SEOUL – When it comes to international hockey, progress cannot always be measured by wins and losses. The U20 Challenge Cup of Asia held in May in Seoul was a good example of a tournament in which the game results and final standings were of lesser importance than the goal of providing secondary hockey countries with the opportunity for improvement.
Even before the tournament started, it was a virtual foregone conclusion that the Russian team (consisting of players from the MHL) would have little difficulty finishing first. The least advanced team, Chinese Taipei, was a lock to finish fifth. China was likely to beat Taipei and lose to the other four teams. However, there was pre-tournament suspense over whether Korea could overtake Japan for second place, and whether the Koreans and Japanese could avoid losing to Russia by double-digit scores.
If there was any doubt that the hockey program in South Korea has made gains on the rest of the world in recent years, the U20 Asia Challenge and the 2012 World Championships Division I Group B results served as evidence of their ongoing improvement.
The Koreans and Japanese are now neck-and-neck for Asian ice hockey supremacy, and have formed a hockey rivalry worthy of their rivalries in other sports. This is especially true in light of the fact that, within the professional Asia League, Korean team Anyang Halla has become a championship contender on equal footing with the top Japanese clubs in recent years. On an international level, the Koreans’ next goal will be to establish themselves as a competitive team within the higher Division I grouping.
At the U20 Asia Challenge, the Korean team performed on virtually equal footing with the Japanese. Both teams worked hard to avoid humiliation in their games against the superior Russian entry, with Korea losing 0-6 and Japan defeated by a 7-0 count. While these scores may seem rather lopsided, it was actually a sign of improvement, especially for Korea. It was not all that many years ago when a Korean senior level hockey team would have considered itself fortunate to hold a similarly talented Russian U20 junior team to fewer than 10 goals.
The Korean and Japanese juniors also did what they needed to do against the weaker Chinese and Chinese Taipei entries. Japan dismantled Taipei by a 26-0 score and defeated China by an 11-1 count. The tournament host Koreans had only slightly more difficulty defeating Taipei (10-1) and China (7-1). As a benchmark, Russia defeated Taipei by a 29-0 score and beat China, 15-0, to finish the tournament with a final goal differential of 57-0.
The tournament’s most dramatic game, not surprisingly, came when Korea and Japan met head to head. In a high-scoring match with numerous momentum shifts, the game was tied, 7-7, at the end of regulation. Finally, Japanese star forward Makuru Furuhashi won the game in overtime with his tournament-leading 12th goal and 17th point.
Furuhashi, a Chuo University product who also stood out at the 2012 IIHF U20 World Championship Division I Group B, is the best teenaged player in Asia right now. But Korea’s Sang Hoon Shin can make a case for being Korea’s best junior player and one of the top three or four in Asia.
Shin, who scored 5 goals and 8 points in his four Asia Challenge tournament games, has continued to build upon the early dominance he showed at the 2010 and 2011 Under-18 Division II World Championships. He saved his best for last at the Asia Challenge, scoring a pair of goals and adding an assist in the game against Japan. A recent graduate of the powerhouse Jung Dong High School program, Shin now plays for the Yonsei University program.
Another Korean standout at the Asia Challenge was June Hee Kim. A Jung Dong High School teammate of Shin’s, Kim posted three goals and seven points in the Asia Challenge. He is slated to play next season for Korea University.
“Jung Dong High school is one of the Junior Elite Hockey teams in Korea,” said Korea Ice Hockey Association spokesperson Kwangeun Stine Choi. “It is one of the sources for the top Korean university programs to recruit players. The two Korean professional teams (Anyang Halla and High1) mostly scout players from the college level and also run youth hockey teams.”
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 four 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.
Most of Korea’s national team players come from Yonsei University or Korea University, with a smaller number of players 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, Kyunggi and Jung Dong 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. In a couple of cases, promising young Korean players have found spots in European minor leagues.
“Since there are only 4 hockey college teams, it's really easy to scout and bring players for the Halla and High1,” said former Anyang Halla assistant general manager Sam Kim. “It’s basically a question of who gets the player first. A lot of it has to do with networking. Coaches know college staffs and coaches, and they are all friendly with each other. The Korean coaches do go see high school games, too, to see players' development and also for future reference.”
Korea’s small but well-established and ever-improving infrastructure for developing young talent has begun to filter up to the senior level as well in recent years. At the 2012 World Championship Division I Group B in Poland, the Korean team upended the tournament hosts, 3-2, in the final game. As a result, the Koreans finished the tournament undefeated in five games to earn a promotion to Group A in 2013. Their opponents will be Japan, Italy, Kazakhstan, Great Britain and tournament host Hungary.
While Sochi 2014 is an unrealistic goal, the Korean hockey program does have an eye towards the following Winter Olympics, to be held on home soil in PyeongChang in 2018. In order for Korea to qualify as hosts, however, the men’s team must be ranked 18th or above in the IIHF World Ranking by 2016. A tall order, but not impossible, and the team has already took a positive step by going up three spots to #28 thanks to their win in Poland.
It is likely that it will take Korea a little longer to stick permanently in the higher Division I grouping rather than yo-yoing between relegation and promotion. Nevertheless, at the rate of progress that Korean hockey has shown in the last 12 years, the time may not be too far off when the senior team becomes capable of upsetting higher-ranked Division I teams.