Anyang Halla players take a one-on-one drill at Anyang Ice Rink in Anyang, Gyeonggi Province. / Korea Times Photo by Shim Hyun-chul
By Kim Jae-won
Anyang Ice Rink, 7 p.m., Feb. 18.
A group of hockey players gathers to train. One team wears blue and the other white. They look tough and strong.
The training begins. Every player skates smoothly on the ice. They turn and move their sticks to hit the puck. It's like dance ― speedy and powerful ballet.
The players look confident. The Anyang Halla, the 2008/2009 Asian League (AL) winners, are preparing for the playoffs.
``We're full of courage. We will add another winning trophy," the second-year defender Lee Seung-yup said.
Halla is the first non-Japanese team to finish in top spot in the AL standings, with clubs from the Land of the Rising Sun sweeping all five titles since the league began in 2003.
The AL is a professional ice hockey league based in East Asia, comprising teams from South Korea, Japan and China. During the 2008/2009 season, seven teams played 36 games, with the top five advancing to the playoffs.
``Head coach Shim Eui-sik often makes jokes with us. He even enjoys playing with younger members. Sometimes he tries to comfort us when we get hurt. I like him," Lee said.
``Foreign players are very talented. I learn many skills from them. They encourage us to play at a high level."
There are four foreign players at Halla: two Canadians, one American, and the other from the Czech Republic.
``Speed attracted me into playing hockey. It makes me dip into winter sports. If you play the game once, you cannot escape from it," Lee Yoo-won, who plays left wing, said.
``My friends enjoy football and baseball. They dropped by the ice rink to see me, and now they enjoy hockey most."
One man is watching over the players carefully as they practice. He is training manager Kim Sung-nam.
``I treat the players. You know, hockey is a tough and wild sport because there are many blocks and body checking," he said.
``Many players get injured in the knee and waist during the season. Forward Kim Han-sung was injured in a game against the Nippon Paper Cranes last season."
After the training session, two Caucasian women were waiting. They introduced themselves as American import John Awe's wife and mom. Awe's wife lives here and his mom was visiting. She said she was returning to the United States Feb. 19.
``I teach English in the local kindergartens," his wife said. ``I like to teach here."
Both of them believe it was a good move for Awe to extend his contract for two more years.
Hockey is still a minor, unpopular sport in Korea. Some people think it is ``noble sport," which costs a lot of money.
There are only four university teams in the country ― Yonsei, Korea, Hanyang, and Kyunghee universities. Kwangwoon University had one, but it was shut down.
The Halla helps to develop the quality of Korean hockey as well as spreading word about the winter sport. The club is planning to broadcast matches, with the Halla Group already supporting the team to the tune of about 3 billion won ― more than the amount required to run a women's basketball team.
``We offer the best to the players. We are even better than the national team in the equipment. We upgraded this ice rink," equipment manager Cheon Jin-young said.
``We fully support fully the players. We can get back as much as we invest. We provide everything they need," Kim Hyung-il, the Halla interpreter and spokesman, explained.
Foreign players start a new life here. They want their Korean dream to come true. Many young Korean players have also dedicated their lives to the ``coolest" sport. If they continue to produce nice displays, sooner or later, many Koreans will visit the ice rink to enjoy hockey.