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[Feature] Korean men’s ice hockey team ‘confident’ to take on competition at Olympics

By Catherine Chung

Women’s national hockey team calm despite controversy over joint team with North Korean athletes

  • Published : Jan 31, 2018 - 16:47
  • Updated : Jan 31, 2018 - 17:07

JINCHEON, North Chungcheong Province/SEOUL -- Sounds of hockey sticks, pucks slinging into the net and skates against the ice filled the Jincheon National Training Center in Jincheon, North Chungcheong Province, where Korea’s national men’s ice hockey team assembled early in the morning on Jan. 24.

The team was warming up before heading off to the pre-Olympics welcoming ceremony later in the day. The women’s national ice hockey team was also scheduled to join. In contrast to controversy surrounding the women’s inter-Korean hockey team, the men’s team appeared more focused than ever.

During the practice session, head coach Jim Paek encouraged the players and offered words of encouragement -- “Fantastic, boys!” -- that echoed throughout the rink. With the men’s hockey team roster for the Olympics finalized on Jan. 18, the team boasted tight coordination and teamwork, demonstrating their years of practice together.

Hailing from different teams across Korea, the national men’s team has representatives from Anyang Halla, Daemyung Killer Whales, Daemyung Sangmu and High1.

Head coach Jim Paek blows his whistle to round up players at Jincheon National Training Center on Jan. 24. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Paek, a former NHL defenseman, appeared formidable with his broad shoulders and deep voice. With the Olympics approaching, Paek expressed a mix of anxiety and excitement.

“We still have a lot of preparations to make and hopefully we can limit all the distractions. I am anxious to start. The players have been working very hard and we are all excited to play,” Paek said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

When asked about the team’s condition and mindset, Paek said, “We have a very close team that really cares about each other.” He outlined the team’s preparation for the upcoming Olympics and stressed the importance of being “mentally prepared.”

As it is the team’s first time competing at the Olympics, Paek acknowledged possible adversities players may face, but vowed to guide the team with a strong hand and detailed game plan.

Team Korea suffered three defeats, against Canada, Finland and Sweden, at the Challenge One Cup in Moscow, Russia, in December, suggesting the team has to improve its tactical skills on the ice. Despite the defeats abroad, the players seemed confident about playing at the Olympics. 

The Korean men‘s national hockey team holds a morning practice at Jincheon National Training Center on Jan. 24. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

After a rigorous two hours of training, the men’s team hopped on a bus to Olympic Parktel in Jamsil, southern Seoul. The women’s team accompanied the men.

Team captain Park Woo-sang sat at the front, stressing a “persistent cooperative team effort” to shine on the ice. He asked the public for their unconditional support and affection for the team.

Ranked No. 21 in the world, the men’s ice hockey team had a long way to go to qualify for the Olympics. When Paek was tapped to become the head coach in 2014, the players began to believe there would be a chance to earn a spot at the Olympics. Under his leadership, the team made great strides in the hockey league, coming in second at the IIHF World Championship Division I Group A in Kiev in April 2017 for the first time.

The players agreed unanimously that the team has become a stronger entity as a whole thanks to Paek’s tenacious leadership. They also recalled the times of defeat when Paek would remind them that “fear is man-made. We have nothing to lose, all we have to do is try our best and work hard.” 

Kim Sang-wook, left, and brother Kim Ki-sung boast pose after practice. (Anyang Halla)

For left wingers and brothers Kim Ki-sung and Kim Sang-wook, the Winter Games hold a “very special meaning.” It is rare to see actual siblings competing together at the highest international level for sports. The Kim brothers shared their rough years, leading to success. 

Older brother Ki-sung had won the MVP award at the end of the 2014-15 regular season when Sang-wook began following closely in his brother’s footsteps. Sang-wook became the first Korean in Asia League Ice Hockey to rack up the most regular season total points during the 2016-17 season. He earned the MVP award at the end of that season.

“My older brother Ki-sung has always been my source of inspiration. We feel undefeatable on the ice together,” Sang-wook said.

