Newly appointed national men's ice hockey team coach Jim Paek, center, instructs players during an U-18 national team try-out at Mokdong Ice Rink in southern Seoul, Monday. / Yonhap
Ex-Penguin to coach national team to qualify for 2018 PyeongChang Game
By Nam Hyun-woo
Jim Paek, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, has come back to Korea. He has been given a not-so-easy task to coach his birth country's sluggish national ice hockey team well enough for it to qualify for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.
Now, he is highly determined to meet that challenge.
"I feel very honored to come back to the homeland to do what I absolutely love. I will work very hard for the Korean hockey program," Paek said during a news conference in downtown Seoul, Monday.
Paek will serve as the coach for the national ice hockey team as well as its program director. Richard Park, the second Korean native to play in the National Hockey League (NHL); and Spiros Anastas, head coach of the men's hockey team at the University of Lethbridge in Canada, will join Paek as temporary assistant coaches.
Their long-term goal is to improve Korean ice hockey, but their more urgent mission is to earn Korea's national team automatic qualification for the PyeongChang Games, Korea's first-ever Winter Games on its home soil.
In Olympic hockey competitions, the host countries' team is not guaranteed an automatic berth. The top nine countries in International Ice Hockey Federation's (IIHF) world ranking will book spots, while the rest have to compete in preliminary rounds to earn one of the remaining three spots.
Korea is currently ranked 23rd. Though it moved up 10 spots over the past four years, its chances of competing on the Olympic stage are slim. IIHF President Rene Fasel has said that he will do what he can to give Korea a spot if the country can climb up to 18th or higher by 2016. The IIHF Congress is also carrying out a plan to develop Korean hockey.
However, Korea's dismal campaign at the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division 1 Group A in April only hurt its chances. Byeon Sun-wook, who coached the Koreans for the past three years, resigned in the wake of that subpar showing.
Despite the challenges ahead, Paek was optimistic about Korea's chance to play in the Winter Olympics.
"I'm promising that we will participate with hard work, which the Korean Ice Hockey Association (KIHA) vows to do. With the relationships that we are making with the IIHF, this will allow us close the gap and participate in the Winter Olympics."
But the national team has hit an unexpected hurdle, as three national players on active military duty, including figure skating star Kim Yu-na's boyfriend, Kim Won Joong, have been barred permanently from playing in international matches. The three went absent without official leave from the military and got involved in a car crash on their way back to base after visiting a massage parlor.
Paek, however, found something positive on which to focus.
"I think it's great that we were disappointed because that means our expectations are high. That's where you need to be. So if we lose, and if there's disappointment, that means we are going in the right direction," he said.
He also said that he will consider not only hockey skills but also off-ice character when he picks players for the national team.
"Korean players have good individual skills. They can skate, shoot and pass. What I'm going to look for is their character. I'll take good character over skills. I want to see their passion and I need to see they will compete. These will be my main objectives. The players will represent not only themselves and their families, but South Korea itself," he said.
In that regard, the coaching philosophy he hopes to instill in his team is to compete.
"Compete. Win the one-on-one battles. If you don't have the puck, get the puck back. You have to compete and never give up," he said.
"What we need to do is to develop young players for the future of Korean hockey, giving coaches coaching education. If that happens all the way down, it will allow us to develop our system, which will allow our younger players to grow," he said.
According to a KIHA official, Paek will attend the IIHF Semi-Annual Congress to address future plans for developing Korean ice hockey and qualifying for the PyeongChang Games.
Paek spent the past nine seasons as an assistant coach for the Grand Rapids Griffins, the American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate of the NHL's Detroit Red Wings, which won the 2012-13 AHL championship.