At first glance, the hockey players practicing at Lakewood Ice this week looked like any team anywhere in the world.
Their drills were familiar, and so was their attentive posture when they paused to watch their coach diagram a play on a whiteboard. The difference became clear when the session ended: Players gathered in a semicircle near the boards to tap their sticks and bow to Coach Craig Johnson, a charming gesture of respect that stemmed as much from gratitude as cultural obligation.
They’re members of the Korea University men’s hockey team and they’re in Southern California until Aug. 22 to practice, train and learn from coaches in the Ducks’ development program. They hope to accelerate the improvement of their skills before the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, but it’s a tough task for a nation with a talent pool of only about 2,100.
The national team — which will be coached by former King Jim Paek and is expected to draw on the Korea University squad — is ranked 23rd in the world. Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, said this year he’d like to see Korea’s team rank 18th or better before he’d consider granting it an automatic Olympic berth because he wants to avoid lopsided results in the Games.
With that in mind, the Korean federation sent players to train in Finland and Russia before this group arrived in Southern California this week. Players are staying in dorms at Cal State Fullerton and will have some time to enjoy tourist attractions. They’ve already had In-N-Out Burger double-doubles and animal-style fries as rewards after a breakaway game.
“I love that burger,” said defenseman Yeong Jun Seo, who learned to speak English while he played four years of youth hockey in Calgary, Canada. “The cheese is awesome.”
Their focus, though, is hockey, and they’ll play exhibitions at Lakewood Ice against local former college and pro players the next three Saturdays. They’re cramming two-a-day sessions around concentrated weight training in order to build strength and physicality, elements they’ve lacked.
“I’m glad to be here, learning from the great players and also about the hockey, which is North American hockey,” center Se Ahn Oh, the team’s captain, said through an interpreter. “I’m honored to be here and be part of the training camp.”
Johnson, a former Ducks and Kings forward who coaches in the Ducks’ high school hockey program, was the guest instructor this week. Ducks assistant coach Brad Lauer is scheduled to step in for two weeks.
“They love the game, just like all our kids love the game,” Johnson said. “When you’re from California and you’re out East or in Toronto you hear, ‘What are you doing playing hockey in California?’ And it’s kind of the same with them. You think, ‘Korea, they don’t really play hockey.’
“But you see the love for the game. They’ve got the Olympics coming, and it says a lot that they’d come to California now and play. They’re real quick skaters and they move the puck well. They’ve got pretty good vision and they’re good players.”
The visit came together with the help of Alex Kim, a first-generation Korean American who played in the Ducks’ and Kings’ youth programs and attended several Kings prospect camps and one main camp. After graduating from Colorado College and bouncing around the North American minor leagues, he joined High 1 in South Korea’s small professional league, where he set scoring records. His coach was Hee-woo Kim, now the Korea University coach. They’ve stayed in touch.
“I had the time of my life there,” said Alex Kim, who met many relatives in Korea and improved his language skills enough to communicate with his Korean-born wife, Grace.
Alex Kim, who coaches the Junior Ducks under-16 triple-A team, conducted a hockey school at Korea University each of the last two years. At Hee-woo Kim’s suggestion he brought some former students to participate in a tournament this year.
“At the younger ages it’s getting much better,” Alex Kim said of the caliber of Korean hockey. “With the emergence of the 2018 Winter Games the popularity is starting to gain some traction…. They’re going to want to have a very, very good showing. They don’t want to put out a product that’s going to be embarrassing to their people.”
Hee-woo Kim said his main goal here is for players “to cut out as many bad habits as possible and create good habits.” Alex Kim added, “He wants them to gain confidence from the whole experience, working with NHL players.”
In that regard, the experiment is a success.
“I really love it. I want to come again,” said Yeong Jun Seo, whose favorite player is Kings defenseman Drew Doughty. “If I get a chance I want to play on better teams and see better players.”
That sentiment translates into any language.