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.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jOSRbGc9DDs?start=102%5D

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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.

Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

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FRISCO, Texas — Young 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson is expected to miss the start of training camp for the Dallas Stars because the team and the restricted free agent haven’t agreed on a new contract.

General manager Jim Nill said there’s been steady, ongoing negotiations over the last couple of weeks with Robertson and his representatives. Nill wouldn’t say what has kept the two sides from reaching a deal, adding there have been “very good discussions.”

The Stars, with new coach Pete DeBoer, open camp Thursday in Cedar Park, Texas, at the home of their AHL team. They have three days of work there before returning to North Texas for their exhibition opener at home on Monday night. They open the regular season Oct. 13 at Nashville.

“I think he’s disappointed he’s not at camp, we are too,” Nill said before the team departed for the Austin area. “I think it’s very important for a younger player and as you mentioned, the (new) coaching staff. … We do have some time on our side, but we wish he gets here as soon as he can.”

Robertson had a base salary of $750,000 last season, the end of a $2.775 million, three-year contract. He still has five more years before he has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.

The left wing turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when he had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

A second-round draft pick by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. He had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

DeBoer said he looks forward to coaching Robertson, but that the forward’s absence won’t change his plans for camp.

“It doesn’t impact what I’m doing,” DeBoer said. “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here. So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

Nill said the Stars are open to a long-term extension or a bridge contract for Robertson, who was part of the team’s top line last season with veteran Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz. They combined for 232 points, the second-most in franchise history for a trio.

“We’re open to anything. But other than that … I’m not going to negotiate through the media,” Nill said. “As I said, we’ve had good conversations. We’ll see where it goes.”

Training camps open around NHL after another short offseason

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Training camps open around the NHL after another short offseason, a third in a row squeezed by the pandemic. That doesn’t bother Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon one bit.

For one of hockey’s best players and his teammates, it’s already time to get back on the ice and defend their Stanley Cup title, less than three months since they knocked off the back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I still feel like I just was playing,” MacKinnon said. “I took two weeks off, and then I started skating again. It’s just fun. I enjoy it, and I like the short summer. It feels like the season’s just kind of rolling over again.”

The NHL rolls into fall coming off an entertaining playoffs and final with the chance to finally get back on a normal schedule. That means full camps for teams that got new coaches and the benefits of a regular routine.

That means a mere 88 days between Game 6 of the final and the first-on ice practice sessions.

“We’re kind of used to it now,” Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy said after he and the Lightning lost in the final for the first time in three consecutive trips. “It’s a little harder, of course, because you don’t have that much time to rest. It’s basically a few weeks and you have to get back at it. But, yeah, I can’t complain. You want your summers to be short every year.”

It was a little longer for Connor McDavid and the Oilers after losing to Colorado in the West final. Despite the lack of downtime, McDavid “wouldn’t trade that in for anything” and aims to make it even further since Edmonton shored up its goaltending situation by adding Jack Campbell.

A few spins of the goalie carousel ended with the Avalanche acquiring Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers and Cup winner Darcy Kuemper landing with Washington. Joining new teammates, many of whom hoisted the Cup in 2018, Kuemper is not worried about less time off.

“It was definitely a very unique summer,” Kuemper said. “With how short it was, you start getting back into the gym and you’re kind of a little bit worried that your training’s going to be so short. But you kind of felt like you weren’t getting back into shape. You were already there.”

NEW COACHES

The Oilers are one of several teams settling in for training camp under a new coach. Jay Woodcroft took over as interim coach in February but has the full-time job now.

“Looking forward to a camp with him,” McDavid said. “He did a great job coming in during the middle of the season, but it’s never easy on a coach, for sure. I’m sure there’s things that he wanted to touch on that you wasn’t able to kind of in the middle of the year, so he’ll be able to to touch on all of it this year.”

The same goes for Bruce Boudreau in Vancouver, 11 months since being put in charge of the Canucks. Philadelphia’s John Tortorella, Boston’s Jim Montgomery, Vegas’ Bruce Cassidy, Dallas’ Peter DeBoer, Florida’s Paul Maurice, Chicago’s Luke Richardson, Detroit’s Derek Lalonde and the New York Islanders’ Lane Lambert are all starting the job fresh.

CAMP TRYOUTS

Roughly 40 players are attending a camp on a professional tryout agreement with the chance to earn a contract for the season. James Neal has that opportunity with the Blue Jackets, and Derek Stepan returned to Carolina to seek a job with the Hurricanes.

The most intriguing situation involves 37-year-old center Eric Staal, who agreed to the tryout with Florida the same time brother Marc signed a one-year contract. Younger brother Jordan was with Eric and Marc on the 18th green at Pebble Beach to witness the occasion.

