Korea’s Gladiator
by Martin Merk|05 MAY 2022
Sanghoon Shin watches from the player bench during the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A.
photo: Martin Metelko
At the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A the teams are battling for promotion to the top division. One of them is Korea. The Asian nation dreams of getting back to the top division for the second time after 2018 when Korea did not only play at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics as host but also qualified on the ice for the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Denmark.

It's not an easy task because the Covid-19 pandemic and countermeasures hit Asia harder than Europe or North America. The Asia League with teams from Japan, Korea and the Russian island of Sakhalin couldn’t be finished in 2020 and had to be cancelled for two full seasons afterwards. Travel and quarantine restrictions made it impossible to run the cross-border league that had been vital for the rise of Korean ice hockey in the 2000s.

For many Korean players the restrictions on travel and indoor sports in Korea meant very little ice time and game experiences during two years and thus a leap in the dark against its European opponents that went back to relative normality.

However, not all players were without game practice as two decided to try their luck abroad. Chong Min Lee played for Swedish third-tier team Tranas AIF while Sanghoon Shin moved to the ECHL’s Atlanta Gladiators.

His team Anyang Halla had travelled to North America to play three games and he was discovered by scouts at the Atlanta Hockey Showcase in October and joined the team during the winter.

What makes Shin a gladiator?

“Just to score goals, use speed and forecheck. That’s it. Just simple play,” he said.

Shin led the Asia League with 22 goals in its last season in 2019/2020 and shone with goals in the ECHL as well. His 13 markers in 31 regular-season games make him one of the best goal-per-game scorers on his team that beside him only consists of North American players.

The 28-year-old Olympian with the experience of now eight senior World Championship tournaments is only the second player who learned his hockey in Korea to play in the ECHL, North America’s third-tier professional league. Han Sung Kim played the 2003/2004 season for the Greenville Grrrowl.

“Some players are afraid to leave and play for a club abroad. I tell them that they can do it too, that they can play in the USA or Canada. Don’t be afraid to go abroad,” Shin said while acknowledging that playing hockey in the ECHL is quite different from what he was used to back home.

“The rink size is much different to me and the physical play is quite different.”

Off the ice he didn’t have problem to adjust to the life at the east coast of the U.S. despite its differences to Asia.

“The lifestyle is not much different for me because I’m not that kind of person who has difficulties when being abroad and eating different food. I just enjoy the experience,” Shin said.
Sanghoon Shin skates during Korea's game against Romania.
photo: Martin Metelko
Shin was born in Seoul like most of his teammates from the national team since there are not many ice rinks available in other cities.

“If you’re interested in hockey there are many places to play hockey in Seoul. As a kid I automatically got into hockey because my older brother played hockey. He retired from the national team but he still is with Halla,” the younger Shin said. His eighth World Championship tournament with the men’s national team is also his first without Sangwoo Shin, 34, who decided to retire from the national team after last year’s Olympic Qualification campaign.

For now his focus is on the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Ljubljana. In the Slovenian capital the Koreans aim at finishing in the top-two positions to earn promotion to the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. A 5-1 opening-day loss to Hungary made those ambitions more difficult but Korea bounced back with a 4-1 win against Romania to keep hopes alive.

Now must-win games against Lithuania on Friday and against Slovenia on Sunday follow.

“I feel happy to be able to play with our national team and to help earn promotion to the top division,” Shin said. “We want to get promoted. We have two games remaining. It will be tough games but we will do our best to win the games.”

Shin knows what it takes. He was on the team that finished second – ahead of Kazakhstan, Poland, Hungary and host Ukraine – at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Kyiv to qualify for the first time to play among the top-16 hockey countries. However, the top-level adventure didn’t take long as Korea lost all seven games in Denmark and was relegated. Playing against the top countries in the world was a difficult task and the closest game was a 3-1 loss to host Denmark.

One year later at the Division I Group A tournament in Nur-Sultan the Koreans finished third behind Kazakhstan and Belarus. They beat Hungary, Slovenia and Belarus but lost to Kazakhstan and Lithuania.

What does it take to improve the level and to challenge the top countries? “Game experience is important,” Shin said. “I want young players to go abroad and play in different leagues. That’s important for us.”

Shin may follow suit and is eager to add a second season in North America. “We will talk with Atlanta in the summer,” he said while for now his full focus is with Korea’s national team.