MOSCOW (Reuters) - Jim Paek, head coach of the South Korean men’s national ice hockey team, is a man of two Olympic nations.
The Korean-born former National Hockey League defenceman who won Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992 has been helping develop ice hockey in South Korea, the host nation of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Paek moved to Canada as an infant and would go on to become the first player of Korean descent to play in the NHL. He left a coaching job in the American Hockey League in 2014 to join the South Korean team to prepare for the Olympics on home ice.
“Being born in Korea and always dreaming of being an Olympian as a player — I don’t play anymore — but being a coach and representing the country where you were born, that pretty much was a no-brainer,” the 50-year-old told Reuters.
South Korea, ranked 21st in the world, find themselves in an Olympic group with Canada, Switzerland and Czech Republic, countries with a long ice hockey tradition and whose squads — although depleted by the NHL’s decision not to send players to the Games — are certain to be stronger than Paek’s.
South Korea, home to more than 50 million people, has only 2,675 ice hockey players and 30 indoor rinks, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). Canada has more than 630,000 players and 3,300 arenas.
Despite lacking the resources of established ice hockey nations, Paek has told his team to simply focus on “getting better everyday” and they have already caused some shocks.
At the 2017 IIHF Championship Division I Group A tournament in Ukraine, South Korea finished second and qualified for the world championship.
At a pre-Olympic tournament in Moscow in December, South Korea took a 2-1 lead in the first period against Canada before going on to lose 4-2.
“This is a great learning experience for us,” Paek told reporters after the loss.
“I think we were a little awestruck in a way because Canada is Canada. They’re a real powerhouse hockey nation. Now we have to work even harder.”
South Korea will have the opportunity to redeem themselves when they play Canada again at the Olympics on Feb. 18.
“At one time I did play for the Canadian national team” in 1990-91, Paek told Reuters. “But I’m here as a Korean and this is my heritage.”
Facing a dearth of homegrown talent, the country has recruited several North American players from the South Korean teams in the Asia League, including several Canadians without any Korean heritage.
These include Canadian-born Alex Plante, who had two assists in 10 games with the Edmonton Oilers. Plante plays for Anyang Halla in the Asia League.
“Those players have been here for many years, some before I even became coach,” Paek said.
“They’ve earned that passport. It’s out of our hands as a hockey federation. They have to do their homework, culture, language and all that, to pass the test. Then it’s up to the government.”
The multinational fabric of the team and its coaching staff has forced Paek to blend several tongues to communicate with his players.
“There are three languages that are spoken: Korean, English and hockey language,” Paek said.
“For a lot of terminologies in hockey, there is no translation in Korean. As (players) get to know me more, they understand that language.”
Focused on the process more than the end result, Paek has seen his players grow as a team over the past few years, making incremental progress he hopes will be noticeable in Pyeongchang.
“I expect us to work extremely hard and try our best,” he said. “Only one team can win the gold medal.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford