Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Paek Your Bags

Remember this guy? That's Jim Paek, the first Korean-born player to play in the NHL and have his name engraved on the side of the Stanley Cup, and Paek faced tremendous odds in accomplishing what he did. Two Stanley Cup rings and two IHL Turner Cup rings later, Paek transitioned nicely into the coaching ranks with the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins as an assistant coach, and has helped that team win a Calder Cup in 2005-06 since stepping behind their bench. Paek will have a whole new challenge on his hands, though, as he has accepted the position as the director of hockey for the Korea Ice Hockey Association (KIHA) and head coach of the Korean Men's National Team! For Korea's national team, a first-time entry into the men's ice hockey even at the Winter Olympics will see Paek once again face tremendous odds in this journey.

The 47 year-old was raised in Toronto and became a US citizen in 2011, but his legacy is still growing in the hockey world. He was Grand Rapids' longest-tenured coach, having served behind the Griffins' bench for the last nine seasons. According to the release from the Griffins, "his influence helped Grand Rapids head coach Jeff Blashill earn the 2013 Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL's outstanding coach for 2013-14, when the Griffins compiled a 46-23-2-5 record". His accomplishments as a coach would nearly equal his accomplishments as a player, and adding the new credentials with the KIHA will only enhance his standing.

"The Detroit Red Wings congratulate Jim Paek on his appointment to the Korea Ice Hockey Association and Korean National Team," said Ryan Martin, assistant general manager of the Red Wings. "We are thrilled and excited for him on his well-deserved opportunity. With the 2018 Winter Olympics to be held in Pyeongchang, this is a tremendous opportunity for Jim to oversee the development of hockey players, coaches and administrators across all levels of hockey in his native South Korea.

"As the longest-tenured coach in Grand Rapids history, Jim has been instrumental in the development of many current Red Wings, including Jakub Kindl, Jonathan Ericsson, Justin Abdelkader, Jimmy Howard, Tomas Tatar, Darren Helm, Gustav Nyquist and Brendan Smith, to name a few. Jim won two Stanley Cups as a player with Pittsburgh and a Calder Cup as a coach in Grand Rapids. He possesses a wealth of experience as a player and coach at all levels, as well as a strong passion for hockey development. Jim's multi-faceted skill set will be a great asset in leading the Korea Ice Hockey Association in developing its national programs."

It's kind of funny to think that three members of last year's coaching squads under the Detroit Red Wings' watch may be in Pyeongchang in 2018 to coach Olympic teams. Mike Babcock is the run-away leader for coaching the Canadian men's team again, and Tom Renney will be there as Hockey Canada's President and CEO after serving as an associate coach with Mike Babcock last season. Detroit may have had the deepest pool of coaches seen in the NHL in a long, long time.

Paek was instrumental in working with the "Black Aces" during the Stanley Cup in 2008 by the Red Wings, earning him his third Stanley Cup ring. He played a big part in the Red Wings’ summer development camps and fall prospect tournaments and training camps, and should be familiar with one player on the Korean roster when he begins work thanks to his work with the Red Wings' prospects. Left winger Brock Radunske, who hails from Kitchener, Ontario, was granted "South Korean citizenship in 2013 and became the first non-ethnic Korean to represent the country in international sport". The 31 year-old Radunske is currently a member of Anyang Halla of Asia League Ice Hockey in South Korea, and was drafted in the third-round by the Edmonton Oilers in 2002 after playing at Michigan State University. Radunske played 20 games with the Griffins in 2006-07, so there should be a little familiarity there. Radunske holds a number of records for Anyang Halla, but the Olympics will be a brand-new game for him.

There is no doubt that South Korea will face a difficult challenge in 2018. Korea is currently ranked 23rd in the world, and aren't close to any of the teams that participated in the Sochi Olympic Games. However, I believe that Jim Paek can push the Korean squad to new heights. He has a solid coaching legacy, and he knows what it takes to beat the odds. Realistically, we're not talking about a medal for Korea in 2018, but they might be able to beat one of the lower-ranked teams that qualify.

The key for Korea isn't to win a gold medal, although that would be pretty impressive if they did. However, the exposure the Asian Ice Hockey League gets thanks to Korea ramping up its hockey focus will benefit that league and nation in a big way in the same way that it helped Japan in 1998. If Jim Paek wasn't a pioneer before for his countrymen with their hockey dreams, he certainly will be now.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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