‘Was this a dream of mine? No’: How six Canadians wound up playing Olympic hockey for South Korea
|National Post 13 Feb 2018 at 05:22|
Matt Dalton played the best and strangest game of his hockey career a couple of months ago. He made 53 saves and kept the score close in defeat against a bigger, deeper and vastly more skilled opponent, one that could reasonably have been expected to humiliate him on a world stage. It was the same splendid form he first flashed decades ago as an atom player in Seaforth, Ont., his first step toward laying claim to one of the rarer jobs in his sport: professional goalie in South Korea.
Therein lies the strange part. At the Channel One Cup in Moscow on Dec. 13, the kid from Seaforth was playing against Canada — for the national team of the country he now calls home.
“That’s a team I cheered for my whole life. It’s definitely a weird feeling, sitting there listening to O Canada and things like that,” Dalton said. “It almost reminded me of the feeling when I started playing for Korea, to a certain degree. When I first started playing for Korea it was a bit of an awkward feeling, until you get used to it. Now, it just seems normal.”
Hockey is little more than a curiosity in South Korea, a country that has never before contested the sport at the Olympics — until this month. Korea’s men’s team is ranked 21st in the world, immediately below those of Poland, Hungary and Italy. As recently as 2015, it was playing against Lithuania, Croatia and Estonia in the third tier of competition at the world championships. So when Korea qualified for these Winter Games by virtue of hosting them in Pyeongchang, officials from its national hockey association went searching for reinforcements.
Canadians, to be specific.
In this Feb. 22, 2017 file photo, Canadian-born South Korean goaltender Matt Dalton, waves after a game against Kazakhstan at the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan. Shuji Kajiyama / AP
Counting Dalton, the national team’s 31-year-old starting netminder, nearly a third of South Korea’s first Olympic men’s roster was born and raised in North America: six Canadians and one American. None of the imports have Korean heritage, though all are naturalized citizens who play for Korean teams in the domestic Asia League. They arrived there by way of Vail, Colo., from the Ontario towns of Ajax and Kitchener and Peterborough, from pro careers that stalled in the AHL or Russia or elsewhere in Europe, products of a fickle sport with the capacity to provide surprising opportunities.
The Canadian ringers, Dalton says, are “just pieces” on a spunky team that has never asked them to dominate individually. “We just fit in and do our job,” he said. What South Korea has sought from them more than anything is experience, the confidence they’ve accrued from carving out a career in some of the world’s more estimable leagues. It’s a welcome quantity in a country with all of 171 registered men’s players, and to a national program that, in Pyeongchang, quite suddenly finds itself in the company of giants.
“At the end of the day, when I put the Korean jersey on, this is the team that invested into me, into my family, and provided me with a career and good housing and a good life over here,” said Alex Plante, a defenceman from Brandon, Man. “That’s the team I’m thankful to be a part of.”
In hockey, as in other sports across the Olympic spectrum, it isn’t uncommon for players from powerful nations to pursue citizenship and a spot on the national team in their adopted home. When those recruits happen to face off against their birth countries, the juxtaposition can be glaring. Take Turin 2006, the last time a men’s hockey minnow played host to the Olympics. When Canada thumped Italy 7-2 in the round robin, the Italian goals were scored by centres from Toronto and Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.: Jason Cirone and John Parco.
What’s remarkable at these Olympics is the scale at which South Korea has added foreign talent, part of a concerted effort to make its hockey programs respectable — if not competitive — in the four years leading into Pyeongchang. To recruit for their women’s team, Korean Ice Hockey Association officials combed through college rosters in Canada and the U.S., emailing any player with a last name that appeared to be Korean. On the men’s side, they availed themselves of Canada’s inexhaustible depth at every position on the ice.
Canadian-born South Korean hockey players Matt Dalton (second from right) and Mike Testwuide (right) speak with Anyang Halla teammates in Seoul in 2017. Uno Yi
None of Korea’s seven North Americans — Dalton in goal, Plante, Eric Regan and Bryan Young on defence, and Brock Radunske, Michael Swift and Mike Testwuide (the lone American) at forward — would ever have become an Olympian in their home country, even with NHLers excluded from the mix. But all of them have found roles with one of four Korean teams in the Asia League. And all were willing to naturalize, making them eligible to wear Korean colours internationally.
Plante and Dalton are two of the more interesting cases. Back in 2007, the Edmonton Oilers made Plante the 15th overall pick in the NHL draft, though he went on to play just 10 career games in a series of call-up appearances. Stints in Austria and Norway led to an overture from Anyang Halla, a team based south of Seoul, in 2015.
