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10/08/2005 12:01 AM - Jim Paek can hardly contain his excitement as he begins work as the Griffins’ new assistant coach

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Jim Paek is feeling like a kid in the candy store, which is altogether appropriate since Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is his favorite movie.

As the new assistant coach for the Griffins, Paek can’t believe his good fortune. “I’ve had a grin from ear to ear ever since I got the job,” he admits.

“I’m really excited about the opportunity to contribute as a coach in an organization that is not only committed to winning but to developing good players.”

Paek comes to Grand Rapids following what he calls “a storybook career.”

In fact, he is returning to West Michigan, where his 16-year professional career began as a member of the Muskegon Lumberjacks for three full seasons from 1987-90.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Paek became the first player from his country to play in the NHL when he opened the 1990-91 season in Pittsburgh.

Paek won consecutive Stanley Cup championships with the Penguins in 1991 and 1992. Traded to Los Angeles in early 1994, he had the distinction of counting both Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky as teammates.

In addition, Paek also had the privilege of learning from some of hockey’s most accomplished coaches, including the legendary Scotty Bowman and “Badger” Bob Johnson.

Paek played five seasons in the NHL, appearing in 217 games with Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and Ottawa. In addition to his two Stanley Cup titles, Paek won two IHL Turner Cup championships with Muskegon (1989) and Houston (1999).

He is, unquestionably, a winner.

“Jim has won at every level,” says Griffins head coach Greg Ireland, who notes that Paek also won an OHL championship in junior hockey. “When you develop a winning edge, it tends to rub off on other people.”

Paek finished his playing career in England, then coached the Orlando Seals in the WHA2 for a year before returning home to Cleveland.

Last season, he served as an assistant coach for the St. Edwards High School team that won the Ohio state championship, and was co-coach of the Cleveland Panthers bantam minor squad that captured the Eastern Elite Amatuer Hockey League title.

Contemplating this return to the professional ranks, Paek admits he is a little anxious but confident that he is ready for the role, even though he jokes “I don’t have a clue.”

His sense of humor intact, Paek has always been good at improvising. “When you look at his career,” Ireland says, “he was always adjusting his role, going from an offensive defenseman who could jump into the play to a stay-at-home defenseman guarding the net.”

It’s the ability to change, to think on your feet, that will serve Paek well as he learns his way behind the bench.

“I’ll never forget (coach) Butch Goring when I played for him in Anchorage,” Paek says. “I was amazed at how he could change tactics in midstream. It’s the sign of a great coach when you can switch gears based on the way a game develops.”

Paek admits that he still feels the twinge to play from time to time, but he harbors no pangs of guilt that he left too soon. When he retired after the 2002-03 season, he was calling its quits for good.

“In my heart, I still wanted to play, but I guess it was time,” he says. “Your body wears out. You get tired. You wake up sore every morning. I still wake up sore.

“Sure, you wonder sometimes if your decision was premature. I still look out on the ice and think about wanting to play. I suppose you never lose that. But I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to stay in the game and coach.”

He is ready to throw himself into his new position. In Traverse City at the Red Wings training camp, he was feeling like he was still adjusting to his new role. “I’m like a sponge – I absorb everything,” he says.

Coaching young players who hope to someday play in the NHL is an experience will require patience – ”You have to stress things over and over,” he says – but Paek looks forward to the challenge.

“It’s going to be great fun,” he says. “I’ve played with some great defensemen over the years and hopefully I’ll be able to teach our guys a few things that I’ve picked up.”

He’s already found a home in the Grand Rapids area for his wife, Kortney, and their two children: daughter Megan, 2-1/2 years old, and son Kyler, eight months.

“I’m so happy to be here,” Paek says. “The Griffins are one of the premier organizations in the AHL: great ownership, a great facility and always great teams.”

Becoming a member of the coaching fraternity doesn’t compare to the leap Paek made when he became a dad. “Fatherhood is so great,” he says. “You could try to explain it to somebody without children, but they wouldn’t understand. Just that feeling of picking up your kids for the first time. You can’t explain that feeling.”

If he can experience even an ounce of that unadultered joy as a member of the Griffins organization, Paek will be ecstatic. Sort of like that kid in the candy store.

And so what does Paek think about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with Johnny Depp in the Gene Wilder role?

He hasn’t seen it.

“I haven’t seen the new one yet because I like the old one so much,” he confesses. “Plus, I haven’t had the chance to see many movies since my children were born.

“I haven’t taken my wife on a date for 2-1/2 years. Poor woman!”

Family is important to Paek, who moved to Canada in the late 1960s.

His father, Pong, was a successful doctor in South Korea, a country that was still experiencing political unrest. He realized that his family might find greater happiness in a place that wasn’t threatened by the prospect of martial law.

Paek followed his brother Phil, who is two years older, into the world of organized hockey. Although his brother never progressed beyond the Junior B level, he instilled a love of the game that the whole family embraced.

“I was very fortunate to have real supportive parents,” Paek says. “Being raised in a Korean family, education was important, so naturally there were some hesitations about me going into an athletic profession like hockey.”

As it turned out, his father – a biochemist in Canada before he began exporting medical supplies and diagnostics to Korea – had no reason to worry, even if he didn’t know he was raising a winner.

“Any time you win a championship – no matter what level – it’s just an incredible feeling,” he says. “Once you get the taste of winning, you want it again and again.”

It’s that kind of attitude that Paek hopes to bring to Grand Rapids.

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