Learning a Sport Begins After the Olympic Bid


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From left, Jin Hui Ahn, Won Jun Kim and Kye Hoon Park, South Koreans who attended a Dallas Stars ice hockey workout.

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LM Otero/Associated Press

FRISCO, Tex. — The 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 into 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 he and two teammates made to a development camp for prospects of the N.H.L.’s Dallas Stars.

Hockey’s roots are not deep in South Korea, which has never qualified for the Olympics but will get an automatic bid as the 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 and a two-time Stanley Cup winner with Pittsburgh in the early 1990s.

Jim Nill, the Stars’ general manager, struggled to find an analogy that illustrated the task ahead for Paek, his friend and a former colleague in the Detroit organization.

“Remember the Dream Team?” Nill asked, in reference to the first group of N.B.A. players to win Olympic gold — in 1992. Nill added, “It would be a small, small country that’s never played the sport much.”

In other words, plenty of opponents may end up looking like the Dream Team to the South Koreans.

“They’ve got to play against Canada, Sweden, Russians, Czechs, Finland,” 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.”

That’s why Paek asked Nill to let Park, defenseman Won Jun Kim and forward Jin Hui Ahn join a group of Dallas players still trying to reach the N.H.L. 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 whether the sport ranked highly 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 maneuvered well with their European counterparts.

Size is the biggest problem. The 5-foot-11 Kim 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 could not be reached for comment, is believed to be the first native of South Korea to play in the N.H.L., 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 said that he was impressed with the skills shown by the visitors and that he does not 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.



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