But coach Jim Paek says the team’s goal is not to just show up, but to compete with the best as equals.
“We’d like to win every game. That’s what we’re preparing for: To beat Canada, to beat Czech, to beat Switzerland and move on to the next round,” he said in an interview with The Korea Herald. “You can’t prepare to lose. So it’s important that we prepare the right way.”
Having taken helm in 2014, Paek carries on his shoulders the expectations to transform and upgrade a national men’s hockey team that has never had any real success.
“One (of the challenges) was to change the culture and change the mentality (of our players). We wanted to take the distraction away, and had staff members help the players just concentrate on hockey,” he said.
“I just wanted to reemphasize that it’s an honor to represent your country. You don’t deserve anything; you have to earn everything you get. There’s no sense of entitlement.
“There’s a small number of Korean hockey players, and you know if you’re a good player, you’re always going to make the team. But you have to earn your spot. That was the key point.”
Paek’s desire to whip the team into shape was based greatly on his personal experience as the first Korean-born player ever to play in the NHL, and as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins team that won the Stanley Cup twice.
But he said that having to work for respect goes both ways.
“Being blessed to play in the NHL and winning the Stanley Cup, I get that instant credibility and respect. But my job is to keep earning that respect, because players aren’t dumb. They know a phony when they see one,” he said.
|Jim Paek (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)|
So far the transition appears to be bearing fruit.
In April’s IIHF World Championship Division I tournament, South Korea finished second and was promoted to the 2018 World Championships. It is the first time the team has been promoted to the top-tier, and marked a drastic turnaround for the team which was relegated to Division 1 B in 2014.
But Paek says his focus right now is the Olympics, where the team’s battles with perennial powerhouses will become the soil for further growth.
“We have to think like a top-level team. We can’t keep thinking that we are a bottom-of-the-barrel team and that we can’t compete with them. We have to think that we belong,” he said. “And right now we do belong.”
What the national team lacks more than anything is playing time at the top level, he noted.
“A lot of these (top-tier) teams have experience, which we don’t have. We’re still gaining that experience by playing in higher divisions and playing friendly matches against these teams. ... We have to catch up, and we have to keep learning,” he said.
“(Playing countries like Canada) will help our development and experiences to grow as a hockey country. Maybe not at that time, but in the future. That’s what we need in order for us to grow.”
|Jim Paek (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)|
Paek and the Korea Ice Hockey Association have been working to set up friendly matches against top teams. The team will head to Russia at the end of July and then to the Czech Republic for a pre-season tournament.
It will also visit Austria for some friendlies in November.
Paek said he has “penciled in” Canada, the favorite in South Korea’s Olympic group.
He expressed hopes that his players can take in many things from these experiences.
“The more you compete at that high level, the more you are able to compete with them. It’s going to be a quicker game with a higher skill level, which is a little different than what they (players) are used to at lower levels,” Paek said.
“I always say the speed of recognition -- how you see the play, how it develops, how quickly you can read where to pass the puck or what to do -- the speed of execution -- how to execute with or without the puck -- and the precision of execution are the three key factors that we have to learn and adapt to at their level.”
His initial success and efforts to transform the team’s culture has earned a comparison to Dutch football manager Guus Hiddink, who led the Korean men’s soccer team to the final four in the 2002 World Cup.
|(Korea Ice Hockey Association)|
While Paek said it was a great honor, he said he is just trying to do his best in his position.
Paek himself faced numerous hurdles during his development as a player. As a player of Asian descent, he learned that the best way to fend off racial slurs is to thrive on the ice.
“The more you focus on that (racial slurs), that’s going to be an issue. If you just let and go and continue to play, beat them on the ice and on the scoreboard with your ability, that all goes away,” he said. “That was my focus: OK, if you’re going to be like that, I’m not going to lower myself to your level. I’ll work extra hard. You do one push up, I’ll do two.”
Focusing on his play helped him achieve his lifelong goal of winning the championship at the world’s top hockey league.
“To hoist the cup after scoring a goal in the finals, and being assisted by the best player in the world in Mario Lemieux, that was a fantastic moment in my life,” he said.
He took on a coaching career after his playing career ended, mostly with the Grand Rapids Griffins in the American Hockey League.
Then a phone call turned his life upside down.
“My dad and I, we always had lots of conversations about Korean hockey and coming back to Korea,” he said, adding that they would talk about possibly playing for Korea one day.
“We always had conversations like that: It would be a great honor to come back and represent your country. Then my wife just reminded me, just before we got married, ‘Jim, don’t you remember that one of your dreams was to come back and coach the Korean national team in the Olympics?’ And boom, here we are. It had always been in the back of my mind to come here. Always wanting to be a part Korean hockey in whatever shape or form.”
Paek said he has always identified as Korean.
“It’s in my blood, it’s who I am. Someone asks me where I’m from, I say I’m from Korea. ... It’s been a great honor to be back here, back home where you were born,” he said.
Paek’s eyes are now set firmly on the future, as he seeks to transform the national team into one that feels entitled to win.
He hopes that the winning mentality will continue to manifest well after the current players retire.
“I want my players to be the pioneers of something greater to come. I think it’s the start of what I believe is the greater things to come for Korean hockey,” he said.
“Hopefully this will raise us to the next level and stay there for many years. I’m hoping that this generation of players will retire and take all their experiences they learned internationally and bring it back to young kids here and develop the grass roots and grow the sport better and better.”
By Yoon Min-sik (firstname.lastname@example.org)