CHASING A DREAM
The host nation for the upcoming Winter Olympics is trying to create a hockey culture — with some Canadian help, even if the NHL stars won’t come
Is South Korea the little hockey country that could? Alison Mah reports that a small community of fans and supporters, including a Canadian contingent, is leading the charge ahead of the Olympics to put the host country on the map.
It was loud and it was raucous.
The patter of thunder sticks mixed with cheers and some screams, echoed through the year-old arena. In the stands, coordinated dancing was led by an eight-person team of conductors.
This was the eager anticipation of 5,800 spectators brimming over for a rare event.
This was hockey night in Gangneung, South Korea.
But it was no simple game of shinny. On this night, the crowd was cheering both for the home team and the visitors: a team from North Korea.
To one side of the crowd, a group of about 100 wore identical white T-shirts with a blue Korean Peninsula, absent a dividing line at the 38th parallel. “Korea is One” was the message. South Korean women’s team coach Sarah Murray and her players sat huddled in the locker-room.
The biggest hockey stage most of her 22-member roster had ever played on numbered in the low hundreds. Now, thousands had gathered, roaring and chanting. A crush of local and international media had flocked to cover the game, which was both a separate major tournament and test event for the next year’s Winter Olympics, which will be hosted by South Korea in February.
In one area of the locker-room, Park Jong-ah, the team’s 21-year-old captain and one of its most skilled forwards was feeling the pressure.
“That was the first time I’ve played in a large crowd of spectators, so I tried not to be tense or nervous, but I couldn’t help it,” said Park, who began playing when she was just eight.
In another end of the room, Danelle Im also tried to fight back the jitters. The Toronto native was one of a handful of Canadian and American players granted dual citizenship to play for South Korea — a strategy meant to buttress the country’s small hockey program in time for the February 2018 Games.
South Koreans have a rabid devotion to soccer and to baseball, but on that Thursday night, Gangneung — one of two Olympic sub-host cities, on the east coast of the peninsula, about an hour’s drive from Pyeong-Chang — was hockey terrain, through and through.
For organizers, it was a tantalizing glimpse of what they believe could be the future of hockey on the Korean Peninsula.
The push to make South Korea a nation of hockey lovers is, after all, well underway.
A GAME WITH ROOM TO GROW
Hockey in South Korea is not big. It’s not even small. In 2016, the country’s number of registered hockey players totalled a measly 2,591 in a country of 49 million. For many Koreans, the game might as well not exist.
But since the Olympics were announced for South Korea in 2011, the country has gone into overdrive to change that. In April, though, a new setback. The National Hockey League announced it would not be participating in the Winter Olympics for the first time in 20 years, a decision that had star players such as Connor McDavid and Erik Karlsson spitting fire. Some, such as Alexander Ovechkin, have vowed to fly over and represent his country regardless.
The decision, which was based on worries over the time difference, schedule disruption and travel costs, left the small hockey community in Korea reeling.
Local players had anticipated seeing the stars up close. Some hockey personnel, who had hoped the NHL’s presence would boost interest in the sport, were distraught.
Overall, many in the community took the NHL’s non-participation as a message that they somehow didn’t matter. And indeed, to some on the outside, prioritizing PyeongChang didn’t make sense in the NHL’s quest to expand eastward, when places such as China and Japan are top of mind for the league.
The NHL has made no secret of how badly it wants to enter the Chinese market, investing money and resources into the sport’s promotion there. Some argued the only reason participation at PyeongChang would have been worthwhile was in a bid to prime China, which has a population of 1.3 billion and will host the following Winter Games, in 2022.
Those on the ground level of hockey growth in South Korea, though, said they were dismayed the NHL was skipping the Olympics.
Mostly, because they believe the sport has a chance in their country.
Consider the evidence, they say: Besides the grassroots programs just beginning to grow, the promotion of the national men’s team to the 2018 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships marks the first time in the country’s history it will play in the top tier of the tournament, shoulderto-shoulder with Canada.
Then there’s the women’s team, which has rocketed six spots to No. 22 in the IIHF rankings in the past five years.
