Photo: AP/Shuji Kajiyama
Photo: AP/Shuji Kajiyama

Canada’s “other” Olympic hockey team

As host country of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, South Korea was automatically qualified for both the men’s and women’s ice hockey tournaments.

That means their national teams will have an opportunity to measure their players against some of the most well-known hockey juggernauts in the world, such as Sweden and Canada. In an effort to ice a competitive team for PyeongChang 2018, South Korea has brought in the cavalry – in this case, Canadians – to help create a roster capable of hanging with the best.

It’s not an uncomplicated or uncontroversial process, but it’s also not the first time such an effort has been made.

Check the Passport

To be eligible to play for the South Korean national hockey team, players must hold South Korean citizenship and the opportunity to attain it is not being reserved to only players of Korean descent. Canadian-born forward Brock Radunske is one such player. With no Korean heritage, Radunske has been granted South Korean citizenship to play for the national team. Born in Kitchener, ON, he played for Michigan State University before being drafted by the Edmonton Oilers 79th overall in the 2002 NHL Draft. He played for both the Edmonton Roadrunners and Grand Rapid Griffins in the American Hockey League but never made an NHL club. Radunske has been playing for South Korean club Anyang Halla in the Asia League Ice Hockey since the 2008-09 season and was named the Playoff MVP in 2009-10 after they won the final.

He is one of nine players on the South Korean national team who were actually born outside of South Korea. Also among them are former Edmonton Oilers draft picks Bryan Young (146th overall) and Alex Plante (15th overall). Plante actually played 10 games for the Oilers from 2009 to 2012. Most of these players, however, were undrafted and likely never would have an opportunity to play for an NHL club or Team Canada.

Precedent Set

Team Canada’s Joe Sakic, right, of the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, checks Team Italy’s Lucio Topatigh into the boards during the third period of a 2006 Olympic Winter Games men’s ice hockey match Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2006, in Turin, Italy. Canada won 7-2. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

At Turin 2006, nine Canadians donned the blue Italian uniforms and at Nagano 1998 six Canadians played for Japan’s hockey team. While no one would mistake those countries’ teams for hockey powerhouses, the example has been set for Canadians interested in playing for other nations. Italy’s team included former Calgary Flames goalies Jason Muzzati who played 62 games in the NHL, as well as John Parko who was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers 248th overall but never played in the NHL. Japan’s ’98 team included Canadians like Steve Tsujiura, who was drafted by the Flyers 205th overall, and Ryan Kuwabara, who was drafted 39th overall by the Montreal Canadians. But like so many other players on these teams, they never played in the NHL.

This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to Canada or hockey either. At the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, Greece’s national baseball team included many players from Canada and the United States. Out of the 23 players on the Greek team only one was actually born in Greece. American-born Nick Markakis is still playing in MLB with the Atlanta Braves but most players were in a situation like Laurence Heisler, who played three years in the Philadelphia Phillies minor league system but never made it to the majors.

Moving to a New Country

Olympic gold medalist Korea’s Ahn Hyun-Soo, left, congratulates his teammate silver medalist Lee Ho-Suk after Hyun-So’s gold medal victory in the Men’s Short Track Speedskating 1500 meter race at the Turin 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Turin, Italy, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2006. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

There are people in the world who believe that athletes should only suit up for the nation in which they were born. “Plastic Brit” was a pejorative term created to describe athletes who have ties to another country but took on British citizenship to represent Great Britain in international sport. There were many concerns voiced when South Korean short track speed skater Ahn Hyun-Soo moved to Russia and competed for the host country at Sochi 2014, winning three gold medals under the name Viktor Ahn. For some, it was uncomfortable to think athletes were competing against the countries they were born in.

But immigration is a fact of life, especially in Canada as people move here to find new opportunities. At Sochi 2014 there were 11 foreign-born athletes on Team Canada, the most of any competing country, although a couple of those had Canadian parents and thus were already citizens. At Rio 2016, there were dozens of Canadian athletes hailing from every continent except Antarctica. But no matter where athletes may have been born, nothing diminishes the pride felt when they wear the maple leaf in competition and on a podium.

Spirit of Competition

In this Feb. 22, 2017 photo, South Korea’s goalkeeper Matt Dalton watches teammates’ play in their ice hockey men’s top division match against Kazakhstan at the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, northern Japan. Growing up in rural southern Ontario, Dalton never figured that his career path in professional hockey would take him to South Korea. Dalton, along with a handful of other North American players, has acquired South Korean citizenship and is a key member of the men’s national ice hockey team as it prepares to take on the world’s best as host of the 2018 Winter Olympics. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)

Many of the players who will wear Korean colours understand it’s not about representing their own nation but about being a symbol for citizens of another nation to feel proud of. Thanks to players like Radunske and the rest, South Koreans will have a competitive team to cheer for and those players take that responsibility seriously. For many fans the Olympic Games are not just about national pride but also the pride of an athlete competing to the best of their ability.

As for the players, they’re excited to take on the underdog role, an opportunity to grow the game in a non-traditional market and make their mark on Olympic history.