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South Korea Imported North American Ice Hockey Players in Preparation for Winter Olympics

The South Korea Men's Ice Hockey team will be backstopped by Canadian-born goaltender Matt Dalton (center) (Photo via NBC Sports)

April 29, 2017 marked the biggest game in the history of South Korean ice hockey. It was their final game of the 2017 Division I, Group A International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship, the level directly below the top tier of international ice hockey. The South Koreans faced Ukraine in Kiev with large stakes on the line: win and be promoted for the first time to the top division of the IIHF World Championships, or lose and remain in the lower division unable to test their mettle against the world’s best.

Luckily for the South Koreans, goaltender Matt Dalton stopped 22 shots and Michael Swift netted the game-winning shootout goal to lead the Koreans to a 2-1 victory over the host team, making South Korea the first Asian team to play at the top level since Japan in 2004. Not to mention, they will be playing in their first Winter Olympic Games this February.

Wait. Hold on a second. Did I read that correctly? Players named Matt Dalton and Michael Swift led the South Koreans to a victory in ice hockey? It seems like I'm missing something. Were Dalton and Swift born in South Korea? Nope. Do they have any ancestors of South Korean descent? Negative. Both were born and raised in Canada by families with no Korean ancestry.

So how did these Canadian men find their way onto this team? Once again, it has to do with a law (shocker, I know). But before we get to that, it is necessary to take a look at the history of South Korean ice hockey and the importance of the upcoming Olympic Games.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced on July 6, 2011 that PyeongChang, South Korea would be the site of the 2018 Winter Olympics. While South Koreans might be most interested in short track speed skating, where they’ve won a world record 21 gold medals and 42 overall, it appears the South Korean government and Olympic committee quickly understood that the Olympic hockey tournament is considered by many to be the “crown jewel” of the Games. They also knew that ice hockey wasn’t their forte and that they ran this risk of being humiliated on the world stage.

Historically, ice hockey has been dormant in South Korea. In international play, the nation made its first appearance at the World Championship in 1979 where they played in Pool C. South Korea played in Pool C again in 1982, and has fielded a team consistently since 1986. From 1986 through 2010 the South Koreans were never ranked any higher than 23rd in the world and bounced back-and-forth between IIHF’s Division I and Division II (formerly Pool C). Domestically, Korea had its own professional hockey league called the Korean Ice Hockey League, which operated from 1995 to 2004. Currently, there are three South Korean based teams (Anyang Halla, Daemyung Killer Whales, and High1) playing in the eight-team Asia League Ice Hockey (ALIH).

At the time of the IOC's announcement in 2011, there were only 1,880 registered ice hockey players throughout the country and South Korean hockey teams had very little success on the international, and Asian, hockey stage. The most success the team saw over the years was three bronze medals (1986, 1990, 2007) in the Asian Winter Games. Thus, there was the looming question of whether the country could field a respectable team for the 2018 Winter Games.

With the impending risk of international humiliation and very limited ice hockey talent at their disposal, the South Koreans were under pressure to quickly find some talented Korean hockey players to make their hockey team at least marginally competitive. "Get better and we might let you in [to the Olympic hockey tournament]," was what Rene Fasel, President of the IIHF, told the Korean Olympic committee.

The problem was that Rule 41 of the Olympic Charter states that all competitors must be citizens of the country they are representing during the Games. So, South Korea did what any country lacking certain goods would do— they imported the goods. Specifically, South Korea targeted “goods” from North America, and, in this case, the "goods" were North American ice hockey players.

“We [] bowed to repeated recommendations from the International Ice Hockey Federation to recruit athletes from overseas because there are just 200 adult hockey players in the country,” said Yang Seung-jun, head of the Pyeongchang Olympics preparatory and planning team.

Since 2013, with the help of the Korean Olympic Committee convincing the Korean Ministry of Justice, seven North American men’s hockey players were put on the fast track for South Korean citizenship. This group consists of Canadians Alex Plante, Eric Regan, Bryan Young, Brock Radunske, Swift, and Dalton, as well as American Mike Testwuide. The South Korean Olympic committee clearly targeted some of the best foreign players in ALIH the past few years. Each player has been very successful in the league, especially Dalton (named the league’s top goaltender in 2014-15 and 2016-17) and Swift, who might go down as the most prolific scorer in ALIH history (503 points in 286 games).

