It’s Hockey Night in South Korea: Team Canada is facing-off against the South Korean men’s hockey team in the preliminary round of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
But if not for the different jerseys, you might have a tough time telling the two teams apart. That’s because South Korea’s roster includes seven Canadians.
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“It feels pretty weird,” says Mike Swift, a Canadian and starting forward for Team South Korea. “I’m standing at the blue line, they play the Canadian anthem, but I’m on the other team. It really hit me in that moment.”
Swift grew up in Peterborough, Ontario, dreaming of making it to the NHL. He came close — playing three seasons with the Albany Devils in the American Hockey League, the farm team of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils.
But in 2011, he was offered a chance to play in the Asian ice hockey league (ALIH) for the South Korean team High1. “To be honest, I didn’t even know they had hockey here in Korea,” Swift says. And in truth, they really didn’t.
Despite being a winter country, hockey in South Korea was almost non-existent.
“Seven years ago, when I came, the guys didn’t even know how to tape their stick. They were watching me,” he says. “I had 17-year-olds coming up to me, asking me how to shoot the puck. When you’re from Canada, you can shoot the puck before you can walk. It was a big eyeopener.”
But Swift says the Korean players had a ton of raw talent. “I couldn’t believe how fast and how skilled they were. But then when it came to the games, drop the puck and it was like completely different players. They couldn’t put all that together,” he says.
Since winning its bid to host the Winter Games seven years ago, South Korea has been steadily recruiting Canadians — even fast-tracking their South Korean citizenship to allow them to join the Olympic team (dual-citizenship is prohibited in South Korea, but the government has been granting special dual-citizenship rights to “talented” individuals).
The team also hired Korean-Canadian and two-time Stanley Cup winner Jim Paek as the head coach.
Over the past four years, Paek helped to turn the South Korean team into a top division contender. “We kept winning and winning,” Swift says. “So people started talking about us. And now, here in the Olympics, they want to come watch. And it’s honestly just been great.”
It’s the first time a South Korean hockey team has competed at the Olympics.
South Korea normally wouldn’t stand a chance, but with no NHL players at these Olympics, Team Canada defenceman Chris Lee says it’s anyone’s game.
“There’s no clear favourite, there’s no big underdogs. It’s just gonna be wide open, and may the best team win.”