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The Malik Report

On Jim Paek’s decision to chase an Olympic dream

I didn't really comment on it on Wednesday morning, but Jim Paek leaving the Grand Rapids Griffins to coach the South Korean national hockey team--as the team attempts to qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea--dashed my hope that the long-standing Griffins assistant coach would finally be chosen to flank one of Mike Babcock's shoulders.

Paek has been with the Grand Rapids Griffins for nine years, and he was part of the Wings' summer development camps since 2007. I've interacted with him every summer since 2008 and over the course of two prospect tournaments/training camps, and off the ice, he was a kind and patient and sincere a human being as you could ever hope to meet, never mind ever hope to serve as the steady hand helping develop the Red Wings' top prospects.

Mike Stothers came and went, Curt Fraser spent a long time behind the Griffins bench, Jeff Blashill replaced Fraser, and Paek was the constant among a cavalcade of prospects, Griffins players and try-outs. While Fraser was intense, you kind of know how Blashill is (Mike Babcock Light) and the NHL coach charges forth like a runner, Paek would always issue a, "Hey, George" as he walked by.

On the ice, Paek had an intriguingly appropriate split personality. One moment, he could take a young player aside and put his arm around his shoulder, or point out how a drill worked, speaking quietly and carefully, and the next, if a drill lagged, Paek knew when to let the head coach be the head coach and when to bark out orders of his own, occasional curse words included.

You don't often see an assistant coach stick around for so very long and yet remain so very comfortable, but Paek seemed to know exactly when to let the lead guy lead and when to take the reins, when to be buddy-buddy and when to crack the whip.

Spending nine years doing that, spending nine years dealing with everyone from the Dick Axelssons and Daniel Larssons to the Darren Helms and Jimmy Howards and everyone in between, trying to get the best out of what can be a revolving door's worth of personnel, and doing it all as an assistant coach, and being happy in that role?

Not everybody fits that mold, and not everybody would be comfortable there, but Paek was such a well-traveled defenseman before and after his 2 Stanley Cup-winning seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins that he seemed to welcome the stability, even if it meant dealing with a "new team" in the AHL every two years and twenty or thirty new faces every summer and fall, balancing their egos and the egos of his coaches as well.

Not everybody decides that being an NHL team's developmental affiliate's assistant coach is the job for them, but not everybody is Jim Paek.

He navigated his role seamlessly, and nary a bad word was ever said about Jim Paek, regardless of whether he was pulling a player aside to pat him on the back, or whether he was blowing the whistle and telling the whole damn team to do the bleeping drill with some bleeping pace.

Twenty-three years after my Korean-American friend who introduced me to hockey so reverently plucked and set aside Jim Paek cards from packs full of Lemieuxs, Gretzkys, Roys, Turgeons and Fedorovs, and remembering my friend so patiently explain that the Korean characters on Paek's Vaughn gloes didn't translate to "Jim Paek," but his Korean name, I get it.

Paek was only going to leave the Griffins for the chance of a lifetime, and as a Korean-Canadian actually born in Seoul, national ties run very deep. For Paek, this must be, as he stated in the IIHF's press release, the opportunity to spend the next four years bringing Korea up to Olympic standards would indeed fulfill a dream:

A two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Penguins, Paek was also named as a Program Director of the national team team along with his new head coaching duties. The former defenceman will replace Byoen Sun-Wook, who coached the team for three years but resigned after Korea was relegated at the 2014 IIHF World Championship Division I Group A.

Paek will be counted on to guide Korea as it looks to gain qualification to the 2018 Winter Olympics, set to be held on home soil in PyeongChang.

“The idea of coaching the National Team in the Olympics is one of my dreams. I've always wanted to help develop Korean hockey. I've returned to Korea many times to run hockey schools and coached Korean teams traveling to Canada. What a great opportunity I have now.”

"I know Korea hockey is aiming for the 2018 Winter Games, it's a great challenge but if we are organized and have a plan and teach the process good things will come. We cannot lose focus on the process."

