By Doo Jae Park
The sport of ice hockey in South Korea has developed since Team Korea received Olympic qualification as a hosting country in 2018. On the road to Pyeongchang, Team Korea is preparing not only to participate in the Olympics, but also to compete with Team Canada and USA at the IIHF World Championships next year in Denmark. 2018 will be an unforgettable year for all Korean hockey fans. They, including myself, are so excited to witness major matches in Korean sporting history.
Hosting the Winter Olympic Games encompasses a lot of meanings, one of which is a realigned hockey terrain in Korea. Seven North American players (6 from Canada and from the USA) obtained Korean citizenship to participate in the Olympics as Koreans. The imported players (officially Korean citizens) have proved themselves while showing their competitive capacities during the previous IIHF World Championships. They are some of the key players in the team, but there are more stories about the coaches: Jim Paek and Richard Park. Coach Paek has displayed great leadership to build up Team Korea in way that imported players can mingle with Koreans, and vice versa. Players are fervent supporters of coach Paek and they have strong loyalty to him. He seems to be a competent builder of Korean hockey. Assistant coach Park is also an indispensable component for Team Korea. He has a lot of experience in both North American and European hockey leagues. His athletic experience helps Korean players equip to confront opponents in the Olympics. Hockey in Korea in this manner has such a promising future.
Domestic Korean Hockey and the Question of Sustainability
Domestic teams in Korea, however, are encountering unpromising circumstances. There are only three domestic teams in Korea, which participate in Asia League Ice Hockey (ALIH). Two teams (Anyang Halla and Daemyung Killer Whales) hired foreign head coaches and all teams acquired imported goalies. Sport is a competition which has institutional rules. The competition should be fair, and there is no doubt that a better player having competitive hockey capacities can secure her/his playing time. Simply, modern sports encompass meritocracy.
In the context of neoliberalism, Korean hockey is reaching a stalemate. The sporting system has a very vulnerable infrastructure for hockey, with only three semi-pro teams and five college teams. The hockey population is so meagre to compete in unfettered markets. To develop ice hockey in Korea, which has a lack of hockey infrastructure, sustainable and consistent development plans are needed. Foreign coaches as well as players can bring positive impacts to help Korean hockey, but hiring more foreigners might be just a short-term strategy.
Sport is competition. However, the competition has constructed a problem which could hinder a sustainable sports development. Korean media overtly overestimate imported players’ play, and in some cases, these players have received undeserved praise. For example, even when the imported player does just decently, the media keeps framing the imported player as a saviour of his team. The team can win because of imported players; their plays were remarkable and astonishing, like NHL players. Yet, I cannot see Carey Price, Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby on the ice in Korea; the imported players are not the level of NHLers.
The rules of sports have to be fair; the institution needs to apply the rule to players equally and justly. In this manner, the treatment of imported and Korean players is seemingly unfair. The media briefly comment about Korean players, even when they performed very well. On the other hand, when imported players do not do well, the media desperately mentions the players’ positive capabilities. The reason for this, I believe, is that the Korean media needs to justify that imported players have a remarkable athletic ability, which Koreans could not have, as Korean society has a homogeneous culture and is a so-called “single-race-nation.”
Whiteness and Korean Hockey
Besides the media, how domestic teams have treated Korean players? I believe that there are some readers who were upset while reading my previous post “Hockey is not your stuff: The Racialized Athletic Identity of Korean Ice Hockey Players,” as the tone might seem to condemn only the imported players. The reader perhaps worries about the white player who is playing in Korea, which isone of the most dangerous nations in the world. Missiles are flying overhead; North Korea seems to never stop its missile tests. However, Korea is not the uncivilized nation that some might imagine. My post was about Team Korea ice hockey before coach Paek took over the team to participate in the 2018 Olympics. It may be all my fault that I did not clearly mention about a precise period. My apologies. Yet, the domestic team has very similar circumstances with those that I mentioned before. There is a naturalized, constructed whiteness in the team culture, and this whiteness is pervasive.
While watching the ALIH games, it is easy to see that coaches consider Korean players as mediocre in comparison with imported players. The imported player skates on special lines (playing together with other imported players as a special unit), both power play and penalty killing, without changing up. The imported player is secured his playing time by the coach. I watched one of the imported players who was skating on special lines, both a power play and penalty killing. His ice time was about 27 minutes for that match. Consequently, the Korean player spends more time sitting on the bench. Imbalanced playing time between Koreans and imported players will harm Korean players’ competitiveness as well as the sustainable development of Korean ice hockey. Institutionalized whiteness is prevailing, and the whiteness appears every single moment on and off the ice. Team staff is ready to understand the needs of imported players, but not Korean players. The simple logic which the staff applies is that if Korean players have better performance, then they can get secured ice time. However, the staff deprives Koreans of opportunities. For example, at the position of goaltender, imported players defend the pipes and are secured playing time by coaches while Korean goalies spend more time on the bench. Since there are only three teams, opportunities for Korean goalies to develop as professional athletes are diminished; it may be impossible that Korean players can develop into serious competitors in global hockey. This opportunity should be given equally, and thus the result of competition needs to be adequate.
What Next for Korean Hockey?
The Korean hockey and sporting system has a much smaller population of players than Canada or the other countries in which hockey is a popular sport. Imported players will leave Korea whenever their contract is terminated. After that, what happens to hockey in Korea? Participating in the IIHF top division in 2018 could be the first and last chance in the Korean hockey history.
Sport development should be sustainable. As a hockey fan, I want to see Korean hockey remain competitive decades later. Domestic teams should adopt the leadership with which coaches Paek and Park lead Team Korea. They have been (re)shaping and sharpening Team Korea to be a competitive team in the Olympics. Coaches of the domestic teams should integrate a lot of positive impacts that imported players have brought to the Korean hockey system. The first step of sustainable development can be to foster youth players to gain more experience. It is time to start developing infrastructures (e.g., fostering youth players, establishing competitive league system), and implementing a sustainable, consistent, and localized plan.
I am not writing this blog to condemn imported players. They indeed have bolstered a level of Korean hockey. Rather, it is to critique the Korean hockey system as well as to criticize Korean culture, which has institutionalized whiteness. I hope that this posting can be a starting point from which hockey fans can discuss how Korean hockey can be developed and what a sustainable sports development model looks like.