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

Windsor Star - - WEEKEND REVIEW - ALI­SON MAH

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.

PHO­TOS: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

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.

JUNG YEON-JE/GETTY IM­AGES

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.

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