South Korea is hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics, which means that their national men’s ice hockey team will take part in the tournament. It also means that with Canada, the Czech Republic and Switzerland in their group, they’re probably going to give up 100 goals – 90 of them to Canada.
The unfortunate fact is that South Korea is in its infancy as a hockey nation. As of 2014, there were only 2,100 registered hockey players in South Korea, including just 120 adult males, according to the New York Times. They have three franchises in the Asia Hockey League.
So what do you do if you’re a national hockey team in need of quality players?
You import them from Canada, of course.
National team goalie Matt Dalton, for example, was born in Clinton, Ont.. His rather interesting hockey career saw him bounce from the NCAA to the Boston Bruins system to the KHL and then to the Asia League, where he’s been the top goalie two years running with Anyang Halla.
According to the Korea Herald, Dalton was “fast-tracked” to South Korean citizenship last month as one of a handful of North American natives who will play for the South Korean national team.
That list includes defenseman Eric Regan from Ajax, Ont., who played in the AHL for three seasons before eventually settling in the Asia League beginning in 2014; Canadian forwards Brock Radunske and Michael Swift; Canadian defenseman Bryan Young; and Mike Testwuide, an American forward who was born in Vail, Colorado.
These aren’t players of Korean descent. Radunske explained to the Toronto Star in 2013 how his citizenship process went:
Radunske, whose citizenship test required that he sing the South Korean national anthem, read and write in Korean, and recount the country’s national holidays, will slip on a South Korea national team jersey for the first time during this year’s world championship.
“I’m so excited to be able to represent a country,” he said. “They were pretty definite about wanting to know about what I really liked about Korea, what was my contribution to society outside of hockey. They didn’t just say, ‘he fits the bill to play on the hockey team.’”
Dalton told Yonhap news agency that the national team’s expectations have to be realistic – “We have to be realistic and understand we can still be successful and not necessarily get a medal,” he said – and that the real task at hand is growing the sport in South Korea:
"It starts with young kids. They are the future of Korean hockey," he said. "Once they get interested, they tell their friends to play. That's how it starts and it grows. That would be a positive thing and more realistic than saying, 'We're going to win a medal.'"
If South Korea can't realistically win a medal in hockey, then what should the fans expect from their national team?
"You could expect that we're going to do our best and we're not going to quit or give up," Dalton said. "We're going to represent Korea well. We're going to show a lot of pride in Korea. We're going to be proud to represent Korea at the Olympics. We're not going to quit even if it's hard. We're going to work as hard as we can and see what happens."
Former NHL player Jim Paek is coaching the national team, increasing the North American flavor.
As the Toronto Star and writer Rick Westhead noted three years ago, this trend has important implications for Korean culture:
Ito Peng, a University of Toronto sociology professor and Taiwan native who specializes in South Korea, said Radunske’s acceptance comes as South Korea slowly opens to foreigners. Last year, Jasmine Lee, who was born in the Philippines, became the first naturalized citizen, and the first non-ethnic Korean, to win a seat in South Korea’s Parliament. South Korea also recently began to accept multi-ethnic citizens into its military.
The changes are no small matter in a country where only a generation ago, school texts urged students to be prideful about being homogeneous and of “single pure hyeoltong (bloodline).”
So while the influx of Canadian players may not turn South Korea into a competitive team in its Olympics, they could signal a willingness to bring more North Americans into their hockey culture; and that, in the long run, will expedite its maturation.
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