These foreign nationals were able to become dual citizens despite not having any biological connection to South Korea thanks to an amendment to the country’s Nationality Act that became effective on January 1, 2011. Specifically, Article 7, Section (1), Subsection 3 states:

A foreigner who . . . holds a domicile in the Republic of Korea may obtain permission for naturalization . . . [if that person is] acknowledged to contribute to the national interests of the Republic of Korea who has very excellent ability in a specific field, such as science, economy, culture, sport, etc.

Under this law, an athlete is able to, unlike in the previous immigration system, keep their original country’s passport and does not have to serve the mandatory 21 months in the South Korean military.

After submitting the necessary documents to the South Korean immigration office, each candidate must take a written examination testing their knowledge in South Korean history, politics, culture and customs. At the completion of the 20 question multiple choice test, the applicant is then interviewed by immigration officials where they must display their proficiency in speaking Korean, including reciting the Korean national anthem, and demonstrate their support for the country and its government. This test isn’t easy, as only 60% of applicants pass the test.

South Korea is not the first country to implement such “fast-track naturalization” practices ahead of hosting the Olympics. As recently as the previous Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia imported foreign athletes, including South Korean speed skater Viktor Ahn (formerly known as Ahn Hyun-Soo). The eight-time Olympic medalist (four with South Korea and four with Russia) defected to Russia in 2011, spurning the United States in the process.

Since 2011, approximately 20 foreign athletes have become naturalized Korean citizens, and both the men’s and women’s ice hockey programs are on the rise. In the past seven years, the South Korean men’s ice hockey program has steadily improved, moving up to the 21st-ranked IIHF team, the highest ever of the country. The women’s program, led by Manitoba-native and former University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldog Sarah Murray, has moved up six spots to 22nd in the world and were recently promoted for the first time to the IIHF’s Division I, Group B, the third highest level in women’s ice hockey. The women’s team, which will consist of players from South Korea and North Korea, also has four naturalized athletes on the team, all of whom are of Korean descent (Randi Griffin, Danelle Im, Caroline Park, and Grace Lee), as well as Marissa Brandt, who was born in Korea but adopted by an American family as an infant (and her sister Hannah Brandt will be suiting up for Team USA).

Much of the praise has been directed towards the North American imports and head coach Jim Paek, who was born in Korea but moved to Canada with his family as a baby and later won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, for this recent success, but the South Korean-born players have also shown improvement during this rise in the national rankings. During the 2017 World Championships in Ukraine, 11 of the 13 South Korean goals were scored by Korean-born players such as Ahn Jin-hui and Kim Ki-sung, who led all South Korean skaters with three goals.

"We weren't able to recruit world-class athletes. But our homegrown athletes have learned a lot by training with these good-natured and hard-working athletes," noted Yang Seung-jun.

While hockey is still much less popular in South Korea compared to baseball and soccer, the game’s popularity has slowly grown. As of 2017, there were 2,675 registered ice hockey players in Korea. “I think it's safe to say that the sport of hockey has never been more popular in this country than right now,” noted Yoo Jee-ho, a sports writer for Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

This spike in ice hockey’s interest in one Asian country might be a good sign for the NHL, which has recently targeted Asia, specifically China (only has 1,101 registered ice hockey players), to grow the game internationally. In attempting to entice China’s world-leading 1.4 billion people into loving hockey, the NHL hosted a preseason game between the Los Angles Kings and Vancouver Canucks in Shanghai this season. Further, many NHL teams have hosted youth and coaching clinics in a variety of Chinese cities. These have all been calculated attempts to popularize ice hockey ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

It should also be noted that there is a very strong effort to popularize women’s hockey in China as the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) added two teams in China this season (Kunlun Red Star and Vanke Rays).

“The next 12 months that are coming up will be something very special for Korean ice hockey,” said Swift after the win over Ukraine last April. “They’ve never been to the top [division]. We’re there now and we want to stay there. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Regan echoed his Canadian-Korean teammate’s sentiment, stating, “[w]e’ve made a lot of improvements in the last two or three years and if we continue to do that, we’re going to be competitive in the (Olympics). It’s one game. You see that in sports. Anyone can win one game.”

Without NHL players in this year's Olympics, it is possible that the South Korean team could give the other teams in their group (Canada, Czech Republic, and Switzerland) a tough game. And if they can win one game, expect the celebration to look something like this:

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