(Yonhap Feature) Amid naturalization rush, homegrown hockey players step up
By Yoo Jee-ho
SAPPORO/SEOUL, March 6 (Yonhap) -- Hockey is as big of a team sport as any. Typically, a team's best scorer plays about a third of the game at most, and its top defenseman maybe plays about half of the 60-minute game. The other two-thirds or the other half will have to be filled by others, be it scoring forwards, enforcers, or bruising defensemen.
Getting balanced contributions from every line is a key to success. Coaches, instead of stacking their top line with their best forwards, often try to spread the wealth, out of hopes that their second or even third line will make things happen on the offensive end.
South Korea, in both men's and women's hockey, hasn't enjoyed such luxury of depth. And in the years leading up to the 2018 Winter Olympics on its home ice in PyeongChang, South Korea has fast-tracked a handful of Canadian- and American-born players to Korean passports. As some foreign media noted, it might have been the South Korean way of poaching overseas talent for a quick fix, hoping to avoid embarrassment at the PyeongChang Games.
In this Associated Press photo, South Korean forward Park Jong-ah controls the puck against Chinese defenseman Deng Di during their women's hockey game at the Asian Winter Games at Tsukisamu Gymnasium in Sapporo, Japan, on Feb. 23, 2017. (Yonhap)
And judging from South Korea's results at the recently concluded Sapporo Asian Winter Games, the strategy may have had the desired short-term impact. But in the teams' record-setting performances -- the men won silver and the women finished fourth, both their best Asian Games' showings to date -- homegrown players assumed vital roles and proved that they deserve to be a significant part of their teams.
In Sapporo, the men's team had four Canadian-natives -- goalie Matt Dalton, defensemen Eric Regan and Bryan Young and forward Michael Swift -- and one U.S.-born player, forward Michael Testwuide.
Testwuide was injured in the team's first game against Kazakhstan, crashing into goalie Vitaliy Kolesnik with under four minutes remaining in a 4-0 loss. He missed the rest of the four-nation, round-robin competition with a shoulder injury, but South Korea got balanced production from the rest of the lineup en route to winning silver.
South Korean hockey forward Shin Sang-hoon (R) scores against China at the Asian Winter Games at Tsukisamu Gymnasium in Sapporo, Japan, on Feb. 26, 2017. (Yonhap)
When South Korea defeated Japan 4-1, four different players scored, Swift being the only foreign-born player on the sheet. Then in the 10-0 rout of China that secured the silver, Swift scored once, but it was top-line Korean forward Shin Sang-hoon that led the onslaught with a hat trick. Shin also picked up two assists, and Park Jin-kyu, a checking line winger, also scored a pair of goals.
On the blue line, Regan, 28, and Young, 30, remain the lynchpins, but two Korean-born rearguards, Lee Don-ku and Kim Won-jun, have raised their game playing alongside the Canadian natives.
Regan, former captain for the Oshawa Generals in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), is the national team's best two-way threat on defense, and Lee has been a nice foil next to him, with his smart positioning and active stick work. Lee also possesses a strong shot from the point and he's able to keep the puck low enough for his teammates to try to tip it into the net.
Seo Yeong-jun, the team's youngest defenseman at 21, emerged as an unlikely offensive hero in Sapporo. He scored the team's first goal against Japan with a slap shot after jumping in on a rush. He also played heavy minutes against China and picked up an assist in that game.
South Korean head coach Jim Paek, former Stanley Cup-winning defenseman for the Pittsburgh Penguins, said he's now seeing fruits of having foreign-born players in his lineup.
South Korean men's hockey players pose for pictures after taking the silver medal at the Asian Winter Games at Tsukisamu Gymnasium in Sapporo, Japan, on Feb. 26, 2017. (Yonhap)
"When they first came into our country to play, they raised the standards with their experiences from North America," Paek said. "And now you see that, more so than ever, we count on our Korean players to rise to the occasion. They play on the special teams and 5-on-5. Every piece fits into our puzzle."
And because those foreign natives had already been playing for Korean clubs with or against their national teammates before becoming naturalized, Paek said adjustments have not been an issue.
"In my eyes, we're all Koreans. They might have different skin color and different eye colors, but they've adapted and become Korean," Paek said. "They eat the food, speak the language, and are respected by their peers. In my eyes and in their eyes, they're all Koreans representing one country."
And the coach said these players all have one thing in common: passion for the game of hockey.
"They believe in and have passion in what they're doing and in the flag that they wear on their jersey," he said. "They take lots of pride in their game and they're very professional."
