Int’l hockey boss expecting “competitive” S. Korea at 2018 Winter Games

July 31, 2015
President of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Rene Fasel (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

President of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Rene Fasel (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

KUALA LUMPUR, July 30 (Yonhap) — When it makes its Winter Olympic debut in men’s hockey in 2018 on home ice, South Korea will have to take on powerhouses Canada and the Czech Republic in the group stage.

Most hockey observers won’t give South Korea even a puncher’s chance, but count Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), as among the more optimistic ones.

“I have a good feeling,” Fasel told Yonhap News Agency on Thursday in Kuala Lumpur, where he will attend the 128th International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session as a member of its Executive Board. The IOC on Friday will vote on the host of the 2022 Winter Olympics between Beijing and Almaty.

“In sports, you never know. I think they will be competitive,” Fasel added. “We will help Korea the best we can (so) that they can have a competitive team.”

South Korea was awarded a spot in the men’s tournament as the host nation, with the eastern alpine town of PyeongChang set to stage the country’s first Winter Games. The IIHF seeds countries based on the final 2015 rankings, and the 23rd-ranked South Korea ended up with No. 1-ranked Canada, No. 6 Czech Republic and No. 7 Switzerland in Group A.

Canada is the two-time defending Olympic champ, and has won three of the five gold medals since NHL players were first allowed to compete at the Olympics in 1998.

Fasel praised the work by South Korean men’s national head coach Jim Paek, former Stanley Cup-winning defenseman for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“I know that the coach, Jim Paek, is working very hard,” the IIHF chief said. “He has a lot of passion. He will put in a lot of effort using his knowledge.”

With the well-connected Paek working behind the scenes, three South Korean prospects recently attended the NHL Development Camp. Fasel said he appreciated the NHL’s efforts to build up the game in new regions.

“Asia has a huge potential for our sport,” Fasel said, also noting that the New York Islanders recently picked 18-year-old Song Andong as the first Chinese player to be selected in the NHL draft. “The Olympic Games will be in Korea and will also be in Asia in 2022, either in Kazakhstan or China. This will be an excellent instrument to promote the sport on this continent. I am really looking forward to that.”

For all the potential for growth, Fasel said South Korea and other Asian countries will have their work cut out to contend for an Olympic medal in hockey in the near future.

“You need around 20 years to really build up a team,” he said. “For sure, we have players in Asia. But you can’t build a competitive team from scratch and win a medal. The most important thing is to participate and bring the sport of ice hockey to a country like Korea and a continent like Asia.”

Fasel said it was important for the host nation to do well to help drive up interest in hockey and in the Winter Games as a whole. The popularity of hockey and the Olympics as a whole will also hinge upon the presence of the NHL stars, since the men’s hockey final, in particular with the pros, is considered among the Winter Games’ marquee events.

The IIHF is “still working” to make sure the world’s top professionals will be in PyeongChang, Fasel said.

“The Olympics are the best stage for promoting our sport,” he added. “I really expect and hope the NHL will be there.”

In talks that involve NHL officials and its Players’ Association, insurance for injuries to players has long been a sticking point. For the most recent Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, last year, a deal to have the pros in action was reached seven months before the Olympics.