Pyeongchang South Korea

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Jim Paek helping lead the growth of hockey in South Korea

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Jim Paek bowed his head and pumped both fists as one of his assistants, former NHLer Richard Park, celebrated beside him. Sanghoon Shin’s shootout goal versus Ukraine during last April’s Division I – Group A IIHF World Championship didn’t secure just any win — it was a victory that meant South Korea would continue its rise in international hockey and be promoted to the top division for the 2018 tournament, playing against the likes of the United States, Canada and Finland.

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Three months after wrapping up the 2010-11 American Hockey League season as an assistant with the Grand Rapids Griffins, Paek’s home country of South Korea was awarded the 2018 Winter Olympics. Three years later, the Seoul native was tapped to become the country’s men’s ice hockey coach.

Before he accepted the job, Paek reached out Curt Fraser, a fellow assistant in Grand Rapids and former head coach of the Belarusian national team. Fraser bestowed plenty of wisdom from his two-year international experience.

“It’s a different world. North American hockey, NHL hockey, American League hockey to international, you’re stepping into a different territory,” Paek recently told Pro Hockey Talk. “He gave me some great advice on how to control it, what to look for, how to prepare yourself, those type of things. But the biggest thing is he said, ‘Jim, it’s a great experience for you,’ and it sure has been. I’ve enjoyed every minute of this.”

[‘Olympics Are a Start’: Stanley Cup Winner Builds New South Korean Hockey Dreams]

Paek’s playing career ended in 2003, and as he got closer to hanging up his skates he knew he wanted to stay involved in the sport. He loved teaching, which showed when as a veteran player he would do extra work with young teammates after practices. He knew the next step in his hockey life would be to enter the coaching ranks. His start came with a year in the World Hockey Association 2 and then a season behind the bench with an Ohio high school team. In 2005, he moved up the ranks as an assistant on Greg Ireland’s staff in Grand Rapids.

From ‘Badger’ Bob Johnson to Scotty Bowman, Paek was educated by some of the game’s best coaches, and each have had an influence on his approach and style today.

“To be able to have those great coaches coach me, I’d be a fool not to take the positives from what they taught,” he said. “But I think the key component to that is what I’ve tried to do is take all the positives from all the coaches that I’ve know over the years, all the way to even my minor atom amateur days, to all the way up to my coaching days [with] Jeff Blashill, so a combination of everybody, but to try to make it your own and not be them. Not be a ‘Badger’ Bob, not be a Scotty Bowman — try to fit that into my personality and use that in a positive way.”

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As Paek and South Korea await their first Olympic game on Feb. 15, the preparation continues. Earlier this month they participated in the Euro Ice Hockey Challenge, losing their three games to Denmark, Norway and host Austria. In December they’ll travel to Moscow for the Channel One Cup and play against Canada, Finland and Sweden. It’s getting to be crunch time and these games erve as valuable experience for his players.

Most of the roster is set, which will feature a mix of South Koreans and Americans and Canadians. Some would call the North American players who came over and earned citizenship to join the national team “imports,” but Paek sees it differently.

“I really don’t like that term ‘imports,’” he said. “The Canadian guys and American players that we have have been in this country for many years… Brock Radunske has been here like eight years. He’s been here longer than me. In my eyes I see 25 Korean players that are playing hockey in Korea, that are preparing for the Olympics, their dreams, their goals.”

Those North Americans who came over aren’t ringers. As Paek said, most have been in South Korea for years and used their time in the Asia League Ice Hockey to grow and develop the sport. They’ve adjusted to life in a new country, become immerse in the culture and helped improve the quality of hockey.

“With their experiences, they came over and they set the standard and have tried to get the Korean players up to that level and that standard,” Paek said. “They’ve done a great job in doing that when they came over. With the Asian league being here and allowing those Canadian players to come over and participate in the Asian league, sure, it’s helped tremendously, along with so many other things [like] the Korean players’ willingness to improve and develop and work extremely hard to get better in their own right. There’s a combination of a lot of things, and initially when they came over to raise the standard it’s been great.

“As we move forward, it’s everybody helping each other. It’s Korean guys helping the Canadian guys and the Canadian guys helping the Korean guys as a team does.”

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Since being awarded the 2018 Winter Games and given automatic berths into the men’s and women’s hockey tournaments, South Korea has made a focused effort on raising the interest level in hockey in the country. A four-year, $20 million investment plan backed by the Korean Ice Hockey Federation (KIHA), South Korean government, International Olympic Committee and national sponsors was vital, and over the last seven years the participation numbers from youth to adult have been on the rise.

