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Photo: Mark Newman
02/07/2017 4:00 PM -

Feb. 7, 2017

By Tim Wharnsby, CBC Sports

Jim Paek knows how difficult it is to win a Stanley Cup. But preparing a nation in its hockey infancy for the Winter Olympics could present an even tougher challenge.

Paek, a former defenceman who turns 50 on Apr. 7, helped the Pittsburgh Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and '92. As a minor leaguer, he won the IHL's Turner Cup in 1999 with the Houston Aeros. And Paek was an assistant coach with the Grand Rapids Griffins (a Detroit Red Wings affiliate) when they took the AHL's Calder Cup championship in 2013.

But after nine seasons behind the bench in Grand Rapids, Paek decided in July 2014 to become the head coach of South Korea's national men's hockey team for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

With the world's 23rd-ranked team preparing for its Olympic debut, there's been a lot of work to do.

"I believe we have made great strides," Paek says from Seoul. "Mentally we have developed, physically we have gotten stronger, and the players are getting a high level of international experience that will prepare them for the Olympics.

"The culture has changed. We believe in the process and getting better every day. That is our goal."

Learning from the best

Paek was born in Seoul but moved to Canada when he was one. He developed into a standout defenceman in three years of junior with the Oshawa Generals, winning the 1986-87 OHL championship.

Pittsburgh waited until the ninth round (170th overall) to select Paek in the 1985 draft. After three years in the Penguins' farm system, he spent most of the 1990-91 season with the Canadian national team but joined the Penguins in time for their Stanley Cup run. He scored his first NHL goal in the title-clinching game against the Minnesota North Stars.

In junior and his 16-season pro career, Paek played for an impressive list of coaches from Paul Theriault to Dave King to Bob Johnson to Scotty Bowman to Dave Tippett.

"I had many great coaches who influenced my career," Paek says. "I've learned many things from every coach and tried to put it all together and express it through my personality.

"From Theriault, his lessons on being not only a good hockey player but most importantly being a good human being. King, on practices and how to prepare. Johnson, always be positive. I owe a great deal to this man, Badger Bob.

"Bowman, how to run a bench and take away distractions. Tippet, how to communicate."

Playing to win

South Korea has seen positive results under Paek. Last spring in Poland, his team finished 2-1-2 at the IIHF World Championship Division I, Group A tournament (a cut below the main event that Canada plays in). They'll compete in the same tournament this April in Ukraine.

First, however, South Korea will hope for a strong result in the Asian Winter Games later this month.

"It's important that we're prepared and organized for these games," Paek says. "We always prepare to win. Why play if you think you're going to lose? We also understand these games are all part of the process to get better every day."

Helping Paek behind South Korea's bench is former NHLer Richard Park, a Korean-born American who also played in the NHL.

There are only about 2,500 registered hockey players in South Korea and 43 rinks. So depth is lacking. As a result, the South Korean team could house a half-dozen Canadians and an American who have played over there long enough to carry South Korean passports.

Paek, whose family joined him full-time in South Korea last summer, has used his connections with Grand Rapids as well as the Dallas Stars to put a few of his elite players in training camps in North America to gain valuable experience.

"It was a natural transition," says Paek, when asked about his decision to coach after his playing career. "I loved the game and love to teach. I had great coaches to learn from and players that I played with. All those experiences have helped me today."

Nothing will come easy for Paek's team a year from now in Pyeongchang, especially with South Korea in the same preliminary round grouping as Canada, along with the Czech Republic and Switzerland.

Paek says he still admires the defending champions.

"Growing up in Canada, I'm a big Hockey Canada fan and appreciate how they developed my hockey."