S. Korean men's hockey coach 'proud' of team's progress
By Yoo Jee-ho
GANGNEUNG, South Korea, March 18 (Yonhap) -- South Korean men's hockey coach Jim Paek said Saturday he was "extremely proud" of his team's progress, on the heels of a strong effort against an international hockey giant.
South Korea, ranked 23rd in the world, battled No. 2-ranked Russia to the end, before falling 4-3 at Gangneung Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. It is at this very rink that South Korea will make its Olympic debut next February, and after the narrow defeat, Paek said South Korea is on the right track.
"Our guys have worked extremely hard. They're playing fantastic," the former Stanley Cup champion said. "You have to give our players a lot of credit. From Day 1 to now, we've grown as a team and grown as individuals. I am extremely proud of them."
Though Russia only brought young prospects in their early 20s from the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) -- with the National Hockey League (NHL) season in full swing -- not a lot of pundits gave South Korea much of a chance.
In this photo provided by the Korea Ice Hockey Association, South Korean head coach Jim Paek (C) watches the action against Russia in their friendly game at Gangneung Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on March 18, 2017. (Yonhap)
And the game played out as expected, as Russia scored the first goal 2:27 into the first period and led 3-0 through two frames.
South Korea battled back with goals by Ahn Jin-hui and Kim Ki-sung. Paek rolled the dice and pulled goalie Matt Dalton for an extra attacker with about four minutes remaining, and Eric Regan responded with a point shot that made it 4-3.
South Korea ran out of time, but Paek said playing strong opponents is never a bad idea.
"Any time we can play a high-level, top nation like that, it gives us a great experience," he said. "Right now, this is all part of the process. The more games we play against these top-level teams, the more experience and the better it is for us."
South Korea, which received an Olympic spot as the host nation of the 2018 Winter Games, will face Canada, Switzerland and the Czech Republic in the first round. If the NHL players are cleared to compete here -- discussions between the NHL and the International Olympic Committee are ongoing -- then they will present far stiffer challenges than the Russian team here.
Paek said the mental game is as critical as anything on the ice.
"It's tough when you go into the unknown," the coach said. "That's where we have to get stronger mentally. We have to focus on our game and our preparation."
Paek said the key to the third period rally was the ability to convert offensive chances. And South Korea scored three times without the services of two naturalized forwards, Michael Swift (personal reasons) and Mike Testwuide (injuries).
While the government here has fast-tracked several North American-born players to South Korean passports to help make the team better, Paek said the homegrown athletes have also made strides.
"Our Korean players have worked extremely hard and I rely on them to score goals, play defense, and play penalty kill and power plays," he said. "Maybe we could have done better with (Swift and Testwuide) or not, but I know our Korean players have done a great job of getting better."