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Last summer, the Korean ice hockey community was thrilled by the news that two-time Stanley Cup champion Jim Paek was going to coach the national team that will compete in the 2018 PyeongChang Games.

Korea has been impressive at recent Winter Olympics ― with its short-track speed skaters dominating the ice, and figure skating star Kim Yu-na fascinating fans around the world ― but the same could not be said for ice hockey, arguably the spotlight event of the Olympics, because Korea has never qualified.

For hockey fans, players and community insiders here, a dream came true when the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) in September granted the Korea's men's and women's teams automatic entry into the PyeongChang Games. The announcement also fulfilled Paek's dream of being part of the Korean national hockey team at the Olympics.

"I believe we have already succeeded by being in the Olympics," Paek said during an interview with The Korea Times. "In my eyes, that's already a success to help make Korea a hockey nation."

Paek probably had been the most renowned Korean in the U.S. before the Youtube sensation Psy appeared. The 48-year-old former Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman was the first Korean player in the National Hockey League (NHL) and the first Asian to lift the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992. He played in the NHL until 1995, and ended his playing career in 2003.

He became an assistant with the Detroit Red Wings' affiliate in Grand Rapids, Michigan for nine years before taking the Korean job in August.

"The Olympics also is an opportunity to develop and grow hockey in Korea for 10, 20 and 30 years after the Olympics, which is fantastic."

The country's hockey situation is quite similar to where it was in football before the 2002 World Cup. After appointing Dutch coach Guus Hiddink, Korea advanced to the semifinals at the event held on its home soil and football's popularity soared.

"If you have some success, the Korean people love that and they want to try it. Look at the female golfers and how many women golfers are there. Look at the short-track speed skaters ― they won gold medals in the Olympics and now how many kids are skating," he said. "If hockey can get to that level, where we can have success in Korean people's eyes, It's going to be amazing."

Despite Paek's dream to make Korea a hockey nation, the PyeongChang organizers have decided to demolish the Olympic ice hockey arena after the Games out of concern that it may have no use after the Olympics.

"It's a shame that we cannot utilize the arena after the Olympics," Paek said. "I hope they can find a way."

Though Paek left Korea when he was 12 months old and spent his most successful time in the U.S., he said he always had pride in being Korean, and told his late father, "Wouldn't it be great to be part of the Korean national team and the Olympics?"

He and some Canadian players visited Korea and held hockey clinics in the 1980s.

"Father and son always wanted to try to help develop (Korean hockey), so we started Jim Paek Hockey in Korea," Paek said. "So we've always been involved and wanted to be part of the Korean national team and the Olympics. And here we are.

But it's unfortunate that ... I'm sure that my father is watching over me up there, smiling and blessing."

Shouldering his father's will, he took the post to make Korean hockey competitive, or at least not be embarrassed on the Olympic stage. However, a daunting task awaits him.

Currently, Korean the men's ice hockey team is No. 23 in the IIHF rankings. In the most recent IIHF World Championships in April, the Koreans made a dismal showing and were relegated to Division I Group B.

That's why Paek was cautious in talking about his goals at the Olympics. When asked if he expects a favorable result down the road, he said "I expect them to be competitive in every game.

"You can't control winning or losing. And I always keep saying, let's get better every day. Every time we step on the ice, we get better and I ask myself and the players, 'Did you get better today?'" Paek said.

And his instruction seems to be working so far. In the Euro Ice Hockey Challenge tournament in November, the national team's first international outing after Paek took the helm, the Koreans finished second, after beating Poland and Italy.

"They (national players) are fantastic. I absolutely love my players. They are eager to learn, they work hard, they have passion to get better and they are building confidence in themselves. I saw that during the tournament."

During the past six months, it seems that Paek has become close to his birth country and its players. At his inaugural press conference, he said his "Konglish" ― which usually refers to Korean's improper use of English words, but the coach used it to describe his clumsy command of Korean ― was poor, but now he jokes with officials with the Korean Ice Hockey Association in Korean.

"When I was young, I was a very shy person and I'm still working on not locking myself in a shell," Paek said. In order to do so, he took an online public speaking course. Aside from his thorough preparation to direct players ― which includes booklets, references and visual aids he made ― he said the course also helped him present more effectively what he wants from the players.

Whether he took his course thoroughly will be tested in April, when the Koreans participate at the IIHF World Championships for Division I Group B in the Netherlands.

 

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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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