Trading nations for an Olympic ice hockey ticket

Hwang Sunghee
1 / 4
South Korea's ice hockey team coach Jim Paek (R) conducts a team training session at a rink in Goyang, north-west of Seoul

Fidgeting nervously, Canadian ice hockey defenceman Alex Plante cleared his throat and addressed a roomful of Olympic officials in a halting new language: "I want to represent South Korea."

South Korea is among the world's most racially homogenous non-island societies but its ice hockey team is becoming unusually diverse as Seoul seeks to avoid humiliation at the rink when it hosts next year's Winter Olympics.

Following a change in the law, a steady stream of imports have been given new passports and places in the squad, making it one-third white, even though the population is around 96 percent ethnically Korean.

Plante, a journeyman in his eighth year of professional hockey, played in the US, Norway, Austria and Germany before coming to South Korea nearly two years ago.

Aged 29, his carefully memorised five-line address to the Korean Olympic Committee was a key step in probably his last chance to appear on the sport's biggest international stage.

"It was an opportunity that we thought could happen," he told AFP. "We decided to come here so we invested everything that we can."

If his application is approved he will become the seventh North American on the team.

- 'Different jersey' -

South Korea sit 23rd in the world ice hockey rankings and have never qualified for the Winter Olympics' blue riband event.

But as the host nation of Pyeongchang 2018 they have an automatic berth and are scrambling to build a competitive roster to avoid embarrassment.

Dual citizenship is generally prohibited in South Korea, but Seoul revised its immigration law to allow "qualified" foreign nationals to hold multiple citizenships.

At a practice in Goyang on the outskirts of the capital, the new South Koreans were easily spotted amid a pack of players in blue and white uniforms emblazoned "KOREA".

"It's a different jersey than you grew up looking at and cheering for," said Canadian-born defenceman Eric Regan.

Never drafted, Regan bounced around teams, leagues, and countries until he came to South Korea three years ago to play for one of its three professional clubs, and was eventually offered a new passport and a spot on the national team.

As "a Caucasian playing for an Asian country", it took "a little bit of adjustment" before he could fully embrace his new uniform, he admitted.

- 'One goal' -

The team's Canadian coach and former international Jim Paek -- the first Korea-born NHL player to win the Stanley Cup -- shouted orders in a mix of English and Korean as his multicultural team skated at speed, passing the puck and smashing it into the net.

"It doesn't matter where you came from," said Paek, who moved to Canada with his parents as a baby. "Now, we all have one goal as the Korean national hockey team."

In top hockey-playing nations such as Canada, the unveiling of the men's Olympic roster is a highly publicised event after top NHL players have competed for months to wear the Maple Leaf.

Canadian-born goaltender Matt Dalton, once the backup for the backup of the Boston Bruins, was never likely to get a chance to participate.

Instead, a South Korean agent approached him three years ago after his contract with a Russian team ended, offering him a club spot with a bigger paycheque and job security -- and a chance to stop pucks at the Olympics.

"If I didn't take it, I knew someone else would take this opportunity and I didn't want to regret it," he said.

- Nation v Nation -

Some South Korean media have labelled the exercise a vain attempt at one-time Olympic glory, expressing concerns that the players could abandon their new passports and leave after the Games.

As well as imports, the South Korean government has pumped millions of dollars into its previously ignored hockey programme, hiring top coaches and upgrading the team facilities and equipments.

But the challenges are daunting. The country of more than 50 million people has only 133 professional male ice hockey players.

South Korea lost 25-0 to Japan in 1982, but performances have improved more recently, and they won silver at this year’s Asian Games in Sapporo, shutting out China 10-0 and defeating the hosts 4-1.

But at Pyeongchang 2018 they face far tougher opposition, drawn in a pool with Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and top-ranked Canada, hunting their third consecutive Olympic gold.

That means most of the imports will line up to play against the country of their birth.

"Is there going to be little bit more added incentive and eyes on us? Yeah. But it's still a hockey game," Regan told AFP.

"When I put the jersey on I know who I'm playing for and who I'm playing against."