They call him “Flash,” this 12-year-old Rancho Palos Verdes kid touted in international hockey circles as the next Wayne Gretzky.
Richard Park’s stick-handling and passing are so crisp, comparisons to The Great One are inevitable. On the ice, boys his own age are no match. He has dominated teen-agers four years older than he. Born in Korea, raised in Southern California, Park is living a power play in a sport long dominated by Easterners and Canadians.
“At his age he does things on the ice that I guarantee not all the pros can do,” said UCLA club hockey team Coach Jack White.
A center/defenseman, Park recently led the Los Angeles Junior Kings to the California Pee Wee Division title in only his first season. He scored 10 goals in a single game. In international tournaments in the United States and Canada this past winter, he was so brilliant that his picture popped up in International Hockey Weekly. His story has been told in French, Korean and English-language newspapers.
“He’s the best 12-year-old I’ve seen in a long time,” said Junior Kings Manager Nick Racanelli.
An ultra-elitist amateur hockey club in the Midwest is trying to persuade his parents to move him there.
“The kid’s a gem,” said Al Thomas, manager of the Chicago Young Americans, a Triple-A amateur team composed of some of the best teen-age prospects in America.
Park is unique in hockey because of his heritage, his size and the area he lives in. There has never been a Korean-born professional hockey player. Only two or three Asians have ever played professional hockey, according to the National Hockey League. That’s one of the reasons Park has drawn so much attention as he travels the country.
“Word travels. There aren’t too many Oriental kids that play hockey,” said his 20-year-old sister, Christina, who often travels with him.
At 5-foot-8, Park is large for his age and he uses that to his benefit on the ice.
“People think Koreans are always small, but that is just not true,” said Christina. An older brother is 6-foot-1. Richard, who has grown four inches since last summer, thinks he can reach at least 6 feet.
And Park also lives in Southern California, where in young people’s minds hockey ranks right up there in importance with homework and a new pair of snowshoes.
“He has the pure hockey sense that you don’t see very often in players from Southern California,” said his local coach, Dave Kizanis.
All the attention has been a little overwhelming for young Park.
Said Christina: “Richard doesn’t like the attention. He’s really shy.”
Park’s reputation precedes him. He was mobbed in Minnesota, where “the attention was unreal,” Christina said. In Quebec, young girls asked for autographs. In Washington state he was credited with boosting attendance at a national tournament.
Consequently, “he’s not a regular 12-year-old,” said Christina. “He has had to mature real fast.”
Park’s mother, Jean, isn’t so sure.
“Yes,” she said with a nod when asked if she thinks the pressure is sometimes too intense. “I think it does bother him.”
Most of the time, Richard Park just wants to hang out with friends, go to a shopping mall.
“I get kind of tired of (the attention) sometimes,” he said.
When a reporter and photographer showed up one recent Saturday afternoon at Bay Harbor Olympic Ice Arena in Harbor City to watch Richard practice with his local team, the young star was less than thrilled. He fussed about posing for a photo with his mother and sister, which drew a stern look from Jean. When practice ended, he hid out in the locker room.
Kizanis coaxed him. Park tugged at the dark strands of hair on the back of his neck, protruding from under a Los Angeles Kings hockey cap. His shoulders rested against a cold concrete wall. He stared at the ceiling. An icy silence as thick as the rink outside stifled the room.
But when the talk turned to surfing, Park’s eyes suddenly lit up, and with a youthful grin he spoke of his day, which began at 5 a.m. at the Manhattan Beach Pier with a borrowed surfboard.
“Man, I hurt my butt,” he said.
He wasn’t really being aloof by hiding out, he said later.
“Seems kind of strange that a 12-year old gets all this attention when there are older guys out there just as good as me,” he said.
A friend and local Bantam Division teammate, Eric Kizanis, who is Dave Kizanis’ son, says Richard is basically a regular guy. As for how he handles his hockey status: “He wouldn’t be the same (person) if he wasn’t that good.”
