SOUTH KOREA’S BIG FAT HOCKEY DREAM
Host nation for upcoming Winter Olympics is trying to create a hockey culture — with some Canadian help, even if the NHL stars won’t come
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 subhost cities, on the east coast of the peninsula, about an hour’s drive from PyeongChang — 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.
If I have any chance to talk to Gary Bettman, I will tell him that, look, our baseball and soccer players advanced into the European market. People watched the games . ... I don’t understand why the NHL doesn’t see the growth potential for hockey in Korea. I see great potential. Kim Jung-min, Korea Ice Hockey Association spokesman
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 seven spots to No. 21 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.”
IN THE LOCKER-ROOM
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.
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.