KRYNICA – A standout player for Korea, Woosang Park, looks back at an adventurous season in British hockey, which has developed him both on and off the ice.
In Korea's 3-0 win against Lithuania, Park's bulky frame of 191 centimetres and 96 kilos proved to be a match as good as any for the burly Balts. But the 26-year-old also showed glimpses that there is more aspects to his game than just his size as it was his fine skating and vision that set him up for a nicely taken final goal in Korea's second successive win at the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Krynica, Poland.
"He is one of our top players and has an important role in the team," said Sun Wook Byun, Korea's head coach, about his gargantuan center. "His vision for the game has improved since being in England, and because of his size he’s very useful in front of the opponents goal. But he finished the play-offs with his team over two weeks ago, so he not in 100% condition."
Following two championship titles in three seasons with Anyang Halla, Park was keen on a new challenge outside of his native country ahead of this season. With 119 points in 107 regular season games for the Asia League team based just outside the capital of Seoul, he was now harbouring hopes to get a shot at European or North American hockey.
Park, who previously had experienced a short spell playing junior hockey in British Columbia, Canada as well as attending the New York Islanders' prospects camp in 2003, got his wish granted thanks to a former team-mate.
Dustin Wood, a Canadian blueliner, had played two seasons with Park in Korea and was now at Coventry Blaze in the British Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL). The Blaze, who was already well into their season, still had an import slot still open, and when Wood made the club's head coach Paul Thompson aware of the tall Korean's ambitions, the interest soon became mutual.
"I had coached against Woosang a couple of times as a national team coach of Great Britain, and I do remember him being one of Korea's top players. I didn't see him from any of his games in the Asia League, but yes, from a national team point of view I had seen him play, so it was a calculated gamble," said Thompson, who worked as head coach of Great Britain between 2007-11.
The Seoul-born centre arrived to the West Midlands with a point to prove being the first Korean-trained player in British hockey. Thrown in at the deep end, he immediately found out that the British game was somewhat different than he was used to.
"The British league is at a higher level and very different than the Asia League," said Park. "It was a lot more tougher and aggressive. Already in the first game, there was a fight. But I was lucky because I had a linesman, Bryan Jurynec, who always took care of anyone trying to start with me."
He marked his home game debut with a goal as the Blaze beat Dundee Stars 4-3 at the Skydome Arena. Nine games and six Park points later, the initial one-month try-out deal had been extended until the end of the season. Meanwhile, off the ice, Park admits that it was a struggle to come to terms with a very different way of life.
"Every day was cold and raining and I was missing my friends and family, so that was the hardest thing," said Park, who arrived to Britain without knowing the language well, which made it hard for him to integrate initially.
"He knew little English when he got here, but at the end of the season he could have conversations already. He is a lovely guy and was very popular here. He came to experience a new culture, new country and different style of hockey, so he will be going home as a way more rounded player," said Thompson who always keeps the door and his eyes open for new imports, no matter where they are from.
"The hockey world is such an open place today. Swedes no longer play in Sweden. Finns no longer in Finland. We had a British guy, Ben O'Connor, who played so well for our national team last year that he was picked up by a team in Kazakhstan, Sary-Arka Karaganda," said Thompson.
Coventry who had a disappointing season by their own high standards, lost out in the first round of the EIHL Playoffs against the Cardiff Devils. Park, who played on the third line, ended his debut season with 24 points in 43 EIHL regular season games, and will now be returning to an uncertain future in Korea after playing his sixth senior World Championship for Korea.
With a two-year compulsory military service looming, where Park won't be able to play the sport he loves, it will not only have a detrimental effect on his own development, but also on the Korean game as a whole, as many players never find their way back to the sport once their conscriptual duties are over. Park admits he is still between two minds about what his future might hold.
"I might play one more year in the Asia League, before I go to the military service. If I continue playing after that I need to improve my skills levels if I want to play abroad again one day."