International Ice Hockey Federation

Korean Hockey Magic

Korean Hockey Magic

Promotion to top Worlds division in 2017

Published 09.02.2018 17:12 GMT+10 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Korean Hockey Magic
Back in April, Olympic host Korea surprised the world by earning promotion to the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey Championship in Denmark. Photo: Andri Basevych
When the IIHF World Ranking system debuted in 2003, Korea sat 32nd overall. Nobody could have foreseen Korea would make it to the top Worlds division for 2018.

Leading up to the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, we’re looking back at some of the biggest developments in this sport in an ongoing series called “Korean Hockey Magic.”

The catalyst for the Korean men’s national team’s remarkable ascent was, of course, landing the right to host in 2018. That landmark moment at the IOC Congress in Durban on 6 July 2011 suddenly made hockey into a big national priority. No host country wants to turn in a sub-par performance.

For instance, the last time the Winter Olympics came to Asia in 1998, host nation Japan delighted fans in Nagano with a 2-2 tie with Belarus and a 4-3 win over Austria. Granted, the Japanese were far from contending for gold. They finished 13th out of 14 teams. But Japan has a longer, stronger IIHF tradition than Korea. So the men from the Land of the Morning Calm needed to work fast to build up their hockey credibility.

In an interview with the New York Times, Anyang Halla defenceman Don Ku Lee bluntly summed up his feeling about the gap in talent and experience between the 2018 host nation and their Olympic rivals: “The other teams will be fighting with tanks and the Koreans will be using wooden sticks.”

Even though the Korean federation hired former two-time Stanley Cup champion Jim Paek in 2014 as their GM and head coach and added fellow ex-NHLer Richard Park as an assistant coach, they couldn’t go out there and score the goals.

And despite the well-publicized recruitment of active Canadian players like 2009 NCAA champion (Bemidji State) goalie Matt Dalton, ex-Edmonton Oilers defenceman Alex Plante, and former Mississauga IceDogs captain Michael Swift, there was no guarantee the imports would gel well enough with their native Korean teammates to get promoted out of Division I.

However, anyone who attended the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A got to witness a minor miracle.

The six-team, round-robin tournament in Kyiv, Ukraine in April featured five squads besides Korea, including Austria, Kazakhstan, Poland, Hungary, and Ukraine. Only the top two finishers would go to the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Denmark. Korea wasn’t favoured. Austria had played in the elite division every second year from 2005 to 2015, while the Kazakhs had done the same from 2010 to 2016. It seemed probable that these two “elevator teams” would be going up again. Or Hungary, which had just come down from the top division. Or Poland, which had to settle for bronze the years before.

However, the Koreans got off to a good start with a 4-2 win over Poland as Dalton recorded 36 saves. Dumping Kazakhstan 5-2 on the strength of two Plante goals showed they were for real. Korea next earned a 3-1 victory over Hungary, but then took a big step back in a 5-0 loss to Austria. It would all come down to a showdown with host Ukraine on the final day.

The nail-biting game was tied 1-1 after regulation, and even though the Koreans outshot Ukraine 8-0 in 3-on-3 overtime, they couldn’t break through. However, Swift and Sanghoon Shin scored in the shootout to secure an ecstatic victory. Finishing second behind Austria, Korea made history by becoming the first Asian nation in modern hockey to make the elite division without the old Far East Qualification tournament that saw Japan promoted annually from 1998 to 2004.

“It’s very important for us [to be promoted],” said Paek. “We get to play against top-division teams and get this experience. For many years we haven’t been able to play against such countries so it’s important to get this experience.”

Even though Korea’s imports stepped up in Kyiv, it’s also worth noting that the team’s three top scorers were homegrown talents: Jin Hui Ahn (5 points), Kisung Kim (4 points), and Sangwook Kim (4 points). This nation of 51 million has just 171 registered male senior players and 30 indoor rinks. Yet both in PyeongChang in February and Denmark in May, it’ll be unwise to underestimate the hard-working Korean national team.

End of the series. Here you can find the previous stories:

 

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