How South Korea is building Olympic hockey team

South Korean hockey goalie Kye Hoon Park, center, speaks to reporters after a workout at the Dallas Stars' development hockey camp at the team's practice facility in Frisco, Texas, Thursday, July 9, 2015. South Korean players from the Asia League Ice Hockey are working out with the Stars. (LM Otero/AP)

FRISCO, Texas — South Korean goalie Kye Hoon Park took up ice hockey on the advice of an elementary school teacher.

His teacher used to be an ice hockey manager. And Park used to get in fights all the time.

"So my teacher was like, if you’re going to get in fights, then just play hockey," a smiling Park said through an interpreter during a recent visit by him and two teammates to a development camp for prospects of the NHL’s Dallas Stars.

Hockey’s roots aren’t deep in South Korea, which has never qualified for the Olympics but will get an automatic bid as host in Pyeongchang in 2018. That leaves three years to try to get as competitive as possible under coach Jim Paek, a native of Seoul, South Korea, and two-time Stanley Cup winner with Pittsburgh in the early 1990s.

Stars general manager Jim Nill struggled to find an analogy that illustrates the task ahead of his friend and former colleague in the Detroit organization.

"Remember the Dream Team?" Nill asked in reference to the first group of NBA players to win Olympic gold -- easily -- in 1992. "Playing against ... It would be a small, small country that's never played the sport much."

There will be plenty of opponents looking like the Dream Team to the South Koreans.

"They've got to play against Canada, Swedens, Russians, Czechs, Finlands," Nill said. "There's seven or eight world powers and then there's another group that's not quite there, but they're not bad teams, either. Korea is just getting their feet wet. It's a daunting task. You've got to start somewhere."

And that's why Paek asked Nill to let Park, defenceman Won Jun Kim and forward Jin Hui Ahn join a group of Dallas players still trying to reach the NHL. All three are under 25, and have a reasonable amount of experience with the national team.

And they're not trying to pretend they come from a hockey hotbed.

"Absolutely not," Ahn said through an interpreter when asked where the sport ranked in South Korea. "It's not there."

That doesn't mean South Korea isn't a skating country. It routinely turns out gold medal winners in Olympic speedskating -- and speed is one thing Koreans can bring to the hockey rink. It was on display with Kim and Ahn, who skated and manoeuvred well with their European counterparts.

Size is the biggest problem. The 5-foot-11 Kim, for example, looked tiny alongside skaters more than half a foot taller.

"We are smaller than like these guys, so we play more like we skate," said Kim, who spoke to reporters in English. "I think the guys in Asia, they play like skating. It's quite different. Here players are huge and strong."

There is a nine-team Asia League that starts a new season late next month, with the playoffs ending in April. That will be the extent of the professional experience for most of the players for South Korea.

Paek, who was not in Dallas with his young players and couldn't be reached for comment, is believed to be the first native of South Korea to play in the NHL, but he grew up in Canada. He used to help run hockey clinics in his home country.

"I don't want to make any promises," Paek said in a news release announcing South Korea's automatic hockey bid for the Olympics. "But as long as we focus on the process every day to get better, I think we'll be very competitive. And hopefully we'll represent the country well."

Nill was impressed with the skills shown by the visitors and doesn't doubt that Paek's hope will be realized.

"It will be great for the fans and everybody else," Nill said. "It's going to depend on what level they're at. They don't want to go there and get embarrassed, either. They've got pride. We're going to find out over the next two, three years."

In the meantime, they've got one thing down. Ahn was asked to say Stanley Cup in his native language.

"Uh ... Stanley Cup," he said with a smile, drawing hearty laughs.

Now, if they can just get things to translate on Olympic ice.