Is it possible that the Koreans could qualify for the Olympics? Yes. Is it probable? Not very. But Paek's always been focused on maximizing his players' individual and collective potential, regardless of whether his players were NHL-bound or more likely to head to overseas, or even back to college to complete a degree. He's the right man for the job.

Paek told the Grand Rapids Press's Peter J. Wallner that leaving the Griffins won't be easy...

In Grand Rapids, Paek played an essential role in the development of many players with the Red Wings, including current players Jakub Kindl, Jonathan Ericsson, Justin Abdelkader, Jimmy Howard, Tomas Tatar, Darren Helm, Gustav Nyquist and Brendan Smith, to name a few.

Paek will remain with Grand Rapids through next week, and serve as lead instructor for the Griffins’ annual youth hockey camp at Griff’s IceHouse.

“It was a really hard decision,” said Paek, who was in Seoul for three days last week. “Detroit and Grand Rapids, that’s been pretty much my whole career. Nine years. My family is here and it has been everything to me here.”

The Detroit organization and Griffins coach Jeff Blashill will begin a search for a new lead assistant. The Griffins are also still looking to replace second assistant Spiros Anastas, who left after the season to become coach at University of Lethbridge. Blashill said that position should be filled and announced in the next week or two.

"I was extremely fortunate when I got the job to have him on staff," Blashill, who has been with the team two seasons, said of Paek. "It has been more than that. It's his friendship. You go through so much day to day, and to have someone like Jim, and with his knowledge, has been invaluable."

And this morning, the Free Press's Helene St. James fills us in on Paek's blended upbringing while discussing his ultimate goals:

“That was the decision maker, the excitement, that the final goal at the end would be the Olympic games,” Paek said Wednesday. “It’s a great opportunity. I look at it as preparing for that, but also developing grassroots hockey in Korea for 10-20 years down the road.”

Paek moved to Canada when he was 1, so he speaks, as he calls it, “Kon-English,” a mixture of Korean and English. In 1990-91 with Pittsburgh, he became the first player of Korean descent to play in the NHL, and when he left the league five years later, he did so with two Stanley Cups. Paek’s accomplishment as the first Korean-born player to get his name on the Stanley Cup led the Hockey Hall of Fame to display his jersey.

Now he has to convince countrymen who identify with football and baseball to fall in love with hockey.

“With 11 million in Seoul, and 2,000 registered hockey players, mostly young kids, the hockey population isn’t great,” Paek said. “But in hockey circles, they love hockey, have a lot of passion for it.”

St. James continues and reports that the IIHF and the Korean Ice Hockey Association plan on working together to address the team's readiness to qualify for an Olympic spot.

Paek will be 50 when the 2018 Olympics begin. He's spent the past nine years coaching and mentoring professional hockey players, and he and his family call Grand Rapids home, but you only get to chase these kinds of dream once.

Regardless of whether the Korean team qualifies for the Olympics, I'm sure that Paek's efforts will encourage Korean kids to pick up hockey sticks and chase pucks, and that's the kind of lasting legacy worth pursuing.

Good luck, Baek Chi-sun. You will be missed.

Filed in: | The Malik Report | Permalink


DocF's avatar

This is a very good, even special pieced, George.  Thank you much.

I have a suggestion to fill one of the Griffins vacancies - Danny Cleary.  He could be a player coach for a season and then retire to be strictly a coach.


Posted by DocF from Now: Lynn Haven, FL; was Reidsville, NC on 07/24/14 at 09:56 AM ET

DocF's avatar

Duh, fat fingered things once again.  Make that read piece, not pieced.

Posted by DocF from Now: Lynn Haven, FL; was Reidsville, NC on 07/24/14 at 09:56 AM ET

SYF's avatar

Good luck, Baek Chi-sun. You will be missed.

Word.  I had hopes for him to head up the Griffs one day as well, G.

Posted by SYF from Twerkin' with Anastasia Ashley on 07/24/14 at 11:39 AM ET

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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.