According to statistics provided by the KIHA, the number of registered boys and girls 12 and under has grown from 897 in 2011 to 2,132 in 2017. Growth in other age groups such as U15, U18, U23 and 24 and older have also increased, a trend that started before Paek’s arrival in 2014.

PHT

The growing numbers in the 12 and under group is a promising sight. The country’s collective efforts have worked and the impact of those youth players seeing South Korea in Olympic hockey tournaments will only help increase those numbers going forward.

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“Thank God.” 

That was Paek’s first thought after Shin’s promotion-clinching goal. He then recalled all of the support he’d received from family and friends and the coaches who influenced him along the way. As he stood on the bench, he saw his players celebrating a mission accomplished. There was a lot of work to be done when he was hired in 2014, and in that moment the program went from making baby steps to taking one giant leap.

As his staff embraced around him, Paek knew that he what he had just witnessed would have a major impact on hockey in South Korea.

“It was just a very emotional time for me, just like a proud father would be,” he said. “It was a tremendous moment in Korean hockey for me personally, and for the country also. To see that and everybody’s efforts that they put into it, sure made me happy.”

Grouped with the Czech Republic, Canada and Switzerland, South Korea’s Olympic gold medal hopes are currently listed at 500/1. No one is expecting the Disney movie ending, but they’ll be one of the more intriguing teams to watch. Even before the NHL decided against sending its players, they were going to be a fan favorite based on their underdog status.

And no matter how the tournament plays out, South Korea has already won, according to Paek.

“You know, success right now, I think we have succeeded,” says Paek. “Being able to start where we started and being able to play in the Olympics at a world stage in front of this competition, in front of these countries, we’ve succeeded. That’s in my eyes. Anything we do beyond that is gravy. But our players aren’t satisfied and we’re preparing extremely hard to win, and that’s what we do and that’s what anybody does. You don’t prepare to lose, so we’re trying our best and we’re working extremely hard to be successful.

“The players are very proud to represent their country, and hopefully that’ll show and the people of Korea will be very proud of our hockey players.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

IIHF backs Russia’s participation in Pyeongchang Olympics

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The International Ice Hockey Federation doesn’t want to see hockey suffer at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

With the International Olympic Committee set to rule on whether Russia can compete at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games next week, the IIHF threw its support behind Russia’s “clean” athletes on Tuesday.

The IIHF released a statement on the matter on Tuesday, stating that they “oppose” the use of collective punishment in what they called a “unanimous opinion.”

The IOC will rule on the matter on Dec. 5.

The statement, which can be read in full below, said that “punitive measures” the IOC is seeking against Russia would put the “health of ice hockey at risk.”

The IIHF Council has reached a unanimous opinion that all clean athletes, including those from Russia, must be permitted to represent their country in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang.

We oppose the use of collective punishment in the case of Russian athletes. Although we recognize the need to confront doping in sport, Olympic participation should not be used to sanction the many for the actions of the few. In addition, the extent to which the IOC is seeking punitive measures in the case of Russia is putting the health of ice hockey at risk.

Russia’s role in the growth and development of ice hockey cannot be understated. This country forms a pillar on which our sport’s legacy rests upon.

To preserve the integrity of the Olympic ice hockey tournaments, the IIHF in full cooperation with the Russian Ice Hockey Federation and the Kontinental Hockey League initiated a highly structured testing program for the KHL, MHL, and WHL, which went into operation in December 2016 and up to the present has tested nearly 400 Russian players.

To this effect, the IIHF Council reiterates its position that clean athletes from all qualified Federations should be permitted to go to the 2018 Olympic Winter Games and represent their countries.

“We wanted to outline our position clearly to the IOC, that we are against a collective punishment approach that would unfairly punish many Russian athletes that had nothing to do with doping,” said IIHF President René Fasel in a release.

The potential punishment that could be levied against Russia stems from the Sochi Olympics in 2014.

The World Anti-Doping Agency claims Russia’s athletes were involved in a state-backed doping program to help boost their medal count at their chances of success at their home Games.

Last week, Hockey Canada, along with the hockey federations in Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic sent a letter to the Kontinental Hockey League, encouraging the league not to withhold its players from the games in protest for the potential sanctions of Russia’s Pyeongchang participation.

The move by the KHL would have a widespread effect on the composition of hockey teams heading to the Games. The CBC reported last week that “sixteen members of Canada’s 25-man-roster at the recent Karjala Cup in Finland play in the KHL, including goalie Ben Scrivens and forwards Wojtek Wolski and Teddy Purcell.”

Fasel said the KHL is obliged to release any players of any nationality.

