Nine months before these Winter Olympics commenced in his native country, Jim Paek stood on a stage halfway around the world, speaking into a lavalier microphone and gesturing with a presentation remote. “Right now, I want to tell you a story,” he began. “It’s a little fiction. A little, maybe, not non-fiction. But the story is, there’s this Korean actor that loves hockey, in a small town, once upon a time.”
A television clip flashed onto the projection screen, sourced from a mid-1990s South Korean network drama titled Icing. The scene features Paek, only several years removed from hoisting back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Speaking a mixture of English and Korean, the former NHL defenseman surprises the show’s featured hockey team during its practice. The cameo totals less than two minutes. In most shots, Paek appears with a wide smile.
“So you can see, he’s a great actor,” Paek informed his audience at the 2017 TeamSnap Hockey Coaches Conference near Vancouver, pacing across the stage as the clip ended. "Did his own stunts. After that role, he was offered a great opportunity for TheHangover, but Ken Jeong took that role. Hawaii 5-0 was another role he turned down …”
(A little, maybe, fiction. The next part, however, was entirely true.)
“...because he wanted to coach hockey. He wanted to coach the national Olympic hockey team to represent South Korea.
“So, I had an opportunity. I call it my exotic adventure.”
One week before the opening ceremonies, Paek dials long-distance from his current home outside Seoul. The players are enjoying an off-day, hard-earned amid a hectic training calendar. Their coach wishes they would just drop the first puck for the men's 12-team tournament already. “Anxious to get going here,” Paek, 50, says. “I think we’ve prepared. I think we’re ready to go. Let’s see how we can do now.”
In a way, Paek has always imagined himself here. His family had immigrated from Seoul when Paek was one and settled in Canada, where he and his brother found hockey. His father, a biochemist by trade, knew little about the sport but got hooked too, later starting a business that exported equipment to South Korea, everything from jockstraps to rink-building supplies. Throughout a playing career spanning 217 regular-season NHL games and a decade more in the minors, Paek and his father had steadily discussed the possibility of helping South Korea’s national program.
For Paek, who was drafted 170th in the ninth by Pittsburgh in 1985, the ultimate dream involved representing his birthplace on the ice at the Olympics.
Behind the bench works plenty well too.
“When you think back from day one,” he says today, “preparing your team for this moment is pretty special.”
Soon his mind travels to the same story that he told colleagues at that British Columbia conference, one he has shared many times since taking over South Korea’s ice hockey operations in July 2014. The road to PyeongChang was steep back then. The men’s team was ranked 23rd in the world, sandwiched between Great Britain and Poland, lacking homegrown talent with only 120 male players registered nationwide. Infrastructure that Paek took for granted at his former gig as an assistant with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins was similarly absent, typical rink fixtures such as stick tape and glove dryers; he recalls South Korean players begging opposing equipment managers to sharpen their skates.
Several months later, Paek outlined an exhaustive, four-year plan at the IIHF’s semi-annual congress meetings in Spain, hoping to convince the governing body that South Korea deserved automatic hockey bids as Olympic hosts. Detailed down to a weekly schedule, the proposal scripted a path for the national programs heading into PyeongChang, counting upon various international tournaments to strengthen their competitiveness. It also explained methods geared toward bolstering the entire system, like how to develop new youth referees and coaches. “Every part of hockey, we tried to put inside into our presentation,” Paek says. “It wasn’t just, ‘Okay, you’re the host team, you’re in.’ There was a lot of work behind the scenes.”
Certainly too much for one person. Which is why, upon accepting the South Korean job and leaving Grand Rapids with one year left on his contract, Paek immediately called an old friend and countryman, former NHL forward Richard Park. “I think my first words were: ‘Hey, Richard, what are you doing? Want to coach the Korean national team in the Olympics?’”
“Oh, geez,” Park says over FaceTime. “How we got here is interesting.”
