By Yoo Jee-ho – Yonhap News Agency
South Korea will face an uphill battle when it makes its Winter Olympic men’s hockey debut on home ice in 2018, but the coaches of three professional hockey clubs here said Thursday the country could still surprise a few people.
South Korea will face Canada, Switzerland and the Czech Republic in PyeongChang, some 180 kilometers east of Seoul, in the group stage. If the National Hockey League (NHL) decides to send its stars here for the Olympics, then South Korea will stand virtually no chance of being any of its opponents.
If it hadn’t been the Olympic host, South Korea wouldn’t have qualified for the 2018 Games in the first place. And to achieve at least some semblance of competitiveness — and not to embarrass itself before home crowds — South Korea has hired former NHL players Jim Paek and Richard Park as its head coach and assistant coach, respectively. The country has also fast-tracked a handful of Canadian- and U.S.-born players to South Korean passports, so that they could represent their adopted home in 2018.
Three South Koreans clubs in the Asia League Ice Hockey (ALIH) will provide talent for the rest of the national team. And coaches for Anyang Halla, High 1 and Daemyung Killer Whales said South Korean hockey is progressing at an impressive rate.
“It’ll be a great experience for the South Korean players to play at home,” said Patrick Martinek, a Czech coach for Anyang Halla, at the ALIH media day in Seoul. “The Korean national team has a great coaching staff with Paek and Park, and the players improve almost every day. Korea’s world ranking is 23rd, but in my mind, it should be 15th or 16th in the world. After five or six years, it could climb to around 10th in the world.
“All games start at 0-0, and they still have to play 60 minutes,” Martinek went on. “Today, everybody thinks there’s no chance for the Korean team, but after a year and a half, there could be a surprise.”
Song Chi-young, who coaches Daemyung, also gave his thumbs-up to the coaches. Paek is a former Stanley Cup-winning defenseman for the Pittsburgh Penguins who has also enjoyed coaching success in the minors. Park played in 14 NHL seasons for six different clubs and enjoyed some big playoff moments with the Minnesota Wild in 2003.
“The talent pool has also gotten much deeper,” Song added. “I think our hockey has grown a lot, and if we keep getting better, we’ll enjoy a great Olympics.”
Bae Young-ho, coach of High 1, said he hopes the two coaches will instill a sense of responsibility in the players, added an Olympic victory is not entirely out of the question.
Captains of the clubs were also looking ahead to the PyeongChang Winter Games.
Kim Won-jung, Anyang’s captain who has played for the country at international events, said going to the Olympics will be “a dream.”
“You don’t have to do everything well to make the national team because the coaches will require different skillsets from different players,” said Kim, who had five goals and 21 assists in 48 games last season while building a reputation as a hard-nosed, two-way forward. “More so than padding personal stats, I think it’s important to avoid injuries. If I get hurt, I will have to sit out a few games and it will be hard to maintain good form.”
Suh Sin-il also wants a shot at the Olympics, but he said he knows his limitations.
Suh had just four goals and five assists in 37 games last season, compared to 10 goals and 16 helpers in 46 games the previous year.
“Like everyone else, I’d love to make the Olympic team, but I have to play well in our league first,” the 31-year-old said. “I didn’t make much of a contribution to the club last year, and I’ve prepared hard for this season.”