NHL players will not be permitted to play in the Olympics, which run from Feb. 9 to Feb. 26.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Deutschland Cup roster provides early look at U.S. men’s Olympic hopefuls

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The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea are 111 days away and we got our first look at some of the names who will compete to be on the ice on the men’s side vs. Slovenia for USA Hockey’s opening game.

There were 29 players named to the U.S. roster for next month’s Deutschland Cup where the Americans will take on Slovakia, Russia and Germany. Tony Granato will serve as head coach and Chris Chelios, Ron Rolston, Scott Young and Keith Allain will serve as assistants. Of the 29 players, 21 have played in the NHL and are names you probably recognize.

FORWARDS
Ryan Stoa
Mark Arcobello
Chad Kolarik
Andy Miele
Brian O’Neill
Brian Gionta
Jim Slater
Dan Sexton
Broc Little
Sean Backman
Drew Shore
Ryan Malone
Ryan Lasch
Robbie Earl
Garrett Roe

DEFENSEMEN
Chad Billins
Bobby Sanguinetti
Tom Gilber
Ryan Gunderson
Noah Welch
Matt Gilroy
Jonathan Blum
Matt Donovan
Mark Stuart
Dylan Reese
Mike Lundin

GOALTENDERS
Ryan Zapolski
Brandon Maxwell
David Leggio

The biggest names on the roster are 38-year-old Gionta and 37-year-old Malone, who have 1,653 games of NHL experience between them. It’s a veteran list, with an average age of 31.

“There’s a lot of guys here that know how to play and have been successful players and have found a niche for themselves in their career at various stages,” U.S. general manager Jim Johannson told Stephen Whyno of the The Associated Press. “The Deutschland Cup for us is a little bit to find some separation of these guys, whether that’s pure pace of play or performance.”

USA Hockey submitted a list of 81 eligible players to the IIHF and there is the possibility of seeing a handful of NCAA and AHL players not playing in the Deutschland Cup skating in Pyeongchang. A final 25-man roster is expected to be announced around Jan. 1.

Canada previously announced two pre-Olympic rosters over the summer and participated in the Sochi Hockey Open and Tournament of Nikolai Puchkov in August.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Gretzky supports NHL players in the Olympics

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One of the hottest debates we’ll have for the next four years will be whether or not NHL players should return to the Olympics in 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

One guy who supports keeping NHL players in the Olympics, however, is none other than Wayne Gretzky.

Gretzky spoke with Rob Pizzo on Hockey Night in Canada radio Friday afternoon and was asked his thoughts about whether or not NHL players should go back to the Olympics. The Great One is all in favor of it.

“When we grew up as kids we dreamed of winning the Stanley Cup. That was a goal that if you made the NHL you couldn’t play in the Olympic Games,” Gretzky said.

“So if I had a vote, I would vote to go because I love the Olympic Games and I think there’s no bigger honor, there’s no bigger thrill than representing your country and being part of Team Canada. It’s something you can’t even describe how special of a feeling it is to know that you get to put that red and white jersey on.”

Gretzky was a member of Team Canada’s 2002 gold medal-winning team in Salt Lake City and was also part of the 1998 team in Nagano. While he’s one major figure putting his support behind keeping NHL players in the Olympics, logistics of sending everyone to Korea could throw a wrench in things.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman refused to address whether or not they’ll participate in the 2018 Games and it’s not likely to be decided right up until the Games themselves. One thing that will the possibility alive, however, would be the players speaking up and saying they want to do it.

2018 Winter Olympics awarded to Pyeongchang, South Korea; Tough break for hockey fans?

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What isn’t clear: Whether or not the NHL will put its regular season on hold for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi (Russia) and/or the 2018 edition in Pyeonchang, South Korea.

What is clear: Either way, hockey fans might need to watch games at some strange hours to view these puck exhibitions as they happen live.

In case you haven’t heard, the 2018 Winter Olympics were awarded to Pyeonchang, South Korea today after two failed previous attempts. Apparently the city dominated the competition to get the Winter Olympics, earning 63 out of 95 votes despite only needing 48 to earn the victory. Pyeonchang becomes the first Asian city outside of Japan to host the Winter Games, according to the Associated Press.

While that is great news for the city and South Korea as a whole, it might not be fantastic for the sleep cycles or work schedules of North American hockey fans. The NHL hasn’t committed (nor has it definitively said “No”) to sending hockey players to the next two Winter Olympics, but time zone differences – not to mention extensive travel – could be a big obstacle to deal with. Just take a look at the time in South Korea right now and you’ll see that things might get a little weird.

You never know, though; things might work out in the long run. It would be great to see NHL players in both Olympics, but it might not be practical. Hockey fans should probably give those games a try either way. After all, other international events (see: the World Junior Hockey Championships) are often extremely enjoyable without current NHLers.