GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Not long after South Korea was chosen to host these Winter Olympics, as officials spoke openly about setting new medal records and showing off the country’s growing winter sports prowess to the world, a humbling reality set in:
South Korea was going to have to field a men’s ice hockey team.
At that point, the country’s all-time Winter Olympic hockey record was 0-0. Its national team was ranked neck-and-neck with North Korea. The country had a nonexistent hockey tradition, a thin pool of talent and just a few years to draw up a plan that would save itself from embarrassment.
Player by player, the results of that plan stepped Sunday night onto the ice, where the team’s latest practice kicked off with a goalie skating out from the locker room, wristing a puck at an angle and saying, in English, “These boards are bouncy.” Soon the whole team was on the ice, circling and taking slap shots, and somebody yelled, “Whooo, nice one.” Finally the coach settled at center ice, calling everybody toward the red line to take a knee. Every word of his was in English. “Bring it in, bring it in,” he said.
In a bid to upgrade its hockey program in fast-forward, one of the world’s most homogenous countries has created one of the most foreign-heavy Olympic teams of all time. Among 25 players on the South Korean men’s hockey team in PyeongChang, seven were born in other countries, including six in Canada. South Korea has 19 foreign-born athletes competing for it in these Olympics, most of any country, with hockey accounting for the largest share.
The men, so far, have gotten far less attention than their South Korean female hockey counterparts. The men, unlike the women, have no eye-catching diplomatic narrative. They don’t share a roster with any North Koreans. They won’t draw synchronized cheerleaders to their games. Instead, they prepare in near-empty arenas — and draw only three or four media members to their practices.
The imported men’s players are less mercenaries than converts, granted naturalized Korean citizenship even though they have no Korean blood. To get that opportunity, they had to play at least two seasons for Korean clubs in a pan-Asian hockey league. And then meet with national hockey officials. And then national Olympic officials. And then the country’s Ministry of Justice.
Oh, and then they had to take a test and sing the national anthem.
“Then, you find out if you pass or not,” said Eric Regan, a defenseman from Ontario, who naturalized in 2016. “I was with Matt Dalton, the goalie, at the time. We went through the process together and we both passed along with, I think, two other biathletes that day — both Russians. A month later we’re playing in the world championships for Team Korea. It was wild.”
The plan to boost South Korea’s competence began in 2014, with the hiring of a coach. The coach was Jim Paek, the first Korean-born player to make the National Hockey League. He had won a Stanley Cup championship in the early 1990s with the Pittsburgh Penguins, skating alongside Mario Lemieux. Several months after his hiring, the International Ice Hockey Federation announced that South Korea — having shown enough commitment to its program — would get an automatic bid, becoming one of 12 teams in the Olympic tournament. Traditionally, host countries receive automatic bids.
To hear Paek tell it, the national team recruited foreigners not from all over the world but rather from its own doorstep, targeting foreigners already playing in South Korea. For years, a handful of borderline NHL prospects had landed in the Asia League, a 15-year-old hockey league that spans four countries and has had 15 teams — seven of which have dissolved. Teams in Korea attract players by offering modest perks: a car, a tax-free salary, an apartment with heated floors. “I literally live in a building called Samsung,” said Mike Testwuide, a U.S.-born player on the Korean team.
It was these players that Paek began to recruit.
A few were already naturalized citizens. Others, Paek pitched on the idea.
He told them the Olympics were coming up, and that they could help.
“I didn’t hesitate, really,” Testwuide said. “It’s about showing that Korea has a serious hockey program.”
Paek said scouting players for his national team was relatively easy. The talent pool was so thin that it didn’t take much time.
“I don’t know if that’s lucky or not,” he said.
At least two of Korea’s current players, Bryan William Young and Alex Plante, have logged a couple of shifts in the NHL. The goalie, Dalton, dressed for a few games as a Boston Bruins backup. The player who has spent the most time in Korea, Brock Radunske, has played more than 350 games in the Asia League — and stands at 6-foot-5, nicknamed the Canadian Big Beauty.
The team begins play Thursday and is matched in a group with Canada, Switzerland and the Czech Republic — countries with a combined 27 medals in men’s hockey. South Korea’s Yonhap news agency wrote recently that a “winless performance isn’t entirely out of the question.” But Paek disagreed.
“We work really hard, and our expectation is, we’re prepared to win a game,” he said. “To win every game we play.”