Born nine years after his future bench boss, Park would skate along a remarkably similar path. He was born in Seoul but his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 3. There he subscribed to The Hockey News, attended grade school with Kings legend Marcel Dionne’s daughter and joined a travel team. At 13, he received an invitation to play in Toronto, identified as an emerging talent. At 18, he was picked No. 50 by—fatefully enough—the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Two years later,Park reported to Pittsburgh's IHL affiliate in Cleveland. Also on the roster for the '96-97 season: Jim Paek.. They lived in the same building and bonded over their mutual—and uncommon for professional hockey—heritage, devouring care packages of kimchee and kalbi beef that Paek’s mother mailed. Both also spoke enough Korean to trash talk teammates in the locker room without consequence. “He’s a big role model of mine,” Park, 41, says. “It was special to spend every day with him.”
After 738 games with six NHL teams and four world championship appearances for Team USA, Park was nearing retirement overseas anyway when Paek phoned with an assistant coaching offer. “He said it’d be a great opportunity for us to be part of the Olympics and build a program and see how far we can take it,” Park says. “I don't think he really knew what he was exactly walking into. There’s a lot of unknown there.”
Many issues were fixed through Korean Ice Hockey Association president Chung Mong-won, the CEO of Halla Corporation who pumped money toward expanding resources. Still, Paek and Park needed skaters. The roster that will make its country’s first-ever men’s Olympic appearance Thursday against the Czech Republic was assembled from a mosaic of birthplaces: 18 native South Koreans, plus six naturalized Canadians, including former Edmonton Oilers draft picks Bryan Young and Alex Plante, and one winger, Mike Testwuide, from Colorado.
The coaches stick to English during practices and meetings, but Paek often quips that they must actually speak three languages: Korean, English and hockey. “Forecheck, backcheck, 1-2-2, 2-1-2, 1-3-1, those types of systems are tough to translate,” he says. “That was the toughest hurdle, to explain hockey in my terms, in my ways that I understand it.” Another challenge involved reconciling certain deep-rooted cultural values with the team's best interests. “It’s great to respect your elders,” Paek says, “but at times it’s to a fault where the younger player can’t express his views or show his talent. It’s slowly changing. They know how this team is run. You have to earn your ice time.”
The crowning achievement came last April at the IIHF Division I world championships in Ukraine, where South Korea needed a win against its hosts to earn a promotion into the top tier for future events. Tied at one after overtime, the game moved to a shootout. Up 1-0 in the third round, South Korean import forward Michael Swift deked and rifled a wrister past the Ukrainian goalie. Helmets and sticks fly. At first Paek remained stoic and focused on the bench, but soon got enveloped with hugs by his assistants, Park included. Tears welled in Paek’s eyes.
“Gaining the respect of other countries is very important,” he says today. “Especially when South Korea isn’t even on the map, not even known. If you ask somebody, we’re playing in the Olympics, they might say, ‘Wow, Korea has a hockey team?’ They see we get some acknowledgment anyway that we do have a hockey team here, and we’re developing well.”
Placed alongside Canada, Switzerland and the Czechs during group play, South Korea will likely struggle to win on home ice. Thankfully, its hockey future does not rest on the results of three games. More rinks are getting built around the country. New coaches and referees are signing up. Fans will flock to Gangneung Hockey Centre, banging drums and cheering; Paek hopes that his players will inspire future generations of players, like the 2002 men’s soccer team that reached the World Cup semifinals, or Se Ri Pak, the spark plug for South Korea’s current dominance of the LPGA Tour.
As Paek concluded at the TeamSnap coaches conference, wrapping up a 25-minute presentation titled The Journey of the Korean Olympic Hockey Team, “You guys are a lamp. How far will that light reach? Shine your lamp bright. Shine it wide. Influence your young players in a positive way.
"And in the end, when everything’s said and done, it’s not the gold medal you won at the Olympics in 2018. It’s how you built those relationships that’s important. So I appreciate your time. Thank you for listening. Please, root Korea on.
"Even though I was raised here.”