PRAGUE – By any measuring stick, the 2017/18 season will be the most significant one in the history of hockey in Korea to this point. Not only will the Asian nation host and compete in both the men’s and women’s Olympic ice hockey tournaments for the first time, but the men’s team will then play in the top division of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship for the first time ever after earning promotion earlier this year.
“I’m very excited,” said 32-year-old centre Ki Sung Kim, who first played for the Korean national team as a 19-year-old at the Division II level of the World Championships in 2005, where they beat Turkey, Bulgaria and New Zealand before losing to Australia and Croatia. “At that time, I never could have imagined playing in the Olympics or at the elite level of the World Championships.”
Kim is one of two players from that 2005 team – the other being captain Woo Sang Park – that played in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in 2017, where the Koreans finished second in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A to earn a promotion to the elite group alongside first-ranked Austria.
“I think there are a lot of hockey people around the world that thought it was a joke that we were playing in the Olympics,” said Canadian-born defenceman Bryan Young, “but maybe (qualifying for the World Championship) shows that we’re not out of place, even though we didn’t have to go through the qualifying rounds (to get to the Olympics).
“It’s been a long grind for some of the guys,” continued Young, who has played in Korea since 2010 and seen a lot of growth in that time. “That group has been part of the national team now for about 10 or 12 years, so this is pretty rewarding for those guys to see how the hard work they’ve put in is paying off.”
But there’s a lot of work still to be done this season, and so the Koreans are doing all they can to make sure they’re ready for the challenges in front of them. The pre-season schedule is loaded with opponents stronger than they’ve faced before. First were two games in the Far East of Russia against KHL club Admiral Vladivostok, followed by five games against teams from the Czech Extraliga. The difference is obvious.
“In the KHL and in Europe they have a lot of big guys,” said Kim. “In the Asia League, our average is 175 or 180, so it’s a big difference.”
Despite the size disadvantage, they’ve started admirably, losing in Vladivostok by respectable 5-3 and 3-2 scores, and then scoring a 2-1 overtime win over Sparta Prague in the Czech capital on Wednesday night. That result stunned many in attendance, who expected to see their team dominate an inferior opponent, but it didn’t surprise the Koreans.
“We’re not surprised because we’ve worked hard, so we feel we’ve earned the success we’ve had,” said forward Hyung Yun Shin, who scored Korea’s first goal of the game early in the third period by taking a pass from Sang Hoon Shin (no relation) and firing a wrister that beat Sparta goalie Petr Kvaca to the glove side. “Now that we’ve got a win, it gives us confidence and we can move on to the next game knowing that what we do works.”
What they seem to do is play a solid defensive game, starting with the goaltending of Matt Dalton, then quickly attack when they get their chances.
“It was difficult but good,” said Dalton, who was definitely the busier of the two goaltenders in his first game of the season on Wednesday, but he seems comfortable in that situation, and that’s a good thing.
“I think whatever team you look at, they rely on their goalie quite a bit,” the 31-year-old former Boston Bruins prospect reasoned. “We’re always an underdog, right? When you’re an underdog, they rely on you to make a few more extra saves, but that’s part of the fun of the job.”
As for the team playing in front of him, Dalton said: “We’ve still got a lot of work to do. We finished last year really well, but now it’s pre-season and in a lot of ways it’s like starting from scratch. But we’ll see. It’s just a matter of getting comfortable playing with each other again. By the time we leave the Czech Republic, we should be getting better.”
That’s the goal of head coach Jim Paek, the former defensive defenceman who holds the distinction of being the first Korean-born player to score a goal in the Stanley Cup Finals and to win the Stanley Cup, which he did with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992. He holds a special status among Korean hockey players and has no trouble getting them to buy into his system.
“Jim Paek says that hockey is about details, and he makes sure we pay attention to those details,” said Kim, who scored the overtime winner in Prague on a clear-cut breakaway after taking advantage of a turnover near the Korean blueline. “We work a lot on systems and style of play. He’s hard on us, but he makes sure that we keep working hard and get better every day.”