Another unique aspect of Team Korea lies in embracing its teammates. When picking the final team roster, Paek selected several naturalized Canadian natives, such as goaltender Matt Dalton, defenseman Alex Plante and forward Brock Radunske.

Between 2008 and 2017, Dalton, Plante and Radunske became naturalized as Korean citizens and were offered the chance to compete at the Olympics. As the first player without Korean lineage to be naturalized in 2008, Radunske encouraged fellow Canadian native Plante to consider competing for Team Korea. 

South Korean forward Brock Radunske plays against Canada at the Channel One Cup tournament at VTB Ice Palace in Moscow, Russia, on Dec. 13, 2017. (AP-Yonhap)

In 2015, Plante joined the Anyang Halla team and obtained his Korean citizenship two years later. Plante and Radunske said the “lure of the Olympics outweighed any options of playing in Canada.” The Korean government’s policy that allowed the Canadian natives to keep their Canadian passport helped them make the decision to represent Korea.

When asked how they feel about going against top-ranked Canada, Plante said, “I am excited to take on Canada and slightly intimidated. But I believe in our boys.”

“Watch out, here come the underdogs!” Radunske added jokingly.

Reiterating Plante, forward Radunske expressed his gratitude for the team’s “awesome chemistry.” He said he truly believed the team had gained more confidence and experience on a high-caliber stage by playing at the Challenge One Cup in December.

The Canadian native sounded convinced that the team carries the potential to realize his personal goal for the Olympics -- a win in the first game. Radunske said, “This may come true if we stick to the master plan and trust each other.”

At the welcoming ceremony for the Olympians held at Olympic Parktel in southern Seoul, the athletes were to proudly represent Korea with the national flag pinned to their chests. Despite it being a “ceremonious” event, the expressions on the women’s ice hockey team appeared gloomy as they dismounted the bus. 

The Korean national team attends a pre-Olympic ceremony at Olympic Parktel in Jamsil, southern Seoul, on Jan. 24. (Yonhap)

The International Olympic Committee made its final decision to field a joint Korean women’s hockey team on Jan. 20. With an additional 12 North Korean players joining the original 23-member squad, at least three North Korean players are to be featured in each match.

One player on the women’s team said after the event, “Over the past four years or so, every single person on our team has given up so much to earn her spot at the Olympics. We have undergone long hours of sweat and tears.

“Frankly, in the last few days, our world felt turned upside down, creating confusion on the team. The hardest part, I believe, is that there is really nothing we can do as of now. All we can do is encourage each other to work harder.”

At the ceremony, foreign media outlets such as Reuters and BBC turned the spotlight to the women’s inter-Korean team. Bombarded with questions, the women’s team declined to answer. The players appeared calmer than they had been on the bus. Heading the women’s joint hockey team with North Korean coach Pak Chol-ho, Sarah Murray, 30, smiled cheerfully at the cameras.

Shortly after the ceremony, Chung Mong-won, president of the Korea Ice Hockey Association and Halla Corporation, shared his insights into the men’s team and women’s team.

Because it is the first, biggest challenge Team Korea is taking on, Chung voiced some concerns, but sounded optimistic, citing the “rigorous training leading up to the Winter Games.” 

Chung Mong-won, president of the Korea Ice Hockey Association and Halla Corporation (Yonhap)

As for the prospects at the Olympics, Chung avoided talk of a medal. “I would love to see the team, who came all this way, advance into the quarterfinals. It’s a very difficult goal, but it is much like climbing a mountain. When you first start climbing, does one not try to reach the top?”

On Thursday, the North and South national women’s ice hockey players met for the first time at Jincheon National Training Center. After holding separate practice sessions the first two days, the joint team held its first practice together at the venue on Sunday.

In a separate phone interview Sunday, Chung, who maintains close communication with Jim Paek and Sarah Murray, said, “Despite it being their first time on the ice together, the women surprisingly have good chemistry and coordination.”

While the women’s team trains rigorously for its first match against Switzerland on Feb. 10, the men’s team will go against the Czech Republic, which is ranked No. 6 in the world.

The Olympics kick off on Feb. 9.

By Catherine Chung (cec82@heraldcorp.com)