The Malik Report
by George Malik on 03/03/12 at 08:33 AM ET
Despite having hockey in my DNA thanks to my mom’s side of the family, I was quite the, “Sports are barbaric!” nerd until a middle school buddy whose Korean parents barely spoke English told me I needed to watch a Red Wings who’d defected from the rapidly-collapsing Soviet Union way back in 1991, and as my dad (who’d tried to convince me to play football, baseball and basketball before giving up and agreeing with my mother that I would play soccer whether I liked it or not at 7 years of age) didn’t know all that much about playing hockey, my mother and my friend Joe helped me learn how to play street hockey.
Between those details and the fact that I’ve followed a team which embraced Russians, Swedes, Czechs, Slovaks and anybody else who could play hockey, even when the Russian 5’s presence yielded derisive chants of, “USA, USA!” from Blues fans and montages of the Soviet flag and the Russian national anthem when the Wings played on Hockey Night in Canada in the mid-90’s, I’ve never understood the concept that hockey is anything less than, as the NHL’s Diversity program suggests, “For Everyone,” and the concept that certain ethnic or racial groups or women “don’t belong” in American or Canadian hockey plan old pisses me off.
So it’s very interesting to read Grand Rapids Griffins coach Jim Paek, who was my pal Joe’s favorite player as the first Korean-born NHL’er and a 2-time Stanley Cup winner with the Penguins, reflect upon playing for Bob Johnson and Scotty Bowman, plying his trade for the IHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks and reflecting upon his legacy while speaking to the Hamilton Spectator’s Steve Milton:
The immensely popular Johnson died that summer , and Scotty Bowman led the Pens to their second Cup the following season. Paek was scratched during the season but came up big again in the playoffs to earn a regular spot and even assisted on the Stanley Cup-winning goal. Even though his family moved from Seoul to Etobicoke when he was just a year old, Paek takes great pride in being the first Korean to play in the world’s best league and to win its biggest prize.
“You still look back and see yourself as a Korean,” Paek says, “and that what you’ve done makes other Koreans proud, especially in the Korean community in Toronto. We had a little Stanley Cup parade in Korean Town when we won.”
When Paek was playing junior for the Oshawa Generals in the mid-1980s, he and his brother started a kids’ Korean-Canadian hockey team which would travel to Chicago and to South Korea for games. He has also returned to conduct coaching clinics. When he was playing, Koreans were able to follow his Stanley Cup pursuits on U.S. Armed Forces TV.
“The first time I went back to Korea was in 1982 and they didn’t have any hockey except at universities and some high schools, no club teams, nothing at high school,” he said. “I don’t know if I can take any credit for it, but just at the time we won the Stanley Cup, hockey really started to grow in Korea. It’s in the elementary schools, there are club teams, they have a team in the Asian league.”
In fact, Seoul’s Anyan Halla, the only Korean team in the professional ALH, has won the title the past two seasons. After playing his final two years in England, Paek retired in 2003 and began coaching. He has been with Detroit’s affiliate in Grand Rapids for seven years, and although he eventually wants to be a head coach, Paek is an integral part of the organizational continuity which helps the Red Wings maintain a perennial contender despite never having high draft picks.
“You have a core of players in Detroit which is just fantastic,” says Paek. “So you put the young guys in there with them and they’ll only get better. And they bring them along just right. When they come up to the NHL, they’re ready to stay. (Wings GM) Kenny Holland says he likes them over-ripe.”
And in 2012, thankfully, minus a few morons, anyway, we are slowly moving toward a hockey community where players’ ethnic, racial and gender identities only matter because they matter to the player. If you can play, you can be purple and have six eyes, and while you might have to deal with cultural and linguistic issues because you’re from Zeta Epsilon 5, and you might hang out with other players from Zeta Epsilon 5 simply because you like to hang out with people who can relate to your upbringing…You’re just a hockey player, and your worth is determined by your character, work ethic and how well you play.
We’re not there yet, and may not be there for a long time—so the road to hockey acceptance is still long and difficult for anyone who sticks out because they’re “different”—but it is at least possible thanks to people like Jim Paek, Angela Ruggiero, Anson Carter and even Sergei Fedorov.
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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.