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South Korean Hockey Seven Years Before Olympic Debut

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Earlier this week, it was confirmed that Pyeongchang, South Korea, will host the 2018 Winter Olympics.  It was a long time coming for the city and country, who had twice been a bridesmaid in the IOC's bidding process before an impressive first ballot victory this time around.

For South Korean ice hockey, the wait was probably a good thing.  The country is just starting to produce a relatively competitive hockey program, particularly on the men's side.  A lot of people are looking at their 31st place ranking and imagining the program as comparable to Mexico, Bulgaria, and Spain.  The IIHF World Ranking has its uses, but can be wildly inaccurate for countries that don't participate in low level Olympic qualification tournaments.  South Korea is the most prominent hockey nation that did not participate in 2010 Olympic qualification tournaments, while ambitious national organizations from Mexico and Turkey may have jumped the shark by competing above their weight class.  Turkey has been competing in the Division 3 World Championship tournament the past couple of years, while South Korea has hung around with the Division 1 crowd.

If the Olympics and all the qualfication tournaments are eliminated, South Korea is actually ranked 25th based on World Championship play (which at that level is best on best as NHL/AHLers are irrelevant), just 2 spots below regional rival Japan, a spot behind The Netherlands, and ahead of Lithuania and Estonia.  OK, so not exactly the kind of crowd that means they're ready to take on Canada and Sweden, but it gives you a better idea of their actual skill level.  Japan used to appear in the World Championships every year as a Far East qualifier, so fans are familiar with that country's modest skill level.  If the IIHF continued to do that, Japan would still likely be the annual representative, but South Korea would have closed the gap noticeably. 

Seven years won't get South Korea up to the level of the Czechs and Russians, or even the Swiss, but the level of Japan in 1998 or possibly even Italy in 2006.

As for the women's program, South Korea didn't jump on the early Asian wave that Nagano provided for Japan, China, or Kazakhstan.  The program didn't participate in the World Championship or Olympic program in 2009 and 2010, but were back involved in 2011, finishing 27th.  While some are wondering about how embarassing it might be for the South Korean men's team against top programs, the South Korean women probably are even more unqualified to face the Americans or Canadians, or even the Swiss or Russians.  Women's programs can be improved relatively in a short period of time, but its difficult to see South Korea making a big improvement like Slovakia did to qualify for the 2010 Olympics.  At the 2011 Asian Winter Games, the women lost every game, scoring only once against North Korea (who they lost 6-1 to).  China and Japan beat them 10-0 each, and Kazakhstan beat them 11-0. 

The IIHF is claiming excitement, saying the Games should help grow the sport in the Far East, with more sponsors ready to support the sport and corporations investing in their own Asia League Ice Hockey teams.  The Asian League has two Korean teams currently, and Anyang Halla has emerged as the league's best team the past few years.  After being formed in 1994, the team finally reached the pinnacle of the league in 2008-09 by winning the regular season title, following it with another regular season title in 2009-10 while adding their first playoff championship as well.  This year, they were in the league final before the Japan earthquake ended the season (with the team just recently arriving in northern Japan by airplane).

Obviously, getting more Koreans to play the sport and adding more professional teams in the area will be important, as will deciding to participate in the Olympic qualification tournaments starting next year.  The exposure that bringing the world's best hockey players to the country will hopefully be a lasting legacy for the country, but before that happens, there is a lot of work to be done.  Fortunately for at least the men's program, they are heading in the right direction already...  they just may be too far behind to really make an impact in the tournaments themselves.