After all, family members point out, Richard is only 12 years old.
Richard said he sometimes feels the eyes of two nations staring at him. He has lived in the United States since he was 4 and considers himself a regular American kid. Christina says he wants to become a naturalized citizen when he turns 18, but he would still be eligible to play Olympic hockey for his homeland if he chooses.
“I don’t speak Korean that well,” Richard said. Yet the Korean work ethic that puts family and education ahead of all else is precisely why he is so good on the ice.
“The family is 100% behind him,” said Kizanis.
Park attends hockey camps around the country. There are weekly clinics in Burbank, the next night in Pasadena, sometimes in Van Nuys. Jean says she never counts how much money the family spends on hockey each year, only that it is substantial.
“I don’t really like hockey. I just love to watch my son,” said Jean, a serious-looking woman.
The Park family, two boys, two girls, Jean and her husband Paul, moved to the United States and settled in Brea almost eight years ago. Paul is in the import business. Christina took ice skating lessons soon after the family arrived.
“I wanted to do something I couldn’t have done in Korea,” she said.
One day she took her little brother to the rink.
“We gave him a lesson and the teacher told us that he was just too good, that he already had an ability to skate,” she said.
The family moved to the Palos Verdes Peninsula when Richard was 5. That’s where Kizanis got to know him. Park wanted to skate every day.
“His dedication comes right from his parents,” Kizanis said.
But dedication alone may not be enough. Korean society is very strict, said Jean. Sometimes her beliefs have clashed with those of her rapidly Americanizing young son.
Explained Christina: “In Korea parents live for us, the kids. American parents give and expect to get back from their kids. If Richard didn’t become a pro, Mom wouldn’t be that upset.”
Richard should treat hockey as a hobby, his mother said. To Koreans, education is more important, and because Richard gets “only Bs,” he is sometimes scolded by his family.
“Without an education, you are only a dumb hockey player,” said Christina, a pre-med student at Loma Linda University.
Richard describes himself as “kind of a smart-ass” in his parents’ eyes, but Christina says he’s really a momma’s boy.
“Mom is too strict sometimes,” Richard said. “When I ask her if I can go out with friends to the mall, she says no. My friends’ parents let them go.”
Jean says she would do anything for her son.
“I try to copy the American people,” she said. “But school first, hockey second.”
The Parks face a dilemma. If Richard wants to stay on top of his game, experts agree he has to leave Southern California to play against better competition. The problem here, they say, is that there just aren’t enough ice rinks and ice time to go around. Consequently, very few hockey players of Richard’s caliber develop here.
“In another year, they’ll have to be doing some serious thinking about getting him into an area where he can develop,” said White.
Park has been “an exception to the rule” among players here, said Racanelli, a former Canadian.
“The problem in Southern California is that you just don’t get the good coaching. He’ll have to leave here and go somewhere where everybody is good.”
Canada, the Midwest or the Northeast are good bets for the Parks. They recently began discussing a move.
“Maybe in a year,” said Jean, who said she will follow her son wherever he goes. “I have more kids. Richard is my baby.”
Richard Park knows he must go, too.
“Maybe one more year. But I would miss my friends,” he said. He stared across the Bay-Harbor locker room at Eric Kizanis.
Dave Kizanis, who has coached Richard for five seasons, leaned against a wall.
“I’m kind of reliving hockey through these guys,” he said of the two boys. “But I know Richard definitely has to go now. There just aren’t enough older guys here to teach him anything.”
Jean left to go to the coffee shop, where Thomas of the Chicago Young Americans wanted to discuss moving Richard now. He promised more ice time and a $52,000 budget that would pay for most of Richard’s travel expenses.
“Put in a good word for me, huh?” Thomas asked a reporter.
But Richard wasn’t interested at that very moment. Night time was approaching; the hockey playoffs were on TV.
Maybe he would go to the mall later with some friends.