South Korean men's hockey earned a promotion to the highest level of competition in the sport last month, an unprecedented feat for a country not exactly known as a hockey hotbed.
But if the players are still on cloud nine, then their head coach Jim Paek can't have them back on Earth fast enough.
South Korea finished second at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship Division I Group A in Ukraine and clinched a spot in next year's IIHF World Championship. The top-level tournament features only the 16 best in the sport, with the two worst teams each year getting relegated to Division I Group A.
|Jim Paek, head coach of the South Korean men's hockey team, speaks to Yonhap News Agency at the Jincheon National Training Center in Jincheon, North Chungcheong Province, on May 15, 2017. (Yonhap)|
And after taking over South Korea in 2014, Paek, a former Stanley Cup-winning defenseman with the Pittsburgh Penguins, has transformed a once-downtrodden squad into one brimming with confidence.
And as much as he likes to see his players hold their heads high, Paek would also like them to keep their confidence in check.
"To do what we did at the last world championships and go up to the top level, that gives you a great shot of confidence," Paek told Yonhap News Agency on Monday at the Jincheon National Training Center in Jincheon, North Chungcheong Province, some 90 kilometers south of Seoul. Paek's team began its 11-week off-ice training camp here Monday.
"But we have to be careful. We also have to be humble," Paek added. "We have to continue to work hard and not forget how we got to where we got. That's very important."
And in Paek's own words, South Korean players "have come a long way, physically, mentally and structurally." Just three years ago, South Korea was demoted to Division I Group B after losing all five games in the Division I Group A tournament on home ice. And with Paek at the helm, South Korea, as the world No. 23, took down the likes of Kazakhstan, Poland and Hungary, all higher in the world rankings, to join the ranks of Canada, Russia and the United States in the top division.
The 2018 IIHF championship will be in May. Three months prior to that, South Korea will make its Olympic debut on home ice at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games. The country has two major tournaments to look forward to in 2018.
Even Paek admitted he didn't know if South Korea could get to the top-tier world championships, though it had always been a goal for the team.
"In order for us to compete in the Olympics, we have to have that type of competition," he said. "Did we know we were going to get there? I don't know. And it's been a combination of many things we've done over the years to be in that position. I don't if it's fast or slow (that South Korea has made it this far), but we had a four-year plan."
The one major on-ice difference for South Korea has been the speed, or at least in the way the players use it effectively. Paek denies he has worked any magic with the players, saying they had always been excellent skaters and only just started learning how to use their natural speed to their advantage.
"The players skate with a purpose," the coach said. "We were skating 100 miles an hour without a purpose and getting tired for no reason. Now the players have a little structure and a little understanding on where they want to skate and utilize that speed as a team."
Improved conditioning also has to do with better on-ice performances. This is the third offseason in which Paek is putting the players through a rigorous off-ice training camp. The team has recruited help from the US-based training company EXOS, which has put together a hockey-specific program to help with the players' strength and agility while reducing the risk of injuries.
Thanks to the players' stamina, South Korea was able to mount some impressive third-period comebacks at last month's world championships. The biggest of them all came against Kazakhstan, with South Korea pouring in four goals in the final period to claim a 5-2 victory.
With its speed, South Korea also established a strong forecheck early and won plenty of puck battles along the boards. And by the late stages of games, opponents could barely keep up with the South Koreans. That particular style of play bears some resemblance to that employed by the Toronto Maple Leafs, which can give opposing teams fits with their speed.
And Paek admitted he has taken a page out of the playbook of the Leafs' head coach Mike Babcock, who was the bench boss of the Detroit Red Wings, while Paek was an assistant with the Red Wings' American Hockey League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins, for nine years starting in 2005.
"That's a great mentor. You can't help but learn from a lot of things he does," Paek said of Babcock, who won the Stanley Cup with the Red Wings in 2009 and Olympic gold medals with Team Canada in 2010 and 2014. "It's very important to learn from other coaches, but it doesn't work when you just copy. You have to understand and believe in what you're doing."
Paek added making adjustments moving forward will be a key because the competition will only get tougher from here.
"We have the ability to use our speed effectively, but other teams will (adapt)," he said. "So how do we play against that? We have to do our homework on that, and the players have to train and be able to play different styles of hockey."
At last month's worlds, South Korea struggled at times in the face-off circles, and the power play went just 1-for-16, tied with Ukraine for the fewest goals with a man advantage.
Face-offs and power plays can go hand-in-hand: South Korea often lost the draws in the offensive zone on power plays and by allowing the penalty killing team to control the puck, South Korea had trouble getting set up with consistency.
Asked about areas in which South Korea has to improve, Paek said, "Every part of our game."
"As a coaching staff, we have to improve and find ways to help the players succeed. That's our job," he said. "What the players have to do is get stronger and get more knowledgeable of the game.
It's very important that we take every step, and we do it with quality and intensity."
For the Olympics, South Korea has the unenviable task of facing Canada, the two-time reigning champion and the undisputed world No. 1, along with the Czech Republic (No. 6) and Switzerland (No. 23).
The National Hockey League (NHL) has been sending its pros to the Winter Games since Nagano 1998, but the league announced last month it wasn't going to do the same for PyeongChang. While the IIHF still hopes there's room for negotiation with the NHL, Paek said the presence or absence of the top pros won't affect South Korea's preparations.
"We have to worry about ourselves instead of worrying about others," he said. "NHL or no NHL, it's going to be fantastic. The competition level is so high in hockey. But we have to worry about ourselves and prepare our team."
In preparations for the Olympics at home, South Korea has fast-tracked some Canada- and US-born players to South Korean passports. Goalie Matt Dalton, an Ontario native, is the No. 1 netminder, while Canadians Eric Regan, Bryan Young and Alex Plante have shored up the blue line. Another Canadian, Michael Swift, was the only naturalized forward at last month's world championships, while Paek hopes to have US-native Mike Testwuide back in time for PyeongChang from his injuries.
A common misperception about the South Korean team is that the foreign-born players have done all the work. Dalton has undoubtedly been a major part of the winning formula, but at April's world championships, South Korean-born players scored 11 of the team's 13 goals in regulation, with Plante getting the other two against Kazakhstan.
Paek has long insisted that he considers every one of his players Korean, regardless of their birth places or skin colors. He said Monday they share another common bond -- pride with which they represent the country.
"(The sense of pride) is already instilled in the character of our players," Paek said. "Even our naturalized players are very proud of being a part of this team. That's one lucky thing I have. We have great character players." (Yonhap)