South Korea’s Hockey Team Is Not All Korean: First-Timers At The PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games

Shuji KajiyamaAP Images

The men at South Korea’s Olympic hockey team may not be all Korean–but they’re working just as hard to deliver that first men’s hockey medal to South Korea.

Unlike the bombshell debut of Korea’s unified women’s hockey team at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, things are a little quieter at the South Korean men’s hockey team, who just stepped into the Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung for the first time Sunday night.

Unlike their woman counterpart, who has been on the headlines for months since both South and North Koreans will be playing in one team, the South Korea hockey team has been slightly low-key. One reason was that they were practically nonexistent before and will be playing their first ever Olympic match this coming February 15 against Czech Republic.

Why haven’t we heard so much about the South Korea men’s hockey team before? Well, it’s because their hockey team has been quite a last-minute creation. The Washington Post reports that a closer look at the South Korea men’s hockey team will show you that seven of the 25 players were born in other countries, naturalized only as Korean citizens to play for the hockey team. That means more than 25 percent of the whole team is North Americans.

In fact, as the “Korean” men stepped into the rink for practice, English words echoed throughout the almost empty arena like “These boards are bouncy” and “Bring it in, bring it in.” This is pretty surprising for one of the most homogeneous countries in the world.

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According to the naturalized players, there were certain conditions they had to meet before they were granted the slot to the first ever South Korea men’s hockey team at the Winter Olympics. First, that they have to play at least two seasons for Korean clubs in a pan-Asian hockey league. Second, that they meet with the following officials: the national hockey officials, the national Olympic officials, and then the Ministry of Justice. Third, they had to take a test and sing the “Aegukga,” South Korea’s national anthem.

The process wasn’t all that hard and in no time, South Korea was able to complete its roster and was ready to compete at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics 2018.

south korea men's hockey team at the Asian Winter Games
Featured image credit: Shuji KajiyamaAP Images

In an interview with USA Today, Canada-born and currently a member of the South Korea men’s hockey team, Eric Regan, said that he did not find it hard to assimilate with the rest of his teammates.

“At first you’re a Canadian guy hoping to play in the Olympics and you put on the Team Korea jersey for the first time as only a Canadian citizen, it’s a little weird. Growing up in Canada, cheering for the Maple Leaf and then after the first tournament, I was really comfortable with it. I’ve played with all these guys. I’ve lived in Korea now for four years, so I’m definitely more comfortable.”

According to the South Korea men’s hockey team coach Jim Paek, at the end of the day, it’s not about North Koreans or South Koreans playing for one unified hockey team, or foreigners and Koreans teaming up under one flag.

“There’s 25 Korean players. It’s not North Americans or Koreans or anything else. We’ve got 25 hockey players that play for the Korean national team.”

The South Korea men’s hockey team, currently ranked 21st, will be facing off against Czech Republic, ranked 6th, on Thursday. On Saturday, they will be facing the 7th-ranked Switzerland hockey team, and then world no. 1 and two-time defending gold medalist Canada on Sunday.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency wrote recently that with no National Hockey League (NHL) players on the South Korean team, a “winless performance isn’t entirely out of the question.” But Paek remains positive.

Jim Paek at the Asian Winter Games
Featured image credit: Shuji KajiyamaAP Images

“This is a very special moment for every athlete that’s participating in the Olympics, whatever sport you’re in. This is, for some, a moment that might not come again in their lifetime. It’s important that they cherish and enjoy and soak up every minute. These don’t come along very often, especially for this particular group…I think, as long as you know there’s a chance, that’s all you can hope for. Our guys have character. What that translates to, I can’t tell you. But I know one thing. We’ll fight right to the end.”

Check out the Pyeongchang 2018 website for the full schedule of events for the 2018 Winter Olympics.