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OLYMPICS? FIRST, SMALL GOALS

Jim Paek, a two-time Stanley Cup winner with Pittsburgh, coaches the South Korean men’s national team and directs the nation’s hockey program. Credit Adam Bird for The New York Times

August 14, 2014

by Jeff Z. Klein – nytimes.com
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In the 1990s, Jim Paek harbored an unusual wish for a hockey player who had grown up in suburban Toronto; played in Oshawa, Ontario, and Muskegon, Mich.; and won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“It was always a dream of mine to be part of the Korean national team,” he said.

Last month, Paek, 47, was named the coach of the South Korea men’s national team and the director of the country’s hockey program. The job comes with enormous responsibility and no great chance of success. South Korea will host the 2018 Winter Olympics, but its men’s team is ranked 23rd among the 49 hockey-playing countries and may face a daunting road to qualify for the 12-team Olympic tournament.

“I believe in the process,” Paek said by phone from his home in Grand Rapids, Mich. “It’d be great to say, ‘Yeah, we’d like to move up into the top 16 in the world first, and hopefully make the Olympics.’ But if it’s not the Olympics, so be it. What’s important is that we’re competitive and improve every day.”

Paek is starting almost from scratch. There are only 2,100 registered hockey players in South Korea, including just 120 adult males. (The United States has 138,000 adult male players.)

Although South Korea has had impressive success at recent Winter Games — 26 gold medals since 1992, 21 in short-track speedskating — it has never qualified for Olympic hockey.

“The 2018 Olympics is only one part of my job,” Paek said. “A big part is to build hockey in Korea from the grass roots up, to look 10, 20 years down the road, where we can develop and grow as a hockey nation. About 1,400 of our players are kids — how do we develop those kids?”

If Paek is to lead Korean hockey on a long, winding journey, he is well prepared for it.

Born in Seoul, he immigrated with his family to Canada when he was 1. He came up through the competitive hockey ranks in suburban Toronto, thrived in the Ontario Hockey League with the Oshawa Generals and was drafted as a defenseman by the Penguins.

“Growing up, I never had any fellow Korean, Japanese, Chinese players,” Paek said. “There were different cultures, but Asians? I can’t even think of one growing up.”

Paek said he did not face a lot of “racial stuff” at the rink, although there was some.

“I tried to beat everybody up, but that just wasn’t working out,” he said. “As you grow up, you mature. You realize that the more you think about it, the more it’ll bother you. So I came to look at it as, ‘It hurts more when you degrade my playing, not who I am.’ ”

In October 1990, Paek, believed to be the first Korean player to appear in the N.H.L., made his league debut, and he won the Cup with the Penguins in 1991 and ’92. He played in the N.H.L. through 1994-95 and retired as a player in 2003.

Afterward he became a coach and was an assistant with the Detroit Red Wings’ affiliate in Grand Rapids for nine years until taking the South Korea job last month.

Despite Paek’s successful career, he joked that he was the black sheep of his family. One sister is a gynecologist, the other is a lawyer for a hospital, and his brother works for a pharmaceutical company.

“My dad was a doctor in Korea,” he said. “At that time Korea was still under martial law; it was a tough place to live, I guess. We immigrated to Canada because he had an opportunity to work at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and to give his family a better life.”

But Paek’s father could not work as a doctor in Canada without going back to school to be relicensed.

“He couldn’t afford to do that, so he worked as a biochemist doing research,” Paek said. “As the years went on, he started his own hospital supplies company.”

That work often took Paek’s father to Korea and kept active the family connection between the two countries. Paek and other Canadian players of Korean descent visited South Korea to conduct hockey clinics in 1982 and 1987, and they hosted Korean high school teams that traveled to Toronto to learn the game.

Paek continued to go back and forth teaching hockey until his professional career ended in 2002. Even though he does not speak Korean, his credentials were well established and made him a natural choice to run South Korea’s hockey program.

On Friday, Paek will visit South Korea for the first time since getting the job and will start figuring out how he will proceed over the next three and a half years. One of the biggest decisions for Paek, now a dual citizen of Canada and the United States, is whether he, his wife and their two young children will move to Seoul full time.

But the hockey nuts and bolts of the job are hard enough.

“There are so many things to think about and develop,” Paek said.

Chief among them is the difficult task the South Korean men face to qualify for the Pyeongchang Olympics. Under current International Ice Hockey Federation rules, there is no automatic qualification for the Olympic hosts. For the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, the top nine teams in the world rankings earned automatic berths, while the remaining three berths went to lower-ranked teams that survived a series of qualifying tournaments.

The host nation has had a men’s hockey team at every Winter Olympics, and the I.I.H.F., which has not announced the qualification procedure for 2018, may choose to continue the tradition by granting South Korea a berth.

But even if that happens, the Koreans will want to avoid an embarrassing drubbing on international hockey’s biggest stage. At the I.I.H.F.’s second-tier tournament in April, South Korea went 0-5, was outscored by 34-14 and was relegated to world hockey’s third tier for 2015.

South Korea has three clubs in the Asian League Ice Hockey, the only significant professional league in the region. Those clubs provide most of the national team’s roster.

Paek said his immediate goal was to get South Korea back up to the second tier. He is counting on the country’s dozen or so high school teams and five university teams to supply players for the short term.  He is also hoping that Richard Park, believed to be the N.H.L.’s second Korean player, might join his coaching staff.

Park, 38, said he was deciding whether to continue his playing career in Europe or North America, take an off-ice position with an N.H.L. organization, or join the South Korea staff. He will accompany Paek to Seoul this week.

“Jim was a huge role model for me growing up,” said Park, who was 13 or 14 when he first met Paek and later played alongside him for a season in the old International Hockey League. “We always will share that bond, the fact that we came up in a sport that’s not very prominent in our culture, and we both kind of made it, right? I would like to think that we’ve been a source of inspiration to the Korean people.”

However inspiring Paek may be, he must still get results.

“It would be nice to set up something like the junior system in Canada and the United States in Korea, but we’ll have to see if we have the resources,” he said. “In the meantime, maybe short track is a great option. You see these young kids, their skating ability, the aggressiveness they have. Transfer that to hockey — why not?”

Could that lead to a Korean Miracle on Ice in 2018? Paek laughed.

“It was a great story for the Americans, but then reality sets in,” Paek said. “Still, if we get better every day, you never know what’ll happen.”



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