By – IIHF.com
In 2007 Edmonton drafted Alex Plante in the first round, so playing international hockey isn’t a surprise. Just that his debut came 10 years later – with Korea.
The two-metre (6′7″) defenceman is not your typical Asia League player. Korea’s answer to Zdeno Chara stands out in size and he’s one of few players in league history with NHL experience even though he didn’t have his breakthrough in the NHL playing 10 games for the Edmonton Oilers in his four years in the organization.
After not getting the chance in the big league, he took in 2013 the path his father Cam had taken about 30 years earlier and moved from the AHL to Austria. After one season with Dornbirner EC he moved to Norway where he played one season with his brother, goalie Tyler Plante, for Lorenskog. Then he suddenly landed at Anyang Halla, Korea’s top club team in the Asia League, where he completed his second season and won the title earlier this month.
“I just signed a two-year deal with Anyang Halla. We’ve had a couple of good years there, we won the [Asia League] championship, the organization has been great, we absolutely love it,” Plante said about his experience.
Korea has made a name for itself in recent years for naturalizing players from its Asia League clubs and Plante is the newest addition. He missed the 2017 Asian Winter Games but got Korean citizenship one month ago and fulfilled the eligibility criteria after two seasons in Korea.
With goaltender Matt Dalton – arguably the most important addition last year – defencemen Plante, Eric Regan and Bryan Young as well as forward Michael Swift the Koreans have five Canada-born players on the roster. And that line-up doesn’t include forwards Brock Radunske and American-born Mike Testwuide, who missed out on the tournament this year due to injury. Add to that NHL experience behind the bench with Jim Paek and Richard Park, who were born in Korea but grew up and played in the United States and one can easily see that the ambitions are high one year before Korea hosts the 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
Since 2015 Plante lives in Anyang, a satellite city of Seoul. “It took time to adjust but we have nothing than good things to say, we feel safe. We have a nice little community and fan base and the club itself treats us very well. There was a little risk since we had no idea where we’re getting ourselves into but it definitely paid off,” Plante said about his decision. “The language itself has been a challenge, maybe some words I learned on the road. Basic words and locker room banter so far. The longer we’re there, the more we pick up.”
One word he learned is chamchi gimbap, which he calls his favourite Korean food. “It’s a little roll that has tuna, and, I can’t name all the stuff that’s inside, it looks like a reversed sushi. It’s traditional snack food in Korea but I can’t get enough of it,” he said.
Knowing about the Koreans’ desire to have him join the national team, he already played exhibition games with them before actually getting his passport.
“I’ve done it all year now with the Euro Ice Hockey Challenge and stuff like that. I look at this like I’m thankful to have this opportunity. It was a bit different in the beginning but I’ve been in Korea for two years, it’s been a great family for myself, my kids and my wife,” he said.
“Alex Plante has been a good addition to us,” said head coach Paek. “He has a big body and a lot of game experience, international and North American experience. That’s very good for us. He’s a leader on the team and becoming an important part.”
“The tournament gets harder and harder. Every game is a championship game. Our players work extremely hard. They’re a dream to the coach because they listened to the coach. I have to give all the credit to them. They try to get better all the time,” the coach added.
Korea improved over the last few years. Thanks but not only because of its imports because other players got better too. The first two offensive lines are made of native Koreans including Sanghoon Shin and Kisung Kim, the scoring leader and the top goal scorer of the Asia League playoffs respectively.
Although the team just ended up in fifth place in last year’s IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Katowice with tight standings, it was in contention for promotion until the very last day when losing the spot in the top division to Italy after a 2-1 loss against the Azzurri.
This year the team started well with two wins including the first-ever victory of Korea against Kazakhstan.
“It’s my first Worlds, I didn’t know that we wrote history. I’m just happy to be part of it. We just keep finding ways to get the bounces and to get them in. We’re going to enjoy this for a couple of minutes and then get ready for the next one. It’s a short tournament and we have to move on,” he said after scoring two goals in the victory against Kazakhstan.
“There’s no secret to success. We got systems in place we try to stick to as much as we can. It’s hard work and determination and the bounces went our way. We have a great goaltender, we definitely cannot forget about him, he gave us more than enough opportunities to get a win in both of these games. He’s been a huge piece for us and I hope we can help him out a little bit more.”
The word promotion wasn’t heard that often but the slogan hanging in front of the locker room is “Make Korea proud”.
“We came with the expectation to compete every night and let the results take care for themselves. The nation continues to get better. We’re getting more consistent, have more depth. It’s all new for me so I’m just here to enjoy and help as much as I can. Our goal as a country is to get better and better,” he said. “Ideally of course everybody would love to go up but we’re focusing period by period.”
The next period comes soon. After beating one of the two teams that came down from the top division, they will play the next one today, Hungary, at 17:00 local time (16:00 in Hungary, 23:00 in Korea).
The current road clearly goes to PyeongChang 2018 where Korea wants to be competitive against nations that are even higher ranked than the ones here. They’re seeded in a group with defending champion Canada, the Czech Republic and Switzerland.
“It’s our big goal but we’re looking now where we are at. It’s in the back of our mind. This tournament here is a step to competing at the Olympics,” he said.
And if Korea continues to play well here in Kyiv, they may play at the top level next year not only as the host at the Olympics but also as one of the teams promoted to the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Denmark.