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Smooth skating for Korean hockey player here

Feb 18,2008
Alex Kim, the Korean-American forward of the the High 1 hockey team in the Asia League, says he’s had to prove his doubters wrong. By Jeong Chi-ho
Alex Kim is a hockey journeyman in the truest sense of the word.
The 28-year-old center for the Gangwon-based High 1 club in Asia League Ice Hockey played for 12 teams in nine American states before coming to Korea. His stops included Miami University of Ohio and Colorado College, four East Coast Hockey League clubs, and a brief stint with two teams in the American Hockey League, the equivalent of the top-tier of baseball’s minor leagues.
The cross-country excursion, which also saw him invited to the training camp of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, took an international turn last year when Kim, born to Korean parents in Fullerton, California, joined the High 1 team for the 2007-2008 Asia League season.
“I knew I had a really good chance to play in the NHL,” Kim said in an interview with the JoongAng Daily. “But as you get older, you start to realize the window of opportunity starts to shut a little bit. And you can only go so far at the age I was at, 28.”
When the time came to make a decision, Kim chose the birthplace of his parents.
“I thought it’d be a fresh start,” he said, “and also give me a chance to learn more about where my parents are from. I am grateful. Not many people get that opportunity.
“I wanted to try to make an impact here in Korea as well as in the Asia League,” he added.
In his first year in the three-country league, Kim made an enormous impact. The 5-year-old league has seven teams, with two in Korea, one in China and four in Japan; Kim led the circuit in scoring with 51 points in 30 games. He tied for the league lead in goals with teammate Tim Smith, at 23. A polished and fluid skater, Kim also finished third in assists with 28.
Kim is the first player of Korean descent to lead the Asian league in scoring. Thanks to Kim’s offensive prowess, High 1 finished second in the regular season with 19 wins, 10 losses and a tie for 58 points, three points behind Japan’s Seibu Prince Rabbits.
The Korean team has a bye to the semifinals of the playoffs, awaiting the winner between third-place Oji Paper of Japan and the No. 6 HC Nikko Icebucks, also of Japan. The semis will begin March 1.
High 1 coach Kim Hee-woo said Alex “left a strong impression” on him when he saw the center play in the United States. “I believed he could thrive in this league and strongly urged him to come over here,” the coach said.
“It would have been really nice if I could have captured all three titles [goals, assists and points],” Alex Kim said. “That was the expectation I had for myself coming into this league.”
Athletic accomplishments are often driven by the desire to prove doubters wrong. Kim said he had more than his share.
He admitted that, in the back of his mind, he knew opposing players and even teammates might question his reputation.
During a game, a player from Anyang Halla, the other Korean club in the league, called him a “banana,” meaning he’s yellow on the outside only, a derogatory term for Korean-Americans. That was a turning point.
“I knew then I had to gain the respect not only of my teammates but of the other Korean team and the rest of the league,” Kim said. “I told the whole league, ‘Here I am. I did it, guys.’ I knew I needed to do that.”
At least one teammate thinks Kim has earned respect.
“Alex brings that North American playing experience, and that has earned the respect of his teammates,” said Steve McKenna, a hard-hitting, 6-foot-8 defenseman. A Toronto native who has played for four NHL teams, McKenna said Kim “gets along well with everyone and is just what you want in a teammate.”
Of all the places that he’s played, Kim says that Korea may have been the hardest “because of communication problems.” But culture shock turned out to be just as big an obstacle.
“At first, my teammates would see that I look Korean, but couldn’t grasp that I think a lot differently,” Kim said. “For example, if there’s a disagreement between two guys, Americans are prone to be more passionate. Korean guys are more reserved.
“I would tell myself, ‘Why aren’t they intense? They’re not passionate,’” Kim continued. “I couldn’t understand it.”
The misunderstanding went both ways, says teammate Lee Yong-jun.
“When he first came, Alex had this macho mentality,” said Lee, a Yonsei University graduate and the most valuable player in the 2006 Korea Ice Hockey League, which pits five university teams against one another.
“We had some difficulties early on but things have gotten better. And he’s willing to learn about Korean culture,” he added.
Head coach Kim acknowledged that Alex and his Korean teammates were “confused” about their cultural differences and there are still testy moments. But the coach thinks time will work it out.
“This is only Alex’s first season,” coach Kim said. “I am sure as time goes by, players will grow to understand each other better. And the great thing about sports is that even with all the differences, you can still connect with your teammates by playing together.”
And it helps that Kim put points on the board.
“He’s just got tremendous hockey sense,” the 23-year-old Lee said. “He knows how to read the game and dictate the pace of the game. And he is a good leader for young players.”
In an eclectic dressing room that includes four Canadians and two Japanese, Kim said patience is a virtue. “Cultural differences are always going to be there. You’ve got to be patient with one another if you’re going to work together [as a team],” he said.
Kim is looking at a “minimum five years” of playing with the team, but he has other aspirations, too. Kim already has his own hockey camp in the United States and hopes to open one in Korea. He plans to go into real estate or property development, so that he can build a sports complex someday.


By Yoo Jee-ho Staff Reporter[jeeho@joongang.co.kr]


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