Plus, there are the millions of dollars the government has infused into hockey programs since the Olympics were secured. The money was applied to recruit several hand-picked foreign players, who were fast-tracked Korean citizenship and brought in to bolster the men and women’s teams. Elite coaches Sarah Murray and Jim Paek, both recruited in 2014, have been credited for much of the teams’ improvements.
In the five months before the Olympics descend on PyeongChang and its two sub-host cities, Gangneung and Jeongseon, organizers believe there’s no time like the present to take advantage of keen Koreans open to new sports.
“If I have any chance to talk to Gary Bettman (the commissioner of the NHL), I will tell him that, look, our baseball and soccer players advanced into the European market,” said Kim Jung-min, the spokesman of the Korea Ice Hockey Association (KIHA). “People watched the games and (Korean broadcasting outlets) made huge money.
“I don’t understand why the NHL doesn’t see the growth potential for hockey in Korea. I see great potential.”
The nucleus of that potential lies in Anyang, an industrial city just southwest of Seoul. Anyang Halla, one of eight teams in the Asia League Ice Hockey, is poised to supply the majority of players for the Korean men’s Olympic hockey roster. In a few short months, a large part of the team could be thrust into an international spotlight in a way it has never before experienced.
For now, they’re nobodies. Anyang has a population of about 600,000, and few realize the city has a hockey team.
“I’ve talked to people I’ve met in Anyang who’ve never even heard of Anyang Halla, and they’ve been here for 20 years,” said Canadian defenceman Eric Regan, one of seven male foreign players granted Korean citizenship to come and play for Asia League teams and, potentially, Team Korea.
After the Olympics were announced for PyeongChang in 2011, the government set about with the express goal of preventing potential ice hockey embarrassment on an international stage. As host, Korea gets an automatic berth into the men’s and women’s tournaments, but the country, lacking any sort of rich tradition for the sport, needed some way to bolster its talent roster — and quickly.
It turned to an unusual, though not unheard of, solution.
Between 2013 and 2017, 10 players from Canada and the U.S. — seven men and three women — were fast-tracked Korean citizenship.
The players were plucked from a mix of backgrounds — some cycled through the NHL or the lower-tier American Hockey League, while others made appearances on university teams, the Russian-headquartered KHL or international leagues.
For Regan, a former Oshawa Generals captain who did stints in Germany, Japan and a rival team in Korea before coming to Anyang, obtaining Korean citizenship was thrilling — even if the language was a mystery to him.
“I was really excited. It was nice of them to ask me for my skills. Growing up, you want to play in the Olympics and at the highest level of hockey you can,” he said.
The extra injection of foreign talent into Korea’s hockey system has paid off. In particular, Anyang, with four of the seven naturalized male players, is the reigning league champ, two years running. In the most recent season, goalie Matt Dalton, from Clinton, Ont., an hour north of London, was named playoff MVP, and Regan was dubbed one of the post-season’s top blueliners.
“We’ve made a lot of improvements in the last two or three years and if we continue to do that, we’re going to be competitive in the (Olympics),” said Regan. “It’s one game. You see that in sports. Anyone can win one game.”
But as good as Anyang Halla is, attention has been scarce.
Some players complain that barely any marketing exists for team. There are fans, but Anyang averages at most 700 spectators on a weeknight and 1,000 for a weekend game in a small stadium that fits only 1,300. A spokesman said the club markets like any other team — and plans to have a cheering section and an online video presence — but its efforts don’t seem to reach “public awareness.”
Dalton, a former Boston Bruins backup, did not hold back in his criticism of the team’s marketing strategy, or apparent lack thereof.
“It’s frustrating because over the three years I’ve been here, nothing has changed,” he said.
“On the (marketing) side of it, they should be doing their due diligence. On the media side of it, they’re doing their job. Why don’t we feed off that? Because how else are you going to grow the game? I’m sorry for being so blunt, but ... I’m at the point now where I’ll just be honest with you; I have nothing to hide.”
Players said the fans that do come — a mix of Koreans and foreigners — fall in love with the game quickly, and have even developed their own unique brand of transcontinental cheering.
Recently, for example, Korean fans have picked up some “foreigner” terminology for hockey, said assistant coach Lee Chang-yong.
“Do you know ‘sweep’ games, if you win three straight? Some fans bring brooms and say, ‘Sweep, sweep!’ I was surprised the first time. But the players explained,” said Lee through a translator.
