Upstart South Korea, ranked 21st in the world, will make its Olympic debut in the men's tournament next February. It has earned a spot as the host nation and will go up against Canada, world No. 1 and two-time defending champion, No. 6 Czech Republic and No. 7 Switzerland.
Under the guidance of former National Hockey League defenseman Jim Paek, South Korea earned a promotion to the highest level of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship, and rose two spots in the world rankings from last year.
Even without the NHL players competing in PyeongChang, South Korea will still face the daunting task of playing three of the top 10 teams.
And Patrick Martinec, Czech-born coach for Anyang Halla in Asia League Ice Hockey, said this will be a monumental season for Korean hockey and everyone involved should enjoy the experience.
|Patrick Martinec, head coach of the South Korean hockey team Anyang Halla, speaks at a press conference in Seoul on Aug. 28, 2017, before the start of the 2017-2018 Asia League Ice Hockey season. (Yonhap)|
"This is going to be the biggest season for Korean hockey because of the Olympics," Martinec said during Monday's media conference before the start of the new ALIH season. "As a coach of Anyang Halla, I am happy that (some of our players) will play at the Olympics."
But trying to beat Canada, the Czech Republic and Switzerland will be quite another matter, Martinec said.
"They should enjoy the Olympics and be happy if they play good games and have a lot of fans there," he said when asked to predict South Korea's Olympic prospects. "There can be a miracle on the ice sometimes (like the 1980 US men's Olympic team), but (Canada, the Czechs and Switzerland) are so strong as opponents. That's my answer."
Kevin Constantine, American bench boss for Daemyung Killer Whales, has only been in South Korea for about two months, and said he has limited knowledge of the country's national team to predict how it will fare at the Olympics.
But Constantine, former NHL head coach, is familiar with Jim Paek and his national team assistant, Richard Park. Constantine said his interactions with Paek and Park have left him convinced that if nothing else, South Korea has "really good men and really good coaches."
"The team is in great hands with people that care about the game," Constantine said. "My experiences with Jim Paek and Richard Park are positive."
Constantine said it was difficult to tell how much of an impact that the absence of NHL stars will have on the rest of the tournament. But he hoped PyeongChang 2018 will have the same positive legacy for hockey in South Korea that the 1980 Lake Placid Games had on American hockey.
|Kevin Constantine (L), head coach of the South Korean hockey team Daemyung Killer Whales, speaks at a press conference in Seoul on Aug. 28, 2017, before the start of the 2017-2018 Asia League Ice Hockey season. (Yonhap)|
Playing on home ice, the heavy underdog team of US amateur players, then the youngest squad in the tournament, defeated the defending champion Soviet Union in the first game of the medal round. The 4-3 victory became one of the most iconic moments in US Olympic history -- with ABC's Al Michaels famously announcing in the final moments, "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" -- and the Americans went on to defeat Finland for the improbable gold medal.
Constantine said the historic march to the gold medal provided "an unbelievable boost for the game at all levels." He said he hoped South Korean hockey can also build from its Olympic experience and will develop much the same way.
"I think the fact that the Olympics are here can be something that can make the game way more popular than it might be at this point," he said. "This is an opportunity for the sport to grow in the country. I'd like to be a part of that and make a small contribution. That's one of the things I'd love to see happen." (Yonhap)