Accepting the offer was a risk. Plante is a six-foot-five, 230-pound defensive defenceman, but as an import player he’d face pressure to produce points. A couple mediocre years could spell early, unwelcome retirement.
Ultimately, Plante agreed to terms with Halla — a decision he likens to throwing his career into a metaphorical washing machine.
“I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I had my wife, who was pregnant at the time, and our young daughter,” Plante said. “Absolute trouper for her to come and give birth to our son in Korea.”
Years later, Plante says the gamble has paid off for him and his family, who were there to support him as he strove to meet each condition for citizenship. He doesn’t consider himself a great public speaker, but he managed to deliver a memorized speech in Korean from a podium. (“From what I understand, I did OK, or well enough that they understood me.”) To learn the national anthem, another requirement, he belted the lyrics as he walked around his house each day for weeks — a habit his daughter, not even three years old at the time, imitated the next time he left for a road trip.
Her version was “not completely accurate, but she had the melody down, a few words,” Plante said. “It was pretty fun.”
The progression of Dalton’s career, meanwhile, can be told either by consulting an internet source or by jogging his father’s memory. Reached by phone last month in Clinton, Ont., the town next to Seaforth, Larry Dalton recited every leg of his son’s hockey travels in order. When he was midget-aged, Matt played Junior D in Mitchell, Ont. At 19 he was in Bozeman, Mont., and the junior North American Hockey League, and at 22 he led the Bemidji State University Beavers all the way to the NCAA Frozen Four.
Larry Dalton calls the Bemidji run his favourite memory of Matt’s career, along with the contract he signed with the Boston Bruins in 2009. He never made it past the bench in two NHL call-ups, but after two seasons in the ECHL and three in Russia, he found his footing with Anyang Halla in 2014-15. Matt was the Asia League’s best goalie in two of his first three seasons. He has won two league titles and could guide the club to a third this spring — after he takes the ice in Pyeongchang, where his parents will be in the crowd.
The surprise chance to represent South Korea at the Olympics, Larry Dalton said, is “once in a lifetime. If we’d known that when he was a kid playing hockey in the little town of Seaforth, with 2,200 (people), I would have taken it.
“We’re very proud of him. It doesn’t matter where he’s playing or who he’s playing for. He’s done well for himself, and that’s all we can hope.”
Dalton is clear-eyed about his team’s prospects for the Olympics, where South Korea is grouped with Canada, Switzerland and the Czech Republic in the preliminary stage. Korean pros tend to be quick and skilled, but they simply haven’t played very many games against elite competition. Even depleted, non-NHL versions of those teams look menacing in comparison.
“We’re a huge underdog,” Dalton said. “The world knows that.”
Still, the goalie and his Canadian comrades have helped Korea make significant strides in the last few years. Their physicality and experience have raised the standard of play for the program’s native players, said Jim Paek, a former NHLer who was hired as head coach in 2014. Last April, Korea won promotion to the top division of the world championships for the first time with a gripping 2-1 win over Ukraine in Kiev. Dalton made 22 saves in that game, and Swift scored the decisive goal in a shootout.
By the time they get to this year’s worlds in May, playing teams as good as Canada won’t be so alien. Their Olympic matchup is set for Feb. 18. And then there’s the matter of the Channel One Cup game back in December, when, with his dad hoping a group of Canadian Olympic candidates wouldn’t shell him for 10 goals, Dalton instead stopped 53 of 56 shots, empowering Korea to hold a lead for nearly 13 minutes. It turned into as promising a 4-2 loss as there could be.
Matt Dalton’s goalie mask is shown in a 2017 photo. Uno Yi
In hopes of bettering that result in Pyeongchang, the Koreans have focused a large part of their preparation on conditioning, Plante said. Tired players make poor decisions, especially in the defensive zone, where they’ll probably spend the lion’s share of most games. Canada outshot Korea 57-10 at the Channel One Cup, which at the very least proves that Dalton’s ability is to be trusted.
It may feel odd, as it did in Moscow, to peer across the ice at Canadian jerseys in warm-up, Plante said. But adrenaline will take over when the puck drops, and the unlikely circumstances that brought him to Korea will be a footnote for 60 minutes.
“When I was a kid, was this a dream of mine? Was this even in my head? No,” Plante said. “I just think it’s funny: You tell God your plans, and he laughs at them. This is where I am now, and I’m very thankful.”
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