SEOUL – “Korea has great potential for development in men's hockey and has a chance to qualify for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games on home ice,” said Jim Paek, the new head coach of the Korean men’s national team.
The former NHL defenceman recently named Korea's head coach also told media representatives at his inaugural press conference in Seoul that his goal is to try to improve his squad on a daily basis.
“I think there's great potential for the development of hockey here,” Paek said. “We're going to get better every day and are not going to worry about the Olympics or the World Championship. We'll focus on what we're going to do to get better and not worry about the conclusion. Then we'll be successful in the end.”
The Korea Ice Hockey Association (KIHA) turned to Paek, a former rear guard for the Pittsburgh Penguins with two Stanley Cup rings, to help Korea qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics to be held in PyeongChang 180 kilometres east of Seoul.
The qualification mode for the Olympics is not set but Korea has never qualified before. At a press conference during the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Goyang, a satellite city of Seoul, IIHF President Rene Fasel said that the IIHF Council would consider giving Korea a spot in the Olympics as long as the 2018 host improved its position to 18th or better before the format and the final seeding will be determined in 2016. Currently 23rd in the IIHF World Ranking, Korea has already improved by ten positions over the past four years.
Paek, 47, said Korea's journey toward an Olympic berth will begin with better coaching.
“We have to coach the players better,” said Paek, who last week opened the tryouts for the men's under-18 team and was joined by two temporary assistants, former NHL forward Richard Park, who was also born in Seoul, and Spiros Anastas, head coach of the men's hockey team at the University of Lethbridge in Canada.
“It starts with coaching and goes all the way down (to players), and we have to develop a system which will allow them to grow,” Paek added. “The plan is to have good competition and play other teams that are better than we are right now to see what it takes to win and how to be successful. Within Korea, we have to raise our standard of play.”
Paek acknowledged his recent travelling schedules have prevented him from getting a closer look at hockey in Korea but that he believes Koreans have the skill to compete with the world's hockey powers.
“They can skate, they can shoot and they can pass,” he said. “Why can't we do what Canada, the U.S. and Russia do in their countries? I believe we can improve and be competitive at the world stage.”
Though time is running out for Korea to qualify for PyeongChang 2018, Paek said things still look “promising” for the country.
“If we look too far ahead, we'll lose our focus,” he said. “We have to focus every day and get better every day, which will allow us to participate (in the Olympics) and be successful.”
Paek was born in Seoul but his family moved to Canada when he was one year old. He was drafted by the Penguins in 1985 and made his NHL debut during the 1990/1991 season becoming the first Korean native to play in the National Hockey League.
He won back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Penguins in 1991 and 1992 on a team that included stars like Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis and Paul Coffey. Paek remains the only Korean-born player to have his name engraved on hockey's Holy Grail.
After his playing career ended, Paek turned to coaching. He was an assistant coach for the Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League, a minor league affiliate of the NHL's Detroit Red Wings, between 2005 and 2014 when he accepted the Korean offer. The Griffins won the AHL title in 2013.
Paek said it has been his life-long dream to one day play for his Korea and, failing that, to coach his native country. He admitted it was a tough decision to be away from his family, who resides in the United States, but he has its full support to help develop Korean hockey.
“It was a great opportunity for me to stretch myself as a coach and to learn,” Paek said. “That's what we want to do in life: learn every day and get better every day.”
Korea will play in the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Eindhoven, Netherlands, in the new season where they will play Croatia, Lithuania, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Estonia.
Yonhap News Agency Korea