“Many fans here are U.S. army and English teachers. In Korea, (we have) a very hot passion inside, but we’re shy, so we just use a camera (during games). American and European, they dance.”
It’s important to grow hockey in South Korea, said Anyang defenceman Kim Won-jun, because Koreans are, in an odd way, suited to the game’s quick nature.
“We are very hasty. This game is very speedy. It meets Korean people’s temperaments,” he said. “There’s great potential for these kinds of sports to be more popular. Korean people would like this kind of sport.”
Kim of KIHA agreed that hockey, a “fun and exciting game,” fits the “temperament” of Koreans.
“Korean people like speedy sports, and it’s good for the physical balance,” he said. “Ice hockey is the flower of the Winter Olympics ... and if our players perform well, it will lead to the growth and attention of the game. It’s a very good sport.”
NOT JUST BABY STEPS
In order to truly develop the game in Korea, consensus seems to arrive at the following three paths: develop a national team that wins, grow at the grassroots level and find your superstar.
The first course of action is underway and already, in some ways, paying dividends.
Anyone wanting to deflect criticism of Korea’s nascent hockey program can point to the meteoric rise of its men’s team, which, in seven years, has pushed its way into relevancy, jumping 12 spots to No. 21 in the IIHF rankings, an all-time high for the country.
A large part of that is due to the dogged work of Jim Paek, head coach of Team Korea, director of hockey for KIHA and a two-time Stanley Cup winner as a player with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the ’90s.
Paek, 50, was recruited in July 2014, and tasked with the daunting assignment of overseeing the growth of both the men’s and country’s hockey programs, in time for the Olympics in 2018.
Paek and his staff launched into a painstaking process of mapping out, in great detail, a four-year master plan for expediting hockey in Korea. In his 2014 manifesto, almost every month from that year until 2018 is scheduled with a training camp, tournament, exhibition game or off-ice program, with notes on the goals for each event.
“It takes a village,” said Paek, a former defenceman who was coaching with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins before coming to Korea. “How we trained was to work the process, one step at a time. If we gave them everything at once, it would be overwhelming and nothing would be accomplished.”
Paek’s first year on the job involved tryouts, cementing the coaching staff — former NHLer Richard Park was brought on as an assistant coach — launching a scouting program and playing a few tournaments. After that, efforts were ramped up: a national squad was built, dozens of games were tacked onto the players’ already crammed schedules and a 365-day Olympic and conditioning program was regimented.
All of this work culminated in arguably the country’s most significant hockey advancement in history.
THE ‘MIRACLE IN KYIV’
In April, the 23rd ranked South Korean men, underdogs at the IIHF Championship Division I Group A tournament in Ukraine, shocked the hockey world by beating all but one team it faced, including No. 16 seed Kazakhstan and No. 19 seed Hungary.
The team’s 4-1 record and second-place finish was enough to promote it to the IIHF’s World Championship — the only Asian team that will compete against the world’s best in 2018. Local media were calling it the “miracle in Kyiv.”
“To get where we want to go, going to the top division is part of the process,” said Paek. “We worked extremely hard to keep on the path to the Olympics.”
On the women’s side, there’s energetic head coach Sarah Murray, a Brandon, Man., native and former player for the Minnesota — Duluth Bulldogs women’s university hockey program.
The Korean women, like the men, have shot to an IIHF ranking unprecedented in the country’s history. Once a perennial pushover, in just five short years the women’s team has jumped six spots to No. 22, pocketing several historic wins along the way.
Murray, the daughter of former NHL coach Andy Murray, moved to Korea in October 2014. Her hiring was sudden. Paek told Andy he was searching for a women’s coach, but didn’t have a whole lot of connections to tap.
As Murray was home eating, her father came in and said she was going to interview to be the coach of the Korean women’s national team that day. Taken aback, she showered and met Paek an hour later.
Murray got the job, and flew out to Korea almost immediately.
“I couldn’t believe it. It happened so fast,” said Murray.
