At first, it all seemed harmless enough: professional hockey players doing their 20-meter shuttle runs, seemingly at a leisurely pace on Monday.
A few minutes passed, and as their pace picked up, more and more players started to bend over with their hands on their knees during breaks, trying to catch their breath. One after another fell by the wayside, some going down to the floor, a picture of complete exhaustion.
|South Korean men's hockey players take part in drills at the Jincheon National Training Center in Jincheon, North Chungcheong Province, on May 15, 2017. (Yonhap)|
It was the scene on the first day of the South Korean men's hockey team's off-ice training camp at the Jincheon National Training Center in Jincheon, North Chungcheong Province, some 90 kilometers south of Seoul. The morning drills were followed by weightlifting sessions in the afternoon. This is the third summer in which head coach Jim Paek, former Stanley Cup winner with the Pittsburgh Penguins, has organized the conditioning camp. The 11-week program will be run on a hockey-specific regimen put together with the help of US training company EXOS.
And this was also the players' first serious training since the end of the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship Division I Group A in Ukraine late last month. South Korea finished in second place there to earn a promotion to the sport's top-tier competition, the IIHF World Championship, for next year.
So the players perhaps could be forgiven for celebrating their achievement -- an unprecedented feat in South Korea -- over the past two weeks or so. But with the IIHF championship and the PyeongChang Winter Olympics also coming up in 2018, there isn't much time to waste for world No. 23.
And the players, despite struggling to stay on their feet after just a couple of hours of agility training Monday, will soldier on, knowing that their hard work has paid off and will continue to do so.
Their fitness has been a major reason that the long-time doormat has transformed into an upstart hockey nation, the one that can give opponents trouble with its forechecking and speed.
"It's always tough to get back into training after taking some time off, but we have to keep at it because we have the Olympics and the worlds coming up," said Kim Sang-wook, a top-line forward and the last man standing in the shuttle run drill. "We've been able to stage a lot of comebacks because we've gotten stronger. That makes it easier to endure this camp."
Kim said the national team program has particularly helped him get quick bursts of speed in games when he needed them the most.
"Our endurance has improved and injuries have been kept to a minimum on this team," Kim added. "We can all see this bear out in numbers when we get tested later in the camp. It's really hard to be running so much early on but we know we'll be much better later on."
At the IIHF competition last month, South Korea rallied in the third period in three of its four victories. The most remarkable one came against rank-16 Kazakhstan, with South Korea scoring four unanswered goals in the final frame to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 5-2 victory.
Cho Min-ho, a shifty forward who mans the point on power plays, said victories like that have clearly been a boost to the team's collective confidence.
"Even when we go up against bigger players, we are now able to skate hard and give them fits right through the third period," Cho said. "And we can hold our ground in puck battles along the boards, and that wasn't the case in the past. Naturally, we've all become more confident. Our focus has been much sharper in third periods."
Cho said the camp can have its tedious moments but the players are all driven by a common goal -- doing well at next year's Winter Olympics on home ice.
"We've proven that we could compete against good players," he added. "And we know we'll face even better players at the Olympics, and we understand how much harder we have to work."
Paek said it was important for the players to rest and heal their mind and body after the world championships, and now it's time to get back to the grind.
"We put all of this hard work into the bank and then when we need it, we pull it out," he said. "The players understand the importance of every training that we do, whether it's on-ice or off-ice. They're doing a great job."
It won't be all work for Paek's players here. The coach has scheduled a friendly table tennis competition and some ball hockey games on an outdoor tennis court here so that the players could have some time off from all that running and weightlifting.
"You have to have distractions and rest your mind and body also in order to peak at the proper time," he explained. "This is a great opportunity where the team can get together and have some team bonding and have some fun together. They're going to be together for a long time. In order to stay focused and to have your intensity when you need your intensity, it's very important to have some downtime and have some fun." (Yonhap)