BUDAPEST – Canadians representing other nationalities in hockey are no rarity. But when Brock Radunske played in his first game at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A he wrote history as the first athlete without Korean heritage to represent the country.
Italy, for example, has no less than nine Canada-born players on its roster. Most of them have Italian roots and played many years in the Italian league.
In the Far East the population is usually more homogenous and there are few western faces on national teams. One notable exception in hockey is Aaron Keller from Kamloops, British Columbia, who has been living and playing in Japan since 1999 and wore the Japanese jersey for the first time in the 2004/2005 season. He also plays at the World Championship Division I Group A in Budapest.
Korea’s answer to Keller is Brock Radunske from Kitchener, Ontario. After playing junior hockey in his home province he moved to Michigan State University where he appeared in the famous “Cold War” outdoor game before a then-world record crowd of 74,544 that was the kick-off for other such events like the NHL Winter Classic or the opening game of the 2010 IIHF World Championship in Germany that broke the Michigan record at that time.
After his college career he went on to play in the AHL and ECHL. In 2007 his eastward journey began. First he went to Augsburg, Germany, and one year later to Anyang, a satellite city of Seoul with 630,000 inhabitants.
Five years later he calls Korea his home and received Korean citizenship. In five seasons with Anyang Halla, one of two professional hockey teams in the country that take part in the Asia League, he played 194 games and had 128 goals and 174 assists.
At 193 cm (6”4’) he’s the tallest player on his team and earned the nickname “Canadian Big Beauty”.
He was named MVP of the Asia League’s regular season in 2009 and play-off MVP in 2010 when Anyang Halla became the first non-Japanese club to win the Asia League.
The 30-year-old received a Korean passport in March and was declared eligible to represent his new country in international ice hockey after his long time he spent living and playing in the country.
“It feels good that they have accepted me. From what I have been told that’s pretty unusual that this happens to a complete foreign player. So it feels special because they like something about me and my character and offered this opportunity for me,” the forward said.
“With many players I have played all these years because they’re on my club team and I’m happy that I can continue to contribute also at the international level.”
During his years in the Far East he even learned the language.
“I can speak a bit Korean and can chat with the guys,” he said. “I had to pass a couple of questions to get my passport and had to explain why I want to take part in this adventure.”
And he even had to know the national anthem – definitely an advantage for a player who wants to win games for his country. Apart from that he’s been adjusting well to life in Korea, his free time is now mostly spent with his wife and the couple’s eight-month old baby girl Lucy.
Five years ago the former Edmonton Oilers third-round pick would hardly have dreamed about wearing a national team jersey.
“When I first went over to Korea I was a bit nervous and scared and did a little research,” Radunske confessed. “I found out that Anyang is a big city and has many conveniences. There’s a big ex-pat community so it was easier for me to tap into a few networks. So it wasn’t as hard as I thought originally. Once you go over and you have a good experience there you want to stay longer.”
That’s why he signed a three-year contract extension after his first season – an unusually long contract for a foreign player in Korean sports.
The goal of Radunske’s adventure is clear. With signs of improvement in Korean hockey he wants to help the national team to become Olympic-ready five years before hosting the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang.
“In the last 12 months the team has shown that it’s capable to move up the rankings. We’re not quite there yet in every game and in every shift but for these guys to be able to come back like that and to win a game against a top-20 country is great for the team,” Radunske said after the 5-4 shoot-out victory against Hungary on Monday.
It was the first-ever victory against this year’s host in the 11th clash between the two countries’ men’s national teams. What the Koreans showed especially in the third period was far away from previous scores, like an 18-2 blowout in the first game between the two nations at the 1982 IIHF World Championship C-Pool in Jaca, Spain.
While Hungary dreams of returning to the top division after four years, Korea came to Budapest with more modest ambitions as the team that was promoted from the Division I Group B to this year’s Group A, replacing Ukraine.
“We came in to show that we belong to this group,” Radunske said. “As of now nothing is clear. We still have to win one more game and then we’re pretty safe to stay in this group.”
Korea continues the tournament with a neighbouring clash against Japan on Wednesday before facing current leader Kazakhstan and then Great Britain on the last day. The teams are no stranger for the squad of Sun Wook Byun. At the Olympic Pre-Qualification group in Nikko, Japan, the Koreans defeated Great Britain 5-4 in a shootout but lost to Japan in overtime.
For now the hope is to succeed against these teams again and maintain in the group in a time when more investment is flowing into Korean hockey. Next season there will even be a Korean-owned team in Mestis, the second-tier Finnish league.
But does Radunske also dream of representing his new nation at the Olympics when the fire will be lit in PyeongChang?
“That’s a goal for many players,” he said. “At my age I don’t know whether they see me as a big contributor to that team [in five years] but right now I feel I still can hang it on at least for a little bit at my prime so I can help them at least to move up in the rankings.
“If I can still play then I’ll be happy.”
Brock Radunske receives the award for the best player of his team in the game against Hungary. Photo: Laszlo Mudra