“They’re both just super pumped, as was I,” said Jordan Staal, who is the captain of the Hurricanes. “Eric is excited about the opportunity and Marc, as well. Really cool. Really cool thing.”

EARLY START

Before the puck drops on the NHL season in North America on Oct. 11, the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks play twice in Prague on Oct. 7 and 8. And those are not exhibitions.

“We still play two important games,” said Sharks forward Tomas Hertl, who is a native of Prague. “It’s not just preseason where you coming here to warm up.”

Colorado and Columbus will also play two games in Tampere, Finland, on Nov. 4-5 as part of the NHL’s Global Series.

And just as the league gets used to a regular schedule, work is ongoing between the league and NHL Players’ Association to stage a World Cup of Hockey in February 2024, which is popular among players even if it knocks the calendar off kilter again.

“I think they missed out on a huge, huge portion of the international game that’s really going to be missed,” McDavid said. “We need to figure out a way to get an international tournament in as quickly as possible.”

Matthew Tkachuk, Panthers ready for 1st training camp together

Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports
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CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — Aleksander Barkov was sound asleep at his home in Finland when the trade that brought Matthew Tkachuk to the Florida Panthers was finalized, which isn’t surprising considering it was around 4 a.m. in that part of the world.

He woke up and read texts from friends reacting to the deal.

And it wasn’t too long before he got a message from Tkachuk.

“The first message was `(expletive) right’ and how he was excited to come to Florida,” Barkov, the Panthers’ captain, said at Florida’s media day. “`Let’s take this next step, let’s be a winning team for many years to come.’ That’s who he is. He wants to win. He wants to bring that character to this organization. And I think he’s done some damage already.”

With that, Barkov was sold.

And after a few weeks of informally skating with one another, the Panthers start the process of officially seeing what they have in Tkachuk when the team’s training camp – the first under new coach Paul Maurice – opens.

“We’ve basically had everybody here for a few weeks,” Tkachuk said. “I feel like I’ve been in training camp for a couple of weeks. So today doesn’t feel that new to me. I’ve gotten to know everybody … so let’s get these games going. I’m sick and tired of just practicing and working. I want to start playing some games. I think everybody feels the same way.”

Maurice was hired over the summer as well, inheriting a team that won the Presidents’ Trophy last season and went to the second round of the playoffs — the first series win for Florida since the run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996.

He’s as eager as the players are for the first formal practice, calling it “our first Christmas.”

“The house is bought. Most of the boxes are unpacked,” Maurice said. “I’ve got two kids that kind of came with me; one’s in Coral Gables, one’s in Estero. Their places are unpacked. They’re out of our house. Once you get down here, for me, you spend most of your days at the rink. So, experiencing all of South Florida, we haven’t gotten to that yet.”

As part of the deal that went down on July 22, the 24-year-old Tkachuk signed a eight-year, $76 million contract. That’s not the only big cost that the Panthers had to agree to while executing the trade; they also sent Jonathan Huberdeau, the franchise’s all-time scoring leader, and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar to the Calgary Flames in exchange for a left wing who had career bests of 42 goals, 62 assists and 104 points last season.

“I wish all the best to Huby and Weegs,” Barkov said. “They’re great. Everyone loved them. Only good things to say about them. It happens, and for sure, it was best for the team and organization to do this. We move on, and we’ll get ready for a new season.”

BOBROVSKY’S SUMMER

Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is Russian, still makes his home in St. Petersburg, and went there for the bulk of his offseason.

He said it was not logistically difficult to travel there (or return to the U.S.) this summer, even as the war that started when Russia invaded Ukraine continues. Bobrovsky said last season that he was not trying to focus on anything but hockey, and when asked if it was difficult to be back in Russia as war continues he kept the same approach.

“I had a good summer,” Bobrovsky said. “I saw friends, I saw family. It’s all been fine. I don’t want to talk about what’s going on. I’m not involved in that stuff.”

CAMP ROSTER

Florida is opening camp with 56 players – 31 forwards, 19 defensemen and six goalies. That group includes brothers Eric Staal and Marc Staal; Marc Staal signed as a free agent in July; Eric Staal is with Florida on a tryout contract.

Coyotes sign Barrett Hayton right before training camp

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes signed forward Barrett Hayton to a two-year contract right before the start of training camp.

Terms of the deal were not released.

The 22-year-old Hayton was a restricted free agent and not initially listed on Arizona’s roster for camp.

Hayton had 10 goals and 14 assists in 60 games with the Coyotes last season, all career highs.

Arizona drafted the Peterborough, Ontario native with the fifth overall pick of the 2018 NHL draft. He has 13 goals and 18 assists in 94 career games with the Coyotes.