We often measure success at the Olympics by the color of medals. As the men's hockey team goaltender Matt Dalton sees it, however, South Korea won't necessarily have to reach the podium on home ice in 2018 to call its Olympic hockey debut a success.
Dalton, born in Canada, obtained his South Korean passport last month after getting fast-tracked to the citizenship. He's among a handful of North American-natives who have been naturalized as South Koreans, and they will represent their adopted country at the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, Gangwon Province. It will be the first Winter Games held in South Korea, and the country will make its Olympic hockey debut by virtue of being the host.
In the preliminary round, world No. 23 South Korea has the daunting task of facing the No. 1-ranked Canada, the two-time reigning Olympic champion and the ultimate powerhouse in hockey. The Czech Republic and Switzerland, ranked sixth and seventh, are other teams in the same group.
In a recent interview with Yonhap News Agency, Dalton cautioned against high expectations from fans for their home team.
"I think that people have to be careful about expectations and need to look at where we are," he said. "I wish we were No. 1. I'd love for us to win a gold medal. But these countries we're playing against... they're top 10 in the world every year. We have to be realistic and understand we can still be successful and not necessarily get a medal."
Dalton said South Korea's success can be determined by the legacy it leaves after the Olympics: namely, getting more children interested in the sport and sowing seeds for the sport's growth.
"It starts with young kids. They are the future of Korean hockey," he said. "Once they get interested, they tell their friends to play. That's how it starts and it grows. That would be a positive thing and more realistic than saying, 'We're going to win a medal.'"
If South Korea can't realistically win a medal in hockey, then what should the fans expect from their national team?
"You could expect that we're going to do our best and we're not going to quit or give up," Dalton said. "We're going to represent Korea well. We're going to show a lot of pride in Korea. We're going to be proud to represent Korea at the Olympics. We're not going to quit even if it's hard. We're going to work as hard as we can and see what happens."
The 29-year-old has literally come a long way to make the South Korean national team. He has played junior, collegiate and minor pro hockey in the American states of Montana, Iowa, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. He signed with the Boston Bruins as a free agent in 2009 but never played for the National Hockey League club.
Instead, Dalton played in Russia before joining Anyang Halla in the Asia League Ice Hockey. He's been the Asian league's top goalie the past two seasons, and helped Anyang win both the regular season crown and the playoff finals in the 2015-2016 season.
Dalton said the chance to compete in the Olympics for the first time prompted him to apply for South Korean citizenship, and he is already looking forward to the experience.
"Just being at the Olympics: what a life experience that is," he said. "I lived in Russia during the Sochi Olympics. I got to see the country during this time, and it was amazing to see the pride the country of Russia had for the Sochi Olympics."
Dalton also understands he will have work to do on ice against three favored opponents. A hot goalie can often change the complexion of a hockey game, and Dalton, as the last line of defense, will be under a fair amount of pressure to keep South Korea in all games he plays.
Dalton said as he's gotten older, he's become better able to handle such a mental burden.
"I've accepted that I am a human being and I am not a robot. I am going to make mistakes," he said. "Sometimes, I kind of like pressure because it drives me. But the way I handle it, I don't let it bother me that much."
Dalton stressed that as important a role a goalie plays, he can't do everything by himself.
"There are five other guys on the ice and we all have to work together," he said. "You need everyone on the team to be successful. I just know that there will be times when other people will make mistakes. That's hockey. Whoever makes fewer mistakes will win." (Yonhap)