By Pete Wallner, MLive.com
South Korea will field a men's hockey team in the Olympics for the first time when Pyeongchang hosts the 2018 Winter Games next month, but let's put aside thoughts about a Miracle on Ice because it's already happened there.
The odds of South Korea winning a medal are unlikely (500/1 for gold), but winning over a country has already been achieved, said coach and national team program director Chisun Jim Paek.
"In my eyes, we have already attained success," Paek said. "Being apart the Olympics has allowed Korean hockey to grow and be a part of the top 16 hockey countries."
The 50-year-old Paek left his position as an assistant coach with the Grand Rapids Griffins in 2014 to take over the national program in South Korea. It was a tall task considering the program didn't even have a skate sharpener or glove dryer, and a risk for Paek, who was the longest-serving Griffins assistant coach and enjoyed a nice family life in Grand Rapids.
But it was a role meant for him. Paek was the first player of Korean descent to play in the NHL (with Pittsburgh Penguins in 1990) and served nine seasons as an assistant with the AHL franchise in Grand Rapids under Greg Ireland, Curt Fraser and Jeff Blashill.
He was part of the Calder Cup team in 2012-13.
Plus, he saw that South Korea's hockey participation among youths was on the rise, a financial investment of $20 million was committed, a training facility was being built and, the golden goose, the team had an automatic berth into the Olympic tournament as the host country.
He took the position in July, 2014, moved there officially two years ago and consumed himself in building the program and waiting for the spotlight.
It's about to light up.
Paek said he has been overwhelmed by media requests of late. South Korea will debut on the Olympic stage Feb. 15 against the Czech Republic in a pool with that also has Canada and Switzerland (and no NHL players). They made the top division in the 12-team tournament after finishing 18th in the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship.
"With the team having success there has been very positive media coverage," Paek said. "The fans have been encouraged and because of our coverage I am approached on the streets with "Fighting!" which is encouragement in Korean.
"To be recognized with about 51 million people in South Korea, it is a good feeling."
The finish at the IIHF World Championship was a significant achievement. The national program, which began in 1979, routinely finished at or near the bottom of lower pools - later divisions - until the mid-2000s. They were promoted to Division 1A for the first time in 2012 and it didn't stick until 2016 when they finished fifth in Group A (21st overall), and then were promoted to the Top Division with the second-place finish in Group A in April that netted 18th and the best finish to date.
The growing pains are still there. They lost games to Denmark, Norway and Austria in the Euro Ice Hockey Challenge in the fall, and lost three in December at the Channel One Cup in Moscow to Sweden (5-1), Finland (4-1) and Canada (4-2).
But it is the buy-in from the country and especially the players that has impressed Paek. A change in the culture can't happen unless the commitment is there. The roster, which includes a couple of Americans who have lived in the country for years, has been nurtured by Paek as a team that's confident, communicates and is a family.
"The biggest progress is in the players - their willingness to adapt and learn new ways and change the culture of Korean hockey," he said.
"Where we need to develop is at the grass roots," he added. "Provide an environment where they can play hockey for a long time. If you understand the Korean culture it will take time to change that culture. I truly believe if we have success the growth of hockey will have no limits."
How will South Korea fare in the tournament? It would be a major surprise if they advanced out of pool play. But the goal to compete is there, and, Paek said, the future is promising.
The Olympics, he said, "has given awareness to hockey."
"Now we have more media coverage, more kids are excited to play, they built us a training rink just for hockey and we have built relationships with other hockey nations which will allow for development," he said.