GANGNEUNG, Gangwon Province -- In sports, coaches all have different ways of motivating their players and helping them stay focused on the task at hand.
Jim Paek, head coach of the South Korean men's hockey team at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, faces a particularly tall task. None of his 25 players has played in the Olympics before, and he understands that first-game jitters will be inevitable.
When South Korea takes on the Czech Republic on Thursday for its Olympic debut, Paek will try to tell his charges that the game won't be any different than other matches they've played.
Jim Paek (2nd from L), head coach of the South Korean men`s hockey team, poses for official team pictures at Gangneung Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Monday. Paek is flanked by forward Kim Sang-wook (L), assistant coach Richard Park (2nd from R) and forward Kim Ki-sung (R). (Yonhap)
"At the end of the day, it's just another hockey game," Paek said Monday after the team's practice at Gangneung Hockey Centre in Gangneung, the site of all ice sports during the Olympics. "(The players) have to find a way to focus and not get distracted by everything else. Easier said than done, for sure. We're going to have jitters and have different emotions. But we have to try to control those emotions and focus on our team and how our game plan is going to be."
South Korea, at No. 21 in the world rankings, will be an underdog in every game in the group stage. The Czechs are No. 6, while the two other opponents, Canada and Switzerland, are No. 1 and No. 7, respectively.
Paek, a former National Hockey League defenseman, said the Czechs will be a handful for his team from the get-go.
"They're going to be a physical team, a fast team and a skilled team," he said. "They're going to be a good hockey team. So we have to match that."
Paek and his squad arrived here Sunday afternoon following a whirlwind of activities that included four exhibition games in eight days and a day trip to PyeongChang for the opening ceremony last Friday.
After Monday's practice, some players complained of mental and physical exhaustion. But Paek said the coaches had designed it to be that way.
"That's all part of the preparation. We needed games and see how to push through because playing in the Olympics is not easy," Paek said, whose team will play three games in four days here this week. "We have to overcome that beforehand and have that experience. Now we're settled in, we can get reset and refocused and have a couple of days to get going after the first game."
Paek won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992 and was teammates with the Czech legend Jaromir Jagr, who is still active at 45.
There was speculation that Jagr could actually join the Czechs team at the last minute after the Calgary Flames cut him loose last month. With no NHL players on board, Jagr would easily have been the biggest name in the men's tournament here. But the veteran right winger went back to his native country and signed with HC Kladno in the top division there.
Paek, who sat next to Jagr in the dressing room during their Penguins days, said it would have been "fantastic" to see him on the ice here.
And he also said it would have been great for his own players to go up against a star like Jagr. Just last Saturday, South Korean players got a taste of world class skills against former NHL all-stars from Russia, Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk.
"To play against those guys, it gives (South Koreans) great confidence that they can play against them. It's fantastic for them," Paek said. (Yonhap)