SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s new national ice hockey coach Jim Paek doesn’t know if success is the “chicken or the egg”, but he knows he needs it right away if the sport is to gather momentum ahead of the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.
Paek, who left Seoul when he was one-year-old and grew up in Canada, was the first Korean to play in the NHL and the only one to have won the Stanley Cup, lifting ice hockey’s biggest prize with Mario Lemieux’s Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992.
He was named national coach of Korea in July, tasked with gaining qualification for the 2018 Games on home soil (hosts do not qualify automatically), and with a longer-term objective of building an ice hockey program from the ground up.
But with few facilities to groom talent and a nationwide pool of just 60 professional players to choose from, the task of turning Korea into an ice hockey force is a daunting one.
What will it take to make Korea serious about ice hockey?
”Success,“ he tells Reuters in an interview at Mokdong icerink in Seoul on Friday. ”You get some success right away at the Asian Games and in the World Championships and people will flock to the sport.
”You see what success has done for short track here. All the kids see them on the Olympic stage and they suddenly want to do short track. Same with Kim (Yuna) and figure skating.
“If we get some success, Korea will build more rinks. If they build more rinks, we’ll have more success. I‘m not sure if it’s the chicken or the egg, but we need success on a world level to get things started.”
South Korea enjoys regular success at the Winter Games in short track and speed skating but few have even dared to dream of facing ice hockey powerhouses such as Canada, United States and Sweden on Olympic ice.
The International Ice Hockey Federation is keen for Korea to compete in Pyeongchang but is wary of the potential for the kind of lopsided losses that would embarrass the hosts and damage the sport’s reputation.
Paek, however, sees no downside to being on the same ice as ice hockey’s superpowers.
“Who would ever think we would even be able to participate at the Olympic level in the first place?” the 47-year-old former defenseman said.
“It would be my job to find a system and figure out how we would survive, but even if we lost say 10-0 to Canada we’d take positives out of it.”
Former Minnesota Wild winger Richard Park, another Korean-born NHL player who is helping Paek evaluate talent, has been impressed with the standard here but says it will take time to develop the sport.
Park played for the last couple of seasons in Switzerland and is unsure where he will go next. A sly smile creeps across Paek’s face and it is clear he has already broached the subject of Park playing for Korea before he hangs up his skates.
Though since Park has previously represented the United States neither of them are sure if that would even be possible under the ruling body’s current criteria.
The lure of playing at the Olympics is strong, says Park, even for players who are making millions in the NHL.
“The Olympics is the pinnacle of international competition and it has a huge impact on athletes, whether you are amateur or professional,” he said.
“To be representing your country at the highest level is a once in a lifetime opportunity that doesn’t present itself to everybody.”
Park will be leaving Seoul on Thursday but Paek will be splitting time between North American and Korea until the end of the year. He admits he will have to improve his language skills if he is to get his coaching philosophy across.
“I’ve tried to learn Korean over the years, I really have. I try to watch as many Korean TV dramas as I can,” he said, breaking into a laugh.
“You laugh, you cry, it’s fun, and then I get hooked and have to sit through all those marathons.”
Whether there will be a storybook ending to Paek’s Korean project it is hard to tell.
In reality, he admits, it would be a stretch for a country like South Korea with no real ice hockey resources or traditions to compete against the sport’s elite at the Olympics.
”But hockey is a funny world, you never know what can happen,“ he says. ”If the stars are aligned, maybe, but in reality we’d need a miracle.
”But why not shoot for the stars?“ he asks. ”What can you lose?
Editing by Ed Osmond