Ex-player takes unlikely shot on ice hockey clubWhen it comes to winter sports, Korea is best known for being the home country of figure skating queen Kim Yu-na and a powerhouse of short-track speedskating. Most recently, speedskaters Lee Sang-hwa and Mo Tae-bum are also ruling the ice.
But there is one popular winter sport that is nearly invisible here: ice hockey. As Korea will be hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Gangwon, some winter sports are gaining popularity, but ice hockey is nowhere close to grabbing people’s attention.
It’s no secret that the Korean ice hockey environment is weak. There are about 40 youth ice hockey clubs in elementary schools, and that number decreases significantly in middle schools (21), high schools (8) and colleges (4), according to data from the Korea Ice Hockey Association.
Moreover, if an ice hockey player wants to continue playing after school, he needs to be picked up by either Anyang Halla or High1, which are the only two professional ice hockey clubs in Korea. Because of the lack of pro teams, many other young ice hockey players are forced to give up their dreams and leave the ice rink.
But three months ago, an independent team called the Waves was created. Founded by former national ice hockey team player Kim Hong-il, the club aims to give players who didn’t make a pro team an opportunity to keep their hockey dreams alive.
In baseball, the Goyang Wonders, an independent baseball club not affiliated with the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), has been playing a similar role and has started to see fruits of its labors, with several players being sent to the professional league.
Kim admits that the Wonders are a model for the Waves, but he acknowledges that the task is different and more difficult, as ice hockey and baseball have different environments and levels of popularity.
“For the last decade, no ice hockey teams were created in Korea, and this means people didn’t have an interest in ice hockey, but I wanted to show that ice hockey is actually a very attractive and interesting sport,” said Kim. “With only two teams to go to after school, those who don’t make those teams started to regret that they chose to devote their time to ice hockey, and this bothered me. Everyone was talking about a new team to play for, and I just carried those discussions to action.”
While the other two clubs are supported and run by conglomerates, the Waves are not affiliated with any companies, and must survive on their own. This also differentiates the Waves from the Goyang Wonders, which are supported by information technology mogul Hur Min.
Although it is difficult to get sponsors and operate the team with a small budget - which is just enough to give players a transportation fee, supply equipment and rent an ice rink - Kim said the most difficult thing was gaining the players’ trust.
“Some had doubts and fears whether this new club can really offer what they really wanted,” said Kim, who also serves as the coach for the club. “It was important to give trust to the players that this club isn’t just another amateur club. Of course, the club is open to everyone who has passion and responsibility for ice hockey, but still we had to show that this is a club that has a vision and cares about winning.”
There are about 26 players on the Waves, and most of them have played ice hockey in their schools in the past, but had left the sport due to personal reasons. From salarymen to recent college graduates, the players practice most of the time late at night from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. because it is impossible to practice during the daytime.
“It is difficult to live in Korea by just playing ice hockey, but I don’t blame [the sport] because it happens in other countries, too,” Kim said. “What I really want is for the country to have more ice rinks, so that many ice hockey teams can practice when they want.”
Despite their short history and difficult situation, the Waves have already made an impact on the local ice hockey scene. Playing in its first tournament against four Korea Ice Hockey League teams two months ago, the Waves finished as the runner-up behind Yonsei University.
In the 68th National Ice Hockey Championship last month, the Waves failed to pass the group stage, but wrapped up their last game of the season by beating Kwangwoon University, 11-4. This was also the first time an independent sports club had entered an official event approved by the Korean Olympic Committee.
“For the debut season, our best achievement is that we let people know that there is an ice hockey club that you can cheer [for], and I’m happy that other clubs are trying their best to play with us,” Kim said. “Some college students are already saying that they want to play after they graduate from school, and this is a good sign.”
The Waves will start next year by playing in the National Winter Sports Festival in February.
While recruiting players is important, Kim, whose father was also an ice hockey player and coach, said that the ultimate goal of the Waves is to expand ice hockey in general throughout Korea.
“When I started the club, I dreamed about making an ice hockey-only ice rink, a league and eventually an industry as a whole,” Kim said. “But it will be useless to become a ‘league of our own,’ and that is why we need to bring more fans and let people know what kind of sport ice hockey really is.”
BY JOO KYUNG-DON [firstname.lastname@example.org]