The women's team has also naturalized the likes of Caroline Park, a Canadian-born forward who starred for Princeton, and Danelle Im, also a Canadian by birth, and Marissa Brandt, who was born in Korea and later adopted by an American family.
Only Park made the trip to Sapporo, with the others not able to compete under the Olympic Council of Asia's eligibility rule for foreign-born athletes. Park did play on the top line, but she wasn't even the best forward on her own line in Sapporo.
Park's linemate, left wing Park Jong-ah, was South Korea's biggest offensive weapon throughout the tournament. She scored five goals in the 20-0 rout of Thailand to open the Asian Games -- South Korea's first victory ever at a Winter Asiad -- and netted the dramatic winning goal in the shoot-out against China.
Park, who played junior hockey in Canada, then scored 10 seconds into the team's 14-0 win over Hong Kong.
The 20-year-old is also a great skater, able to create her own chances with some deft footwork. The soft-spoken one also wore the letter "C" on her jersey as captain for the first three games, with the usual captain, Lee Kyou-sun, out with a back injury.
The other forward on that top line was Lee Eun-ji, who will turn 16 this week. She was one of three players born in the year 2001, not old enough to play internationally until Sapporo.
They were also among eight teenagers on the 20-player roster, and they weren't by any means only filling up spots.
Eom Su-yeon, who turned 16 on Feb. 1, plays on the top defensive pair with Lee Kyou-sun, the team's oldest player at 32. Forward Kim Hee-won, who won't be 16 until August, plays on the second line. All three of them are on the power play unit.
Kim said in Sapporo she had no idea how much fun she'd be having, finally representing the nation in an international competition.
"I've never experienced such a strong camaraderie," she said. "In the past, I stayed home while my older teammates went overseas to play. And I was quite nervous coming into this tournament, but those girls helped me settle down. I love this team so much."
Sarah Murray, the women's head coach and former U.S. collegiate star, said Kim, Eom and Lee Eun-ji have all grown by leaps and bounds.
"It's pretty unbelievable that they've started on the national team so young," Murray said. "They made a lot of progress. Their confidence is getting a lot better. I think it was great for them to gain experience and also to learn from our mistake in one of our games, and to be emotionally and mentally more stable and consistent."
South Korean women's hockey players sing the national anthem after a 20-0 victory over Thailand at the Asian Winter Games at Tsukisamu Gymnasium in Sapporo, Japan, on Feb. 18, 2017. (Yonhap)
Murray was referring to South Korea's 1-0 loss to Kazakhstan on Feb. 21, which came less than 24 hours after the 3-0 loss to Japan the night before.
The coach talked about how emotionally draining the Japan game was, and the players never bounced back in time to face Kazakhstan with any kind of energy.
"The lesson we're taking away from (the Asian Winter Games) is you can't take a day off," she said. "Even if you had a late game the night before, and you have an early game the next day, there's no excuse. You have to play hard and give everything you've got every time you're on the ice."
The men's team faces a similar task of playing with more consistency. South Korea opened the Asian Winter Games with a 4-0 loss to Kazakhstan, but it wasn't so much the final score as the team's lack of effort that was disconcerting.
But two days later, South Korea defeated Japan 4-1 in a far more energetic game. Even Swift, who scored the eventual game-winning goal versus Japan, said it was like "watching two different teams."
Swift said he felt the difference between those two games was likely in the players' mental approach. Since most of the Japanese players are playing professionally in Asia League Ice Hockey against the South Koreans, the national team members knew what to expect from them.
"I think the guys got a little intimidated when we played against the Kazakhstan team that we didn't know," Swift said. "It's a good learning curve for the guys. Now that we've played Kazakhstan, the next time we play them, mentally, the guys will know how to play."
Regan also opined that South Korea has tended to play a little timid against unfamiliar opponents, and this is where players like himself and Swift, who have faced tougher competitions in North America, can help out in the leadership role.
"When we play bigger European teams we've never played before, we have to realize we're good hockey players, and we can skate with the best players in the world," Regan said. "If we can skate and play hard, we're going to have a chance to win hockey games."
Paek said the inability to play with consistency in a short tournament has to do with the team's overall lack of big-stage experience.
"We've got to learn from (our mistakes), and we have to start on time," Paek said. "We have to be prepared and play 60 minutes from the drop of the puck on every game. We can't take a night off, win or lose."
Naturalized South Korean men's hockey players Michael Swift, Matt Dalton, Eric Regan and Bryan Young (from L to R) wear their Asian Winter Games silver medals at the ceremony at Tsukisamu Gymnasium in Sapporo, Japan, on Feb. 26, 2017. (Yonhap)