Canadian expats chasing hockey gold for South Korea
South Korea’s men’s hockey team has a distinctly Canadian flavour at the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, with six Canucks suiting up for the squad and a Canadian-raised coach behind the bench.
The Korean team is hoping an injection of dual-citizen Canadians will help it punch above its weight at the Games, where the host country is guaranteed a berth in the men’s hockey tournament.
Alex Plante, Matt Dalton, Michael Swift, Brock Radunske, Bryan Young, Eric Regan and Mike Testwuide are all donning the Korean colours this month in Pyeongchang, though they say there’s still a maple leaf in their hearts. Many of them moved to Korea years ago to play pro hockey, and have since become naturalized citizens so they can participate in the Games.
“I didn’t get invited to Canada’s camp,” defenceman Alex Plante told CTV News. He added that he’s received some online criticism from Canadians calling him a “traitor,” but he says those individuals are just uneducated.
For Plante, the Olympics are the biggest stage he’s played on since appearing in a handful of games with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers. The 28-year-old from Brandon, Man., was a first-round draft pick of the Oilers in 2007, but only appeared in 10 games over the course of three seasons. He eventually left for Austria to continue his pro hockey career, then joined an Asian pro team in 2015. He secured his South Korean citizenship last year ahead of the games.
“I had to say a speech in Korean,” Plante said of his citizenship test. “Memorize a speech, at a podium with 20 other Koreans, and I memorized it to a tee,” he said.
Plante’s teammate Brock Radunske was also a former Oilers prospect, though he never played a game in the NHL after being selected in the 2002 entry draft. The 34-year-old native of Kitchener, Ont., moved to South Korea a decade ago, and has become well-known there as a towering six-foot-four force on forward.
Ontario-born goalie Matt Dalton, 31, landed with the Korean team after playing three years in Russia’s Kontintental Hockey League.
“It’s been pretty cool,” said Dalton, who was never drafted by an NHL team. “The last few moments there’ve been a few moments that kind of hit you where it’s like ‘Wow, this is actually happening.’”
Regan and Testwuide never played in the NHL, while Young skated in 17 games and registered no points in two seasons with the Oilers from 2006-2008.
But while the six Canadians never quite achieved the NHL stardom they once dreamed of, they do have a fine example to look up to in coach and former NHLer Jim Paek. The Korean-born, Canadian-raised Paek was the first South Korean to play in the NHL, and was part of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ back-to-back Stanley Cup-winning teams in 1991 and ’92.
Paek says he sees nothing wrong with dipping into Canada’s deep pool of hockey talent to beef up South Korea’s roster, especially since many of the players have been in Korea for a long time anyway.
“They’ve been here longer than I’ve been here,” he said. “So they are, in a sense, more Korean than I am.”
Paek isn’t the only Canadian product leading the charge for hockey in South Korea. The women’s team is coached by Canadian-American Sarah Murray, daughter of former NHL coach Andy Murray. The unified team of North and South Korean players also features Canadians Danielle Im and Caroline Park.
South Korea only has approximately 100 professional hockey players, and speed skating tends to be more popular among its population, so it’s no surprise the country would tap foreign-born pros to bolster their ranks. Italy did the same when it hosted the Winter Games in 2006, with nine Canadians and two Americans rounding out its 25-player men’s team.