Paek is joined on the coaching staff by another Korean-born NHLer, Richard Park, who had 241 points in 738 games as a forward for six different teams.
As Young put it: “They were the two obvious choices and they brought instant credibility.”
“I’ve known Jim for a long time and when this opportunity came up, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Park said about joining the staff in 2014 after retiring as a player. “In the last three years, we’ve come a long way. The players have been outstanding to work with – they’re an amazing group. I can’t speak highly enough about them.”
The Korean team is unique in its composition. It has a base of Korean-born veterans led by Kim, Park and Won Yung Kim, who have been on the national team for years. They have been reinforced by a group of players – Dalton, Young and others – who are from North America but have become naturalized Korean citizens after playing for Korean Asia League clubs for several years. However, despite the obvious obstacles that this may pose, such as problems with language or culture, there doesn’t seem to be any social divide.
“We’ve all played together for a long time now, so we’re like a family,” Dalton explained. “We spend so much time together. Sometimes on the ice, it’s a little easier speaking English than Korean, but it’s a great team atmosphere.”
“It’s no problem because in the Asia League there are a lot of international players,” Kim agreed. “The guys who came to our team spent a lot of time there so we knew them already.
Kim added that the Korean-born players “can speak English a little bit,” which drew some snickering from a couple of the North American players within earshot.
“When I use the word team, it’s not two separate groups, it’s one team,” Park insisted. “They’re unified and they have all bought into the system and done what they’ve had to do to make this work. Some of them have come and gone out of their way to fit in and become part of a different culture, which is not an easy thing to do. We’ve got guys who have taken different pathways to get to this point, but they’ve all done it. I don’t think you could ask for things to go much smoother.”
After the series of games in the Czech Republic, the players go back to their Asia League teams – for most of the players, that is two-time reigning champion Anyang Halla. The regular season concludes just before Christmas and then the players get back to the national team to play together again for a few more weeks leading up to the Olympics. Between the Olympics and World Championships will be the Asia League playoffs.
“We have the Olympics coming up first and that’s where our focus needs to be, first and foremost,” Park insisted. “Then there’s not much turnaround in terms of time before the World Championship, and those two events are going to both be very taxing on the body and the mind. So we’ll deal with the Olympics first and do everything in our power to be at the top of our game, and then we’ll turn around and try to do it once again at the World Championship.”
At the Olympics, the Koreans are in a group with Canada, the Czech Republic and Switzerland. All three of those teams were affected to varying degrees when the NHL announced that it would not be stopping to allow its players to participate. The Korean players have mixed feelings about that. While the absence of NHLers obviously gives them a better chance of competing, for most of them, playing against some of the best players in the sport would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“This is a great opportunity for Korean ice hockey either way,” said Young, one of only two players on the team with NHL experience – the other being fellow defenceman Alex Plante. Together, they played 27 games for the Edmonton Oilers between 2006 and 2012. “Would it have been neat to have the NHL guys there? Absolutely, but it’s still the Olympics, so that’s always something special.”
Said Kim: “I think it’s unfortunate because it would be interesting to play against NHL players, but next May is the World Championship in Denmark, and there will be NHL players there.”
At the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship the Koreans will play in the group in Herning with Canada, Finland, the United States, Germany, Norway, Latvia and host Denmark.
And then what? What happens after the Olympics are over? What if the Koreans don’t take another big step and are relegated from the top group of the World Championship like other promoted teams before?
“There are some younger guys on the team, a younger generation, that we hope can have some staying power and keep Korea competitive in international hockey for years to come,” said Young, mentioning 21-year-old right winger Chong Hyun Lee, who has played junior hockey the past two seasons for the British Columbia Hockey League’s Prince George Spruce Kings.
And most of the current national team has a few more years left, with nobody over the age of 32.
Is this the beginning of a national program that can regularly compete for a spot in top international tournaments, or is the 2017/18 Korean national team a one-hit wonder? The Koreans are eager to give a positive answer on that. Time will tell, but it stands to be a historic season either way.