As hockey in Asia goes, Japan has the most established tradition, with South Korea second and China a distant third. In recent years, however, Korean hockey has begun to make slow but steady progress. Now, for the first time in the seven seasons since the professional Asia League of Ice Hockey (ALIH) was created in 2003, the seven-team league has crowned a non-Japanese champion, South Korea's Anyang Halla.
Anyang's victory was not a major surprise. The club was a playoff semifinalist last year and finished first during the regular season each of the last seasons. This year, the club finished the 36-game regular season with a 23-3-4 mark (a 3-point improvement from 2008-09) and went on to beat fellow Korean club High1 in four games in the best-of-five semifinals before downing Japan's Nippon Cranes, 3 games to 2, in the finals.
During the existence of the Korean Hockey League, which folded in 2003 when Anyang and Kangwon (now called High1) joined the fledgling Asia League, Anyang won five championships. The team has also won several Korean domestic championships, competing against top collegiate programs, which are the main talent-feeding system to the Korean national team as well as the two pro teams. But winning the ALIH championship is a significant step up from the previous accomplishments.
ALIH champs Anyang Halla (Courtesy: Sam Kim)
"I can't really describe the feeling in one word. Everyone worked so hard. This means a lot to Korean hockey. It fulfills a commitment to compete at the top level in Asia. There are a few good Korean players who could play in North America. I really think that scouts should come to Korea and watch some of our Asia League's game in the future. Just like in the mid-90s in Major League Baseball, scouts can find a hockey version of Chan-Ho Park or Hideo Nomo," says Sam Kim, the club's assistant general manager and English spokesperson.
Coached by Eui-Sik Shim the vast majority of Anyang's players are native Koreans, per the import restrictions placed by the Asia League. In the just-completed campaign, the club dressed three North American and one Japanese defenseman as well as one Canadian and one Czech forward. The rest of the squad is Korean.
The wise selection of import players has been a critical factor in the team's run of success the past two years. Last season, former NHL defenseman Brad Fast and forwards Brock Radunske (a former AHL and ECHL forward) and Jon Awe spearheaded