LACKING ‘GAME-READY ABILITY’
When Murray arrived, similar to Paek, she mapped out a fouryear plan. She found all her players could skate and shoot well, but they lacked game sense and “gamereading ability” because the country had few female players, and so were low on teams and playing time. During practice drills, the women were bang on. But in a game scenario, they struggled with decision-making under pressure.
Her master plan was to get them playing the game as much as possible. Now every year, the team attends two training camps in North America for several weeks at a time, playing every other day.
The best gauge of the team’s progress is an annual camp against Shattuck-St. Mary’s, an elite boarding school in Minnesota that has been called the “Hogwarts of Hockey.”
“The first year we went, we lost 14-0, and then the second year we lost 7-0. And then this year we went and we beat them,” said Murray.
All of this extra playing time led to the team’s biggest victories yet. First, in February at the Asian Winter Games tournament, Korea — which had been winless in seven previous Games, and outscored 242-2 in 15 contests — finished round-robin play with a historic three wins and two losses, including a 20-0 routing of Thailand.
Then in the weeklong IIHF Division II Group A championship in April — recall the game against North Korea — the South Korean women swept all five teams they played, on the back of a strong power play and improved conditioning. The resounding championship victory earned them a promotion for 2018 to Division I Group B, the third-highest level of women’s competition, and the farthest the country has ever gone in international women’s play.
“The championship was a major boost to the collective confidence of the team that used to routinely lose by double digits,” crowed one local media report.
Now, one of the biggest hurdles the team faces remains mental.
“We’ve been talking to the girls a lot about mental preparation because our team is so young and consistency has been one of our major issues,” said Murray.
Playing in front of your friends and family is one thing, she said — playing in front of 10,000 roaring home fans on the Olympic stage is another.
Local hockey officials and players believe Korea is serious about hockey. That’s what makes the NHL’s Olympic decision sting.
“It’s obviously disappointing,” said goalie Dalton of Anyang Halla. “I don’t know if people here realize how big of a deal it is, but I don’t think it’s good for the game of hockey in general.
“Everyone’s still going to have good teams ... but it’s part of the attraction for us to come (and get dual citizenship), was to play the highest stage in the world.”
Regan of Anyang Halla said he understood the NHL’s decision as a business one, but he had hoped to see the players up close.
“I think the NHL hasn’t tried to hide the fact that they want to go to Beijing and try to grow the game in China. It’s too bad.”
In March, the NHL announced a milestone in East Asia: the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings would play the league’s first-ever pre-season games in China later this month. Bettman called the games a “formal launch” of what the league hopes will be a “long and successful collaboration” between China and the NHL.
“We recognize the importance of helping China build a strong national hockey program and are committed to supporting that priority in every way possible,” he said.
But some in Korea, looking at the stats, feel slighted by the NHL’s strict focus on China.
Consider, again, the number of registered South Korean hockey players. The small total of 2,500 is actually a sizable jump when one bears in mind that 711 players have joined within the past six years.
In fact, China — the NHL’s sweetheart for growth in Asia — only had 1,101 registered players in 2016, and that’s with 26 times more people than Korea’s population of 49 million.
“We are way better than the Chinese ice hockey team, as proven in the previous game,” said Kim, referring to South Korea’s 10-0 shellacking of China, ranked No. 37 in the world, at the Asian Winter Games men’s hockey tournament in February.
“The reason why the NHL made a decision not to participate in PyeongChang is because they misanalyzed or miscalculated the growth potential in Korea, so it’s kind of unfortunate.”
For now, Kim and KIHA have to focus on what they can control.
One is growing the country’s grassroots ranks. KIHA has funnelled some of its cash into several youth hockey programs, plus a “Jim Paek Hockey School,” a more rigorous coaching and referee strategy, and the construction of a new training facility.
However, perhaps the biggest key to hockey success in Korea is finding a bona fide superstar who can skyrocket the sport’s popularity.
The country has seen it happen at least twice before.
The 16-year career of Park Chanho — the first ever South Koreanborn player in the MLB, and the winningest Asian-born pitcher in its history — introduced MLB baseball into the homes of Koreans across the country, influencing a generation of young talent who would later grow to become stars in the Korean league.
