of the most enthusiastic members of the group, despite his busy daily life as a doctor and leader of his congregation. "It's not easy," he says, "But I guess I just cannot live without playing ice hockey as a Polar Bear."

Finally the match starts. You can feel the heat of early summer outside of the ice rink, but inside it's like midwinter. Despite the chill, the Polar Bears are soon soaked with sweat, like they had been outside under the hot sun. After about two hours of playing, the Polar Bears find their gear and jerseys all wet with sweat, but they feel great.

Jeong Un-ik, a Polar Bear who is also the vice president of the Korea Ice Hockey Association, says "It couldn't be better, even if we had a few bottles of beer after having such a violent game." The Polar Bears have a strict rule that they go straight home after matches. They do, however, get together once every other month for some barbecued pork and soju.

The Polar Bears date back to February 1987, when former Gyeonggi High School ice hockey players formed the Gyeonggi Old-Timers, just in time for the opening of the ice rink at Korea University.

Now they even attract some players who never played before, but who are eager to learn the rough sport. Park Jang-gil, a businessman from Mongolia and the Korean-Canadian Yun O-sik are devoted Polar Bears. The group plays twice a week and at least 20 members show up without fail.

In Asia, the Polar Bears has cut a brilliant figure among old-timers hockey teams. In 1997, they won the championship in a tournament between Korean, Chinese and Japanese old-timer teams. It's also a rare occasion that the Polar Bears lose at the annual match with the Japanese old-timers.

Mr. Jeong, a founding member, says about ice hockey. "It's tough and hard, but it's the most masculine of sports."

by Lee Se-jeong

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