August 2, 2014
by Kevin McGran – thestar.com
When Jim Paek’s family left South Korea for Toronto in 1968, it was to pursue a better life.
While Canada provided that, it also stoked Paek’s passion for hockey. So now the tables are turning.
Paek, a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Pittsburgh Penguins, is returning to the land of his birth and trying to do something remarkable: build an Olympic hockey power against insurmountable odds.
“Hockey’s a funny sport,” said Paek. “Look at the 1980 U.S. team (when collegians won Olympic gold). Not saying we’ll do that, but you never want to set your goals low. You might as well shoot for the stars if you can.
“Our goal is to get better every day, and hopefully getting better every day will allow us to get competitive against the other countries in the world.”
Born in Seoul, the 47-year-old Paek came to Canada when he was just a year old. Growing up in Etobicoke, the family spoke mainly English. His Korean is limited, so the language on the bench will be “Konglish” — English with the help of a Korean interpreter, he explained.
“Hopefully as the years go on, I will pick up as much Korean as possible,” said Paek. “I know simple terms, like ‘come here’ and ‘sit down.’ ”
The former defenceman played 217 NHL games — with Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and Ottawa — and spent a great deal of time in the minors as well as overseas. He was the first Korean native to play in the NHL and to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup (1991-92).
For the last nine years, he has been an assistant coach with the Grand Rapids Griffins in the Red Wings organization, while helping to raise a young family. His wife Kortney, 9-year-old son Kyler and 11-year-old daughter Megan will stay in Grand Rapids at least for this season, he said, while he jets back and forth.
“It was tough decision to make, leaving Grand Rapids and the Detroit Red Wings,” he said. “It’s been a stable force in my life. But the opportunity — the light at the end of the tunnel — to prepare for the Olympics and put your stamp on Korean hockey development, that’s pretty exciting.”
In reality, there is no guarantee that Korea will even have an entry in the 2018 Winter Games tournament. Typically the host country gets an automatic berth, but the International Ice Hockey Federation is worried that Korea might not have a competitive team and is withholding its decision.
The Koreans made the Paek announcement on July 23, after Korea was relegated to Division I, Group B. They went 0-5 at the world championship, which they also hosted in Goyang in April. Korea is ranked 23rd in men’s hockey, between Britain and Poland, so Paek has his work cut out.
There are about 2,000 registered players, 1,400 of them kids, he said, and a handful of professional teams that play in the Asian league — giving Paek a pool of about 75 pro players to choose from. There are five university teams as well, feeding Korea’s under-20 squad.
“As you go up in Korean hockey, it kind of tapers,” said Paek. “They don’t have anywhere to go.”
Short-track speed skating is Korea’s true winter sports passion. It was suggested he might want to give sticks to some of those skaters.
“I might just do that,” said Paek. “They’re aggressive skaters. If I could get a few of those to take up hockey, that might be a thing.”
Of course, he’ll also scour North American rinks for Canadian players who are eligible for Korean passports. Brock Radunske, a blond-haired, blue-eyed Kitchener native drafted in the third round by the Edmonton Oilers in 2002, has lived in Korea for six years and suited up for that country in the recent Division I worlds.
“So we have a blond-haired, blue-eyed kid playing for the Korean national team,” said Paek, chuckling. “So we’ll be allowed to find a few of them.
“But it’s the Korean national team. I would like to develop and use as many Koreans as possible on that team.”