Ice Hockey is underway at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games with the women’s preliminary round already in swing and the men’s prelims starting tomorrow (Feb. 14th) with Group B action.
The Republic of Korea will have a team in the tournament for the first time in the nation’s history, and will open against the Czech Republic on Thursday. What’s the deal with the Korean Men’s Hockey Team? Who are the players to watch? Will they be able to compete with hockey’s super powers?
WHO IS TEAM KOREA?
Chris Wakabayashi is the head coach of the Tohoku Free Blades, a professional men’s ice hockey team in the Asia League. He has first hand knowledge of the top players on the Korean team.
With eight teams in the Asia League, spread throughout Japan, Russia and South Korea, Wakabayashi’s Free Blades are based in Hachinohe in the northern region of Japan. The Free Blades have won three league titles in the last six season’s and regularly lock horns with some members of the Korean team.
“I think all the naturalised players will bring experience and confidence needed to play well at the Olympics. They created competition for the Korean players and the recent development of the Korean players made the difference getting the promotion to the top division.”
7 NORTH AMERICAN PLAYERS
The Korean roster has seven North American players (6 Canadians and 1 American) who have been naturalised onto their team and qualify to compete as Korean Nationals. Not only will they help Korea compete starting on Thursday, the fact that they have been playing with the Korean players for the last seven years has raised the level of play as a whole.
The Free Blades will face rival Anyang Halla in the first round of the Asia League playoffs when the league resumes after a shutdown for the Olympics.
“Halla is the team to beat with 80% of the Korean National team, plus they have 2 imports on top of that. They are a deep, skilled team with the best goalie in the league in Matt Dalton. We were fortunate in the regular season going 3-1, but their motivation was preparation for the Olympics, not the Asian League so it will be a different battle come playoff time since the Olympics are finished.”
ASIA LEAGUE SHUTDOWN
The Olympics has had a very strong impact on the Asia League season causing a major layoff for most teams in the league. To stay sharp, Wakabayashi says the Japanese teams like the Free Blades are trying something new;
“The regular season was finished at the end of December and to have 2 months of no league play it is very difficult to keep the players motivation for 2 months. We are playing in a 18 game domestic Japan Cup series to stay sharp, but 1 Japanese team did not make the playoffs so their season is finished after the Japan Cup. It is the first time with the Japan Cup so players do not know what they are playing for.”
In the Asia League playoffs;
FREE BLADES vs. ANYANG HALLA
Wakabayashi explains the playoff format;
“The 4th place team (Nikko) and the 5th place team (Oji) will play a best out of 3 starting March 3rd. The winner plays Sakhalin the 1st place team in the semi finals best out of 5 and we play the 2nd place team Halla in the other semi starting March 10th.”
Having six Canadian players and one American on the Korean roster will help, but I am wondering if any of the Korean nationals will make an impact on the team.
“The top Korean born player to watch is a talented centre named Kim Sang Wook, he usually plays with his older brother Kim Ki Sung. Also, little Shin Sang Hoon, a right-handed winger has great speed and scoring ability.”
Wakabayashi makes no mistake about who the key player on the Korean team is;
“Matt Dalton is the key to their success.”
STANLEY CUP LEADERSHIP
The Korean team has been put together with excellent leadership and NHL pedigree. Former National Hockey League player and Stanley Cup winner Jim Paek is the head coach and former NHL player Richard Park is the assistant coach. Wakabayashi credits them for taking the Korean program to the next level;
“Jim Paek and Richard Park have done a tremendous job creating a professional culture. You see the difference in training and commitment from 4 years ago when we swept Halla 3 games straight on their home ice for the championship.They play the game how you are supposed to play the game now and that is with integrity and hard work. They didn’t play like that before. Excited to see their success in the olympics and how their speed and skill will surprise a lot of people around the world.”
Korea will face Team Canada in Group A preliminary action on Sunday, February 18th.
*All Quotes were obtained first hand