ZURICH – Representatives from the Korean Ice Hockey Association (KIHA) and the PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games (POCOG) were in Zurich last week to meet with the IIHF.
Among the items discussed were plans to revamp the ice hockey program infrastructure, the introduction of the Olympic ice hockey venues, and talent development initiatives for the sport in Korea.
“While IIHF and KIHA have always enjoyed a good cooperation, the recent meeting further confirmed and developed the constructive relationship between our two organizations as well as with the Organizing Committee of the 2018 Winter Games,” said IIHF President René Fasel.
“The workshop with the KIHA and POCOG officials was highly productive and laid the foundation for successful preparations leading up to the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. The IIHF appreciates the long journey the Korean representatives took upon them in coming to Zurich and thanks them for the diligence and commitment exhibited in their preparations for the meeting.”
Korea’s men’s national team has made significant strides in recent years, having moved up eight spots in the IIHF World Ranking since 2010 and winning the 2012 IIHF World Championship Division I Group B. The newly-promoted Koreans will also get to play on home ice this season when the country hosts the Division I, Group A tournament in the city of Goyang.
But before the men’s and women’s programs can take the next big competitive leap forward, the KIHA and IIHF acknowledged that work needs to be done to establish and sustain the level of quality required to a top-level program.
“The KIHA will keep working hard and make every possible effort to enhance the level of Korean hockey as well as play a leading role in the rise of Asia as an emerging market in the ice hockey world,” said KIHA President Mog Won Chun. “Both the IIHF and KIHA understand each other through a candid and in-depth discussion, and we recognize the right direction towards a bright future for our fascinating sport.”
As the first step, the KIHA identified the need for a program director to manage the national teams. The Korean delegation also presented plans to introduce a full-time centralization program for the country’s junior players.
Taking an approach emphasizing talent development, the association is hoping to build a foundation for a senior National Team Development Program, one that can get its players more games throughout the year and more experience playing against higher-ranked nations.
Ice hockey in Korea has had some obstacles to overcome, including a relatively small base of registered players, compounded on the men’s side by the 21-month requirement for military service by young Koreans.
“In the case of hockey players, they would postpone their duty until the age of 28,” said Kwangeun Stine Choi, spokesperson for the KIHA. “Once they entered army service, they have to stay in a troop and have only limited days to go out, and no ice time. Due to this reason most Korean hockey players retire at age 28, very few come back to play after the army service.”
With this in mind, the KIHA developed the Daemyung Sangmu (Military) Ice Hockey team, which was established in 2012 in cooperation with the Korean Ministry of Defence. Ice hockey players can now compete with SangMu for two years in place of military service, before going back to their pre-military teams.
Formed with past and current national team players, the team got a big boost when the Asian League allowed SangMu to participate in the 2013/2014 regular season. Playing with a short bench (SangMu currently has only 17 players on the roster), SangMu reached the top of the league standings in October, and is currently sitting in third place with a 12-8 record.
Beyond the SangMu program, other initiatives included the integration of Korean players into the Finnish second-tier league team Kiekko-Vantaa and the establishment of a domestic women’s college team. Plans are also being made for the Korean team to utilize the IIHF National Team Breaks for a series of exhibition games in Korea, Canada and far-east Russia. On the women’s side, a month-long training camp in Canada is in the works for late 2014.
Each of these programs underline the need to also build long-term sustainability for the sport, not just for the Olympics but beyond PyeongChang as well, a sentiment that was echoed by the delegation.
But with a strong desire from all parties to increase the sport’s quality and visibility in the country, Korean ice hockey will be a story worth following once the final whistle blows in Sochi.