The club calls it the Korean version of the “Miracle on Ice”. Anyang Halla became the first non-Japanese club champion of the Asia League, when it defeated title-holder Nippon Paper Cranes in a nail-biter final series. Before that, the 2003-founded league was won by Japanese teams in all six years.
The club that is run by the industrial conglomerate Halla Group and has a budget of three billion Won ($2.6m, €2m) is the oldest professional club of the country founded in 1994 and was one of the founding members of the Asia League. Together with High1 Chuncheon, Anyang Halla is one of currently two professional club teams in the country and both play in the Asia League. Four more teams play in a university league.
The team from Anyang, a city 20 kilometres South of the capital of Seoul, was the regular season winner, both this and last year. But while Anyang was eliminated in the semi-finals last year, they reached the happy end this time.
It was the Nippon Paper Cranes from the Japanese city of Kushiro that defeated Anyang in 2009 to become champion. This year, both teams met again in the final series that went over the full length of five games.
The last game on Sunday was like a thriller from a Hollywood script for the 2,695 spectators in Kushiro, Japan. The Japanese seemed to defend their title when Yoshinori Iimura scored the 4-3 goal with three minutes left in the third period.
But with goalie So-Sung Son pulled and an extra attacker on the ice, Ki-Sung Kim tied it up with 17 seconds left and sent the teams into overtime for the fourth time in the fifth match.
In overtime, the game was decided in favour of the Korean visitors when Anyang captain Woo-Jae Kim scored the game-winning goal at 64:33 with a shot from the blueline.
“This is unbelievable. Japan has been dominating since the league was founded in 2003. Now we beat the Cranes and I can’t describe the feeling in one word,” said Eui-Shik Shim, who was named Coach of the Year by the league.
With the title, Anyang also became the second team, after the Nippon Paper Cranes in 2007, to win the regular season and the playoffs in the same year.
Former Edmonton Oilers draft pick Brock Radunske, who is nicknamed “The Canadian Big Beauty” in Korea, was selected the Most Valuable Player of the playoffs. He led the playoffs with seven goals and six assists in nine games.
Czech forward Patrik Martinec was named MVP of the regular season. “When I arrived in Korea five years ago, Halla had no chance. We never thought about this. But now, Halla can compete with anyone. Now this is my last season as a pro, I can retire peacefully,” the 39-year-old announced.
The Koreans felt great satisfaction after the victory. “Ten years ago, Japanese teams ignored us when we asked to play exhibition games against them,” Anyang GM Seung-Jun Yang recalls. “Korean hockey has developed a lot since than. We still have a long way to go, but now we can beat any team in this league and are not afraid to face anybody.”
While the result may upset the Japanese, whose national team has been the number one in Asia since teams from the Far East started competing internationally, it is a historic and positive moment for the league. It has gained more cross-border rivalry and credibility after being dominated by Japanese teams for so many years. And that was exactly the purpose of the league when it was founded – to create more competition and more professionalism across the borders in the Far East.
“There are less than 40 rinks in Korea. Our players have to serve in the military when they are in their prime. We don’t have the best conditions compared to Japanese players,” assistant coach Justin Bae said. “But the boys worked really hard. We were all on the same page competing for the championship. I’m very happy for our boys.”
While Japanese clubs can build on the much bigger pool of players in the country – Japan has 21,027 registered players, the eighth-biggest number worldwide, Korea only 1,247 – Anyang was more active scouting players abroad.
“Imports are very important part of the league. They make the teams and the league better,” said the club’s scout Samuel Kim. “If you look at the leagues Germany or Switzerland, imports are the key. With good imports, Halla was able to win. We call this 'The Small Miracle' in Korea.”
Anyang is experienced with imports. Since joining the Asia League, they have had several hockey celebrities on their team. Esa Tikkanen, the five-time Stanley Cup champion from Finland, was player-coach for a year. Jaroslav Nedved, the brother of Petr Nedved, played for the team as did former NHLer Zdenek Nedved.
The foreign players, most of them Canadians, have an immense role in the Korean game as imports do elsewhere in the world of hockey, both in the NHL and in Europe.
All of them came with a lot of professional experience to help the team and make the Korean players better. Dustin Wood, who joined the team during the season, and Brock Radunske last played in the German DEL while Memphis-born defenceman Jon Awe spent time with the AHL’s Houston Aeros before transferring to Korea. Brad Fast dwelled in the AHL, Switzerland, Germany and Austria before joining Anyang. And Martinec spent 13 years in the Czech Extraliga and one season in Kazan, Russia, before finishing his career with five years in Korea.
Defenceman Ono Takayuki didn’t have to travel that far. He is from Japan.
“I’ve been in several leagues, but this is my first ever championship. I really enjoy being in Korea and enjoyed the Asia League. This is an amazing feeling,” Awe said after winning the title.
The Asia League consists of seven teams from China, Korea and Japan. The teams played a 36-game regular season followed by best-of-five semi-finals.
Anyang Halla beat High1 Chuncheon in four games in an all-Korean semi-final while third-seeded Nippon Paper Cranes defeated the Oji Eagles from Tomakomai in an all-Japanese series, also in four games.
Tohoku Free Blades finished their first season in fifth place. They entered the league replacing the Seibu Prince Rabbits that were no longer backed by their owners and folded.
The Nikko Ice Bucks were sixth with two points less while the China Dragon that played in Harbin and Shanghai finished last with only one win.
After the 2009-2010 Asia League has come to an end, the annual highlight begins for the best players of the league.
Japan is the third-seeded team in the 2010 IIHF World Championship Division I Group A in Tilburg, Netherlands, April 19-25.
Korea, which was promoted back to Division I, will play in Group B in Ljubljana, Slovenia, April 17-23.
China plays in the 2010 IIHF World Championship Division II Group B in Tallinn, Estonia, April 10-16.