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When the 2015-2016 Asia League Ice Hockey season opens on Saturday, the three South Korean clubs in action, Anyang Halla, High1 and Daemyung Sangmu, will have more on their minds than trying to win the league championship.

As the suppliers of talent for the national team, the three teams are all trying to find ways to help the country at the 2018 Winter Olympics on home ice.

South Korea will make its Olympic debut in men's hockey when PyeongChang, a resort town some 180 kilometers east of Seoul, stages the country's first-ever Winter Games in less than three years. South Korea has the unenviable task of facing Canada, the two-time defending Olympic champion and the undisputed world No. 1, along with the Czech Republic and Switzerland, ranked sixth and seventh, in Group A action.

To say South Korea will be in for a tough battle will be an understatement of epic proportions. That doesn't mean, however, the country won't put up a fight.

And the head coaches of the three pro clubs say they will try to nurture homegrown talent who can compete at the Olympic level by 2018.

High1 have taken the most drastic route to that end. Though the teams can each have up to three foreign players -- Asians don't count toward that quota -- High1 for this season will go with an all-South Korean roster, with Tyler Brickler, born to an American father and a Korean mother, added to the mix.

High1 coach Kim Yoon-sung said the decision to forego acquiring foreign players was reached partly to give South Koreans more opportunities.

"In the past, we've been more reliant on foreign players than other teams," Kim said Wednesday during the league media day event. "We're starting from scratch this year. I hope we can produce many national team members who will make the country proud at the Olympics."

   In an effort to strengthen the national team, domestic hockey officials have fast-tracked Canadian- and American-born players in obtaining South Korean citizenship in recent years. The likes of Brock Radunske and Bryan Young are expected to be in the national team picture as PyeongChang approaches.

Jim Paek, a former Stanley Cup-winning defenseman now coaching the men's national team here, has previously talked about his struggles to reconcile the need to produce immediate results with developing South Korean hockey over the long haul.

Naming naturalized South Koreans to the national team may be helpful in the short term; however, since those may take away playing opportunities for homegrown players, it could in the long run stunt the growth of South Korean skaters.

Bae Young-ho, who coaches Daemyung Sangmu, a team of conscripted players, said one of the reasons his team was founded in 2013 was to develop South Korean players for the 2018 Olympics. The military club gives players who have to do their mandatory military service a chance to keep playing at a high level. While athletes in more popular sports such as baseball and football have enjoyed such a benefit for years, hockey players hadn't been afforded the same until Daemyung Sangmu joined the pro league.

Bae opined that South Korea, with or without foreign-born players, must try to maximize its strengths.

"Obviously, there is a discrepancy in talent level between our national team and others," Bae said. "I think one area where we can be competitive is speed. And when they go up against bigger and stronger players, I tell my own players to capitalize on their speed and to put pressure on the other guys."

   Jiri Veber, a native of Czech Republic coaching Anyang Halla, said he's on the same page as other members of his brethren.

"Everyone hopes to help the national team," he said. "And we hope the players will be ready to give their 100 percent for the national team."

 

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Growing up in Canada I was a huge hockey fan, but it wasn't until the 1972 summit series and the 1976 Canada Cup that I became a big fan of international hockey. The best players in world all playing on a sheet of ice. 
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