Heartbreak and hockey: Brock Radunske chasing dream in South Korea while keeping a bond at home

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Brock Radunske is representing South Korea in the Olympics. (Yahoo Sports)
Brock Radunske is representing South Korea in the Olympics. (Yahoo Sports)

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – It’s a question he’s not really expecting.

Brock Radunske, hockey player for Team Korea, native of New Hamburg, Ontario, resident of Plymouth, Michigan, sits in the practice rink here as he waits for the second game of his Olympics. He’s talking about his two little kids, Lucy and Bronson.

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He’s asked if he sees any traits of his mother in his children.

“Oh,” he starts. Then the rims of his eyes start to moisten. He looks away from the rink.

He goes quiet.

Radunske’s nickname in this country is “Canadian Big Beauty” for his 6-foot-5 frame, his blondish hair, his light eyes and his sheepish smile. He has the poise and demeanor of the true hockey player: polite and soft-spoken and earnest. He is the first member of the South Korean national team without Korean ancestry, and the tallest ever to play for his pro team. They love him here.

And he loves them back, even though part of his heart is somewhere else.

Brock had a classic Canadian upbringing, playing hockey inside and outside with his siblings and anyone from the neighborhood who wanted to show up. His dad, Bob, was a coach. His mom, Connie, was a competitive runner. They all were in constant motion. “Brocko” was good enough to get a scholarship to Michigan State, and he took his NHL dreams across the border to the U.S. in 2001. The Spartans’ legendary coach at the time, Ron Mason, loved Brock’s size and toughness. He believed the NHL may await.

Then, about halfway through his freshman year, one of his coaches knocked on the door of his dorm room. “Your mom’s been in a serious accident.”

Connie had been struck by a car as she ran along her favorite route near their home. There was catastrophic damage to her head, her face, her entire body. “Her heart had stopped,” Brock says. “For a while. She had to be revived.” A priest told Brock’s brother to go into the hospital room and see her while he could.

Brock’s mom had severe brain damage to her frontal lobe. She would barely survive, but her personality would not. She would never be the same again.

“This is basically a death in the family,” the doctors told Brock and his siblings. “Be prepared to not have that person that you had in your life. She won’t exist anymore.”

The family tried to bring Connie home. It didn’t go well. She was frustrated, anxious, overwhelmed. She was nothing like the patient, doting woman from before. She had to go to a rehab facility until she could adjust to managing all the things she used to manage for everyone else.

“Anything socially or emotionally,” Brock says, “she wasn’t able to handle.”

Brock Radunske (25), of South Korea, and goalie Pavel Francouz (31), of the Czech Republic, battle for the puck during the third period of the preliminary round at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, on Thursday. (AP)
Brock Radunske (25), of South Korea, and goalie Pavel Francouz (31), of the Czech Republic, battle for the puck during the third period of the preliminary round at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, on Thursday. (AP)

Only months later, Radunske was drafted by the Oilers. It was a dream and a nightmare. Connie was there but not there. Her marriage to Bob was broken. Her ability to emote and show affection was cut off. The traits that made her Connie, that made her mom, were all but gone.

The NHL dreams slowly faded away, as Radunske was too far down on the depth chart to get a spot with the Oilers. “It was hard to focus at times,” he admits. His biggest fan wasn’t cheering from up in the stands like she always had been. But Radunske also feels he’s fortunate that he had hockey to turn to. He spent a year playing in Europe and then his agent called about an opportunity in an unexpected place: South Korea.

He took it; the idea was intriguing and the money was good. He signed a one-year deal with Anyang Halla and he was immediately a superstar: 29 goals in 35 games in that season. Radunske became a household name in the growing hockey community here. He won MVP honors.

He stayed, along with his new bride, Kelly. He signed a longer deal. He was building a life.

Over the next few years, Connie began to show signs of coming back. Brock heard the familiar laugh on the phone. She sent a card in the mail. Her eyes would light up at the idea of being a grandmother. It was small but it was something. Mom was there, even if only in a faint, distant way.

Brock cherished it. And he cherished the new start he had across the globe. The Olympics were coming. He applied to become a citizen. His kids, Lucy and Bronson, were born in the U.S., but his little boy would have a Korean passport. Radunske was a minor celebrity, sitting for in-depth TV interviews labeled with the chyron, “Blue-eyed Korean on the national ice hockey team.”

Connie is not here to see Brock play in the Olympics. The journey is too far, too stressful, too much. Asked if she understands the magnitude of her son, a national hero of sorts, playing in this tournament, Brock nods slowly. “I think, deep down, she understands what’s going on.”

He will have other family here. It will be a remarkable time: Canadian Big Beauty roving around this home ice he’s found. His league games aren’t usually packed; these games will be packed. “Electric” is his word.

He’s here without his mom, but he’s here because of her.

After that long pause, Radunske’s gaze returns to the rink and he thinks about what his children have inherited from his mother.

“I don’t know,” he offers. He gives a sad smile.

There are some parts of the bond between a mother and a son that simply can’t be described.

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