KREFELD, Germany – At its best, ice hockey has the ability to create camaraderie and an outlet for healthy competition between people from widely divergent backgrounds. It has the ability to transcend political boundaries and to promote teamwork between groups of individuals bonded by the crests on the front of their uniforms and not by the surnames on the back.
Promoting these ideals and encouraging wider hockey participation by youngsters from migrant backgrounds is the goal behind the Hockey is Diversity program recently launched in Germany.
The program was the brainchild of Martin Hyun, a native German of Korean parentage who played pro hockey in Germany's Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL) for Krefeld Pinguine, NCAA college hockey in the United States and semi-pro hockey in Belgium. Hyun, who studied for a Ph.D. on the social integration of ethnic minorities in Korea and Germany, wrote a related book, entitled “Silent, Yes. Speechless, No.”
“Sports is not a cure-all for developmental problems in society, but it is something that can make a positive difference in one’s environment,” Hyun wrote.
Hyun is just one of several current or former players from foreign backgrounds to rise to the sport’s top level in Germany. Likewise, players such as Croatian-Germans Sascha Martinovic and Danijel Kovacic, Turkish-German Sinan Akdag, Russian-German Michail Kozhevnikov, Canadian-born German citizen Jay Luknowsky and 17-year-old Krefeld Pinguine prospect Julian van Lijden (who was born in Bogota, Columbia, and is of Dutch descent) have all lent their names and their time to promoting the Hockey is Diversity initiative.
As one of the first steps in promoting the program, Hockey is Diversity took part in the “Fair Play: Sports and Integration Conference” in Berlin organized by State Commissioner for Social Integration Prof. Dr. Maria Böhmer. Ultimately, the most important steps will come in providing on-ice and off-ice resources to enable people of all ages – but especially youngsters – from diverse backgrounds with the opportunity to learn and play the game.
All of the players and former players involved with the initiative realize that exposure and access to hockey is both the greatest challenge and opportunity in promoting diversity, especially in a country such as Germany, where hockey is a secondary sport despite its lengthy history in the country. Without easy and affordable access, even those who would otherwise be interested in participating would be interested.
The other part of the challenge is one of creating strength in numbers by making people recognize their commonalities rather than focusing on their differences. First and foremost, program participants are bonded by their love of hockey and experience playing a part in the sporting world’s ultimate team game. What’s more, although their family surnames and physical features may not be “typically” German and vary widely from one another, all of the program’s supporters are proud of their German citizenship.
By uniting under the Hockey is Diversity banner, the current and former players involved in the initiative create awareness of the contributions of people from an array of backgrounds to hockey in Germany. In the long run, the more people that get involved in hockey, the more the sport itself benefits. Initiative creator Hyun hopes that his own hockey journey will inspire others to take up the game.
In 1971, his parents emigrated from South Korea to Krefeld in what was then West Germany. Through an economic-aid and trade-privilege agreement with the Korean government, the West German government arranged for the Hyuns and other families to come live and work in Germany. Hyun was born in Krefeld on May 4, 1979.
At the age of five, he started to play ice hockey for the local youth team. Krefeld has one of the strongest hockey cultures in football-obsessed Germany, and all of the other boys on Hyun’s team learned to skate as toddlers. Hyun, however, had never been on skates before. As a result, he spent more time getting up of the seat of his pants than gliding around the ice.
“I couldn’t skate at all. When we had a game, the parents would try to yank me off the ice,” he recalls.
But the youngster was nothing if not persistent. He worked hard and improved rapidly. Before long, he could skate circles around all but the very best players. At age 11, Hyun was selected to play on the North Rhine Westphalia Province select youth team, where he played alongside future German national team player Daniel Kreutzer.
At age 16, Hyun worked his way up to the top rungs of the Krefeld Pinguine development system. His skills earned him spots on the German national team in several age categories, including the German team at the 1995 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, a tournament in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada in which he played against future NHL stars such as Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Roberto Luongo.
The following year, Hyun was added to Krefeld’s DEL roster, playing in five preseason games on a line with former NHL players Chris Lindberg and Peter Ihnacack, and scoring two goals. But the DEL is a veteran-dominated league and Hyun was sent to Krefeld’s farm team in the second league, where he played on a line with future Latvian men’s team member Maris Ziedins. Following the 1996-97 season, Hyun made the decision to leave Germany for the United States in order to pursue an athletic scholarship at an American university.
Hyun attended Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School in St. Louis, Minnesota, scoring 23 goals in 25 games while skating on a dominant line alongside brothers Troy Riddle and Jake Riddle, both of whom were later drafted by NHL teams and played minor league hockey. The next year, Hyun moved to Lake Placid, New York, to attend the prestigious Northwood Prep School.
Although he was recruited by Division I college hockey programs, Hyun realized that he was not quite skilled enough to have an NHL future. Instead, he decided that he was better suited for the combination of academics, athletics and theology on the campus of then NCAA Division II champions St. Michael’s College, a Catholic liberal arts college in Colcester, Vermont.
Hyun had strong seasons in his freshman and sophomore years, but injuries curtailed his junior and senior seasons. In the meantime, he earned a college degree in political science, with a minor in international business. He moved back to Europe to pursue his graduate studies, while playing hockey on the side. While attending University of Kent at Canterbury in Brussels, he played semi-professional hockey for the Leuven Chiefs.
In the summer of 2004, Hyun accepted an invitation to return home to Krefeld to play for the Penguins’ DEL team. In the season that followed, Hyun became the first Korean-German player to suit up in the DEL. He played 38 games. After the season, he called his active career quits to pursue his Ph.D. at the University of Regensburg and to get involved in political and economic exchanges, working in Germany and also travelling to South Korea.
Throughout his hockey career, Hyun experienced what it is like to be a member of a minority group. Among his teammates and coaches, he was treated like any other player. But dealing with the public was sometimes a different story. Although he was a German citizen and spoke the German language as fluently as he spoke Korean to his parents, he stood out from the other youngsters because he looked different. He was also treated differently at times when travelling with his teams.
“I guess that on every team I played on, I portrayed something exotic. Especially when I was going through airports. Customs workers would sometimes ask me if I was going to a table tennis tournament. Hockey and Asians didn’t fit the stereotype,” Hyun said.
Even after he reached the professional ranks at the DEL level, Hyun noted he was sometimes held by security at airports and questioned about his purpose for travelling with the team. He was also subject to some nasty taunts from the fans of opposing teams.
“Especially, after the unification of Germany, it was often frustrating to hear people from the stands calling me derogatory names, clearly with a racial motive,” he said.
In creating the Hockey is Diversity initiative years later, Hyun and the other participants in the program strive to do their part in creating an atmosphere where people recognize the diversity that already exists in German and global hockey and to help make the sport even more diverse in the future.