Similarly, Korea caught soccer fever in the early 2000s with the rise of a young Park Ji-sung, one of the most decorated Asian footballers in history. The midfielder captured trophies both at home and overseas with Manchester United, and his legacy is still felt in the country today, with a charitable football foundation, youth academy and commercial influence among the millions who tuned in to watch him.
“If we have a star player in hockey like in baseball or soccer, then people will pay more attention,” said Kim. “But in order to attract more public attention, the first thing is that the Korean national team has to perform really well. It will naturally lead to growth.”
Does Korea have a Park Ji-sung of hockey in-the-making, then?
“I haven’t found him yet,” Kim said.
BEYOND THE GAMES
When considering the last several years, likely nobody would dispute the sweeping changes Korea’s hockey programs have seen — changes not possible without the Olympics.
“For the first time in history, Korea is playing in the top division of the IIHF World Championship,” said Harald Springfeld, ice hockey adviser for the PyeongChang Organizing Committee. “One hundred per cent, this would not have been the case in a short period of time (without the Olympics).”
But amid the optimism about the sport’s progress, there remain those concerned about the future of the country’s small program once the Olympics leave town. Will it receive the same sort of attention without the world’s eyes trained on it?
Kim insists this is just the start for hockey. The Games are simply the catalyst.
“The Olympics are not the end goal,” he said. “It’s the beginning of a long journey in promoting this sport.”
At least one Canadian-Korean dual citizen hockey player said he would consider staying, once the Games are over.
“I think that was the fear of the country, that once we get our passport, we’re all going to chuck them in the river and be done (postOlympics),” said Alex Plante, a defenceman with Anyang Halla. “For my case, unless my body no longer wills it, I want to continue to play and be part of the organization here.
“They treat us really well and treat my family unbelievably well,” said Plante, whose car and apartment are both taken care of, and whose pay is better than what he made playing in Europe.
The main post-Olympics problem Korea’s hockey association will face, according to Springfeld, is its programs maintaining the same level of quality they provide now.
“After the Olympics, the national association has to think, can we provide the same level of environment — the coaching staff and the national team camps? If they can’t, they will not further develop, and the other countries don’t sleep.”
Having the “necessary financial background,” Springfeld said, is “probably the biggest challenge they are now confronted with.” Some money for future hockey programs would likely come from the government, Springfeld said, but most if it would need to come from the private sector.
For now, members in the hockey community are treating successes such as the South-North Korea women’s game — or the rapid rise of their two national teams, or the roots just beginning to grow in the country’s youth programs — not as blips on the radar, but as ground zero for something much larger.
Danelle Im, a 24-year-old Toronto native who was offered Korean citizenship to play on the women’s national team, was in awe of the rowdy crowd that showed up to watch her South Korean team win against their northern counterparts in April.
South Korea trounced North Korea 3-0, the team’s strength and speed largely unmatched throughout the game. The Hockey Song by Stompin’ Tom Connors played near the end of the night, over a wave of Koreans brandishing flags and pounding noise makers.
“I’ve never played in front of a crowd that big and it was pretty amazing overall ... sharing the game of hockey together on the ice was pretty special,” Im said.
“To see that many people out watching definitely made me very surprised and encouraged. How we are presently will influence how the game will grow. If we focus on now, with that spirit, and jump onto the sport, there’s always potential for growth.”
South Korean fans wave “unification flags” during women’s world hockey championship Division II action between South Korea and North Korea in Gangneung in April. South Korea came out with the victory in a rare hockey match against the North, but the game resonated beyond sports for the two rivals.
South Korea’s ice hockey team coach Jim Paek, left, speaks to his players during a February practice at a rink in Goyang, northwest of Seoul.
South Korea’s head coach Jim Paek watches his team’s men’s top division match against Kazakhstan at the Asian Winter Games in February in Japan. Paek, the first Korean-born player to play in the NHL, won Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh in 1991 and 1992.
South Korea’s Kim Hee-Won fights for the puck with North Korea’s Won Chol-Sun during their women’s world hockey championship Division II game in Gangneung in April.
The mask of Anyang Halla goalie Matt Dalton, a dual Korean-Canadian citizen, in the locker-room at the Anyang Ice Arena in Seoul, South Korea.
The Anyang Halla hockey team takes a break during practice to listen to their coach at the Anyang Ice Arena in Seoul, South Korea.