It’s Saturday evening in the Seoul suburb of Anyang, and life is proceeding apace. Couples are canoodling in the cafes, groups of older men are getting drunk at the barbecue restaurants and families are glued to that evening’s episode of I Have a Lover on Korean television.
Yet at Anyang Ice Arena, Goyang High1 have just upset Anyang Halla 4-2, finishing with a shorthanded empty-netter, six seconds before the end of the game. It’s High1’s first win in 10 games and Anyang’s first home loss in 18. It wasn’t supposed to happen his way, and the home fans are incandescent, screaming, booing and slagging off that cross-cultural punching bag, the referee.
In reality, though, it turned out to be a meaningless game. Forward Michael Swift, 29, and defenseman Bryan Young, 29, who are cousins, knew they and their High1 teammates wouldn’t see the playoffs this season. And for Anyang forward Brock Radunske, 33, defensemen Eric Regan, 28, and Alex Plante, 27, as well as goalie Matt Dalton, 29, it was but a blip on a championship season, as Anyang finished first overall and went on to capture the Asia League Ice Hockey title after losing in the final last year.
All six Canadians’ professional careers have gone through various permutations of the NHL, AHL, KHL and other European leagues into the world of South Korean pro hockey. And although their efforts in the ALIH are appreciated, their primary job is clear – to make Team Korea competitive in time for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. This is no small feat, however. “You’ve got to realize that four years ago, this country was in the third tier of the World Championship,” Swift said. “So for a country to that quickly play against the top competition in the world, we’ve got to be realistic about it.”
By virtue of being the host nation, South Korea is granted an automatic berth in the men’s tournament. And Koreans don’t like to lose, especially in a way that could embarrass them at home. So in a bid to strengthen its hockey talent, the country took the unusual step of granting citizenship to all six Canadians (as well as American Mike Testwuide). Radunske, Swift and Young were the first ones to receive their South Korean passports, while Regan and Dalton got theirs in time for the 2016 Div. I Group A World Championship in Poland. Plante is expected to get his next year.
It’s a process that begins before import players even arrive. “As far as a negotiation tactic to get us over here, offering citizenship is one of the tools they use,” Regan said, “because when you take the leap to come to this league, it’s definitely tougher to leave and go to a good league again.”
Citizenship is generally reserved for those of Korean nationality, and dual-citizenship is prohibited, mostly to stop men from escaping mandatory military service. (One of the ALIH’s three Korean teams, Incheon’s Daemyung Sangmu, is made up of conscripted soldiers.) But South Korea has been on a tear recently, granting special dual-citizenship rights to “talented” individuals who might make a mark for the country. And the six Canadians were talented enough.
As white men, they get funny looks travelling on their South Korean passports, and Koreans rush to tell them they’re standing in the wrong line at immigration. “They tell us that the foreign line is across the way,” Radunske said, laughing. “We flash our passports and say, ‘Actually, we belong in the short line.’ ”
The Korean national team’s greatest strength is skating. Although a novice at hockey, South Korea has produced some of the world’s greatest skaters, including figure skater Kim Yuna and speed skater Viktor Ahn. The Korean team is fast, but its biggest weakness is its size. The players are small and used to battling other small players in the ALIH. “It’s more of a skating game here,” Radunske said. “Back home, you have to move the puck because, for one, it’s a smaller ice surface, and, secondly, there are going to be guys who make you pay the price for hanging on to it.”
Seniority was also an issue. In Korean culture, it’s expected that you defer to your elders, even when they aren’t as good. “When I first got here, a younger guy that was potentially more skilled was really hesitant to do what he could do on the ice when there were older players,” Radunske said. “He’d just try to get the puck to the older guy. That’s changed, just because of the talent that’s come up from the younger generation.”
The culture shock has affected each of the players differently. Radunske, Young and Swift, who have all been here five years or more, are well acclimatized and very happy. “Korea has treated us unbelievably,” Swift said. “We could play anywhere else, go over to Europe, but after my first year, I couldn’t leave this place.”
Dalton, Regan and Plante, on the other hand, are still getting accustomed to their new home. Korea is packed and busy, especially when compared to spread-out, laid-back Canada. “There are just so many people and everyone is in such a hurry,” Regan said. “That takes a little getting used to and a lot of patience.”
They all plan to re-evaluate their situations after the Olympics to see if it’s worth going home. But for now, the focus remains laser-sighted on the PyeongChang Games. All except Plante recently played for South Korea on the world stage at the Div. I-A World Championship, where they finished fifth out of six teams with a 2-2-1 record. South Korea actually would’ve finished second if they’d beaten Italy on the tournament’s last day, but the Italians eked out a 2-1 win.
When asked what they thought their chances were at the Olympics, Swift got a laugh when he yelled out, “Nothing but gold!” Although they know their chances for success are slim, they remain optimistic. “We’re not going to put all this work in and just pack it in before we play,” Radunske said. “We’re going to be prepared and do everything we can to try to win a game.”