Enticed by the possibility of suiting up for host country South Korea during the 2018 Olympics, former Nashville Predators third-rounder Ryan Thang left his European career behind to sign with High1 of Asia League Ice Hockey, putting up 72 points in 48 games during the 2014-15 season.
His strong play earned him another contract for 2015-16 with the Seoul-based club that was signed and sealed in December, yet with the new season beginning, the American forward is in a standoff with the team, which he says is reneging on the deal.
“I did not report to training camp because I was informed by High1 that they want me to terminate my end of the contract,” Thang tells Sportsnet in an email interview. “I was given absolutely no reason. I personally had an unbelievable year for them statistically, and I led High1 in playoff points and helped them to their first ever playoff series win.
“High1 did make a strong effort to make me feel bad about wanting to uphold the contract, and several times informed me that there would be ‘No more High1 hockey team’ if a buyout/contract settlement were to occur, and that I should be a nice guy and just cancel my end of the contract.”
A lawyer for Thang travelled to Seoul in June to discuss the matter with High1 officials. If a settlement isn’t reached Thang says he’s spoken to several Korean lawyers interested in pursuing a lawsuit.
His plight is similar to that of Canadian pitcher Scott Richmond, who is in Korean court with the Lotte Giants, who have refused to honour a $700,000, one-year deal for the 2013 baseball season. They have another hearing scheduled for early next month.
A team translator for High1 referred a request for comment about Thang’s situation to an official for Kangwon Land Inc., the club’s parent company. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Thang, who played one game for the Predators in 2011-12 and has since taken the ice in Germany, Sweden and Finland, was initially reluctant to leave Europe for Asia when High1 contacted him through an agent. But he says a great plan for him from the team plus frequent mention of the 2018 Olympics lured him over.
“Select players are being given the opportunity to receive temporary Korean passports,” Thang explains. “I came to High1 because I was told that I was top priority to receive one, but I never officially had a guarantee from (national team coach) Jim Paek. I did have some encouraging conversations with the Korean Olympic hockey staff and if I was allowed to return to High1 this season, then I would have had my two years of playing in Korea, and I would have been able to pursue a Korean passport if Jim Paek and his staff needed another forward who has played in or against almost every top league in the world.”
But things started to go sour after the sides completed a new contract, when Thang says a new president took over at High1 sports.
“I was told that ice hockey was not at the top of his list,” he says. “I was assured through the team manager that I had nothing to worry about, though, since we already had a signed contract for the upcoming season. I went on to buy and prepare our apartment for the new baby and made sure that everything was set up for our return to Seoul on July 27th of 2015.”
Thang’s son was born in Seoul last February and he bought baby supplies and furniture for the apartment he leased for the new season. But soon after, “I was told through the team translator that High1 would appreciate if I just cancelled my end of the contract, just ‘to be nice guy.’”
Thang is now back in Minneapolis, trying to sort out his situation and find a resolution, either with or without the help of a court. His work status remains in limbo and he says he hasn’t been paid under terms of his new deal.
“I’ve completely lost my window to work elsewhere and this is the reason why I am so upset with High1,” he says. “I’m only 28 years old and I had the best year of my professional career. I made a contractual commitment to High1, which in turn meant me turning down countless other offers to go back to Europe back in December.
“Once you turn down a team, I wasn’t able to go back to them in June/July begging for them to give me their original offer back. No team wants to be second fiddle, and the only jobs left on the market were economically not feasible for me to take if I wanted to support my growing family, or in a city that I wouldn’t feel safe bringing a newborn baby.”