SEOUL – Unbeknownst to most western hockey fans and even most native Koreans, the sport of ice hockey has a tradition in Korea that spans 81 years. The Korean Ice Hockey Association was founded in 1928 and, in January 1930, the first national champion (Yonsei University) was crowned. At that time, the sport was sanctioned by the Athletic Association of Korea (Chosun). In November 1930, the new Korean Ice Hockey Federation became the game’s national governing body.
After the division of Korea, South Korea formed its own Ice Hockey Association in 1947. A dozen years later, the nation submitted its application to the International Ice Hockey Federation in 1959. The following year, the IIHF accepted Korea as a member nation. In 1979, the South Korean national team played its first World Championship match in Spain.
For much of Korea’s post-war hockey history, the country’s universities have been the hub of hockey activity and the primary development ground for players on senior and junior national teams. There are five college teams in South Korea, with 11 senior high school teams, 11 junior high teams and nine elementary school teams providing the initial training for the vast majority of national team players. Of the 1,140 registered male players in South Korea (out a nation of over 49 million people), 995 are juniors.
Most of Korea’s national team players come from Yonsei University or Korea University, with a smaller number of players arising from either Han Yang or Kyunghee Universities. Typically, many of these players were standouts at either Kyungbok or Kyungsong High School before moving up the ladder to the college level. Boseong and Kyunggi High Schools are also significant development sources for the college teams. A handful of Korean university products go on to play professionally for one of the two Korean teams (Anyang and High1) in the Asia League or, in a couple of cases, European minor leagues.
Since the dawn of the new millennium, the South Korean junior and senior national teams have shown marked improvement. Although Korea is ranked an unimpressive 31st by the IIHF in men’s hockey and 26th in women’s hockey (there are only 77 registered women’s players), there has been slow but steady progress.
Two years ago, the South Koreans enjoyed their first major international hockey breakthrough at the senior level. Seoul’s Mok-Dong Arena was the host venue for the 2007 World Championship Division II Group B. The event was a success, despite the fact that DPR Korea (North Korea) withdrew its team from participation. In a pool that included Australia, Israel, Mexico and Iceland, the tournament hosts went undefeated to earn its promotion to the Division I level.
The Koreans were badly overmatched at the Division I level and were quickly relegated back to Division II. Undaunted, the team rebounded to win the 2009 World Championship Division II Group B in Sofia, Bulgaria. The Koreans beat Spain (6-4), Mexico (8-2), Bulgaria (14-2), South Africa (15-0) and dispatched silver medal winning Belgium (5-2) to clinch another promotion to Division I.
Meanwhile, 2009 has also been a banner year for the national U18 team. The Korean squad travelled to Slovenia to defeat favoured host nation Slovenia by a 4-2 score in the decisive game of the 2009 World U18 Championship Division II Group A tournament to earn a Division I promotion for next season. Along the way, the Koreans also downed Spain, Croatia, Romania and Mexico.
For the Korean juniors, the standout skaters were forwards Ji Man Yoon (Kyungbock High School) and Jin Hui Ahn (Kyungbock High School) as well as goaltender Jea Ik Han (Boseong High School). Yoon dominated the tournament with eight goals and 13 points in five games to take Best Forward honours, while Han permitted just four goals the entire tournament to win the Best Goaltender award. Ahn scored a hat trick in the crucial victory over Slovenia.
At the U20 level, the Koreans made a strong showing last December at the 2009 IIHF World U20 Championship Division II Group A tournament in Romania. The team won four of five games, defeating eventual gold medallist (and traditional archrival) Japan in regulation along the way to two regulation wins and two overtime victories. Only an opening game 4-1 loss at the hands of eventual silver medallist Lithuania prevented the Koreans from making a clean sweep of their Division II tournaments at all levels.
In the U20 Worlds, Seung Yup Lee (Kyongbock High School) was chosen by the tournament directorate for Best Goalkeeper honours. Forward Sung Yun Lee (Yonsei University) was the team’s standout skater, scoring four goals and six points.
FOOTNOTE: Coming next is a story about hockey in the Northern part of the Korean peninsula. Stay tuned on IIHF.com to read more about a hockey trip to DPR Korea.