The face of Korean hockey is a heartbroken Canadian
Former NHL draft pick was hoping to represent South Korea against NHLers
Brock Radunske had it all worked out in his mind. His perfect personal way of saying goodbye to hockey.
He would line up for the opening faceoff against Team Canada, playing for his adopted country, South Korea, standing face to face and stick to stick opposite Sidney Crosby.
That was the plan. And there was nothing more to accomplish after that.
“What could be better?” asked Radunske, the former Edmonton draft pick. “That was my shot. I thought about that a lot, believe me.”
And then, for the second time in his life, the NHL broke his heart.
“We wanted to see the best players here,” said Radunske. “That’s the truth. I never got to play in the NHL. I got drafted. I went to some camps. I played in some exhibition games. The other night, we played against the athletes from Russia. They have legends like (Pavel) Datsyuk and (Ilya) Kovalchuk on that team, and it was very memorable to play against them. But I’m Canadian.”
He wanted to line up against Crosby. Or Connor McDavid. Or some other hockey legend.
And now the faceoff for the 34-year-old from New Hamburg, Ont., may come against Derek Roy, whom he played against in minor hockey, or maybe against Chris Kelly or Linden Vey. Hockey dreams are taking on an entirely different spectre in these unusual Olympic Games.
“It’s still great,” said Radunske, “it’s just not the same.”
Not the same for a player who came to South Korea 10 years ago with the hopes of staying a year or two and maybe moving on to a better league somewhere in Europe, not knowing anything about upcoming Olympics. He had kicked around as an Oilers farmhand long enough to know he had to play somewhere else. He went to Germany for a year, had offers for some second division teams. Then the offer from South Korea came in and not only is he still here, but he’s officially a citizen and the face and leader of the national team.
And all the while, so far from home, carrying around the emotional difficulty of a family divided by circumstance. In his draft year, his mother, a hockey nut, was hit by a car while jogging. She survived the accident, her personality did not. She lost a lot of her memory, almost all of her warmth and the passion she had for watching her son play hockey. She didn’t really know who her family was anymore and didn’t emotionally have the wherewithal to be in involved with anyone.
The marriage to Radunske’s father broke up. The family tried its best to deal with a mother they hardly knew and who didn’t want anything to do with them. For years, there was almost no connection between Connie Radunske, former avid hockey mom, and her kids.
Radunske would see his mother maybe once a year, once each summer, while staying close to his father. But the season before this one, Radunske went to North America for hip surgery and spent a lot of his rehab time in Western Ontario fortunate enough to spend significant time with his father, who eventually succumbed to cancer, passing away last spring. Being there was important to Radunske.
Then something miraculous happened. Almost 16 years after the jogging accident, Connie Radunske’s personality began changing. She started remembering things. She starting sending birthday cards to her grandchildren. She started to be herself again. And Radunske’s brother had a rather bold idea: The Korean national team was playing in a tournament in Austria. Why not bring his mom back to the arena to see her son Brock play again?
The trip was exhausting and inspiring for those involved. In a way it was like turning back the clock, as much as you can considering all the family had been through.
“It’s not the same, but it was incredible,” said Radunske, seeing his mom at a hockey game once again. Seeing her son playing a prominent role for the South Korean national team. It’s not the way it was, it can never be that again.
“But she can follow along with the game,” he said. “She can’t follow that closely but she’s trying. She’s in that proud parent role again, just cheering me on.”
Connie Radunske isn’t well enough to make the long trip to Pyeongchang for these Games. Instead, others will be here to support Radunske: His brother and girlfriend; his wife and wife’s parents. A few family friends. Even his original agent is making the trip because in Brad Robins’ words, “If Brock’s playing in the Olympics, I have to be there.”
This is 10 years now in South Korea for Radunske and on the last American Hockey League team he played on, the Red Wings farm team in Grand Rapids, the assistant coach there was former Pittsburgh defenceman Jim Paek.
All these years later, Paek is head coach for Korea and Radunske is the player of most prominence in the country.
“He’s been here the longest,” said Paek. “He was here for the start of Korean hockey, really. He grew up with all these players. He’s the cagey veteran leader. Everybody has their story but his journey is a great story. It’s emotional for sure.
“You think about all he’s been through, and what stands out is his perseverance, his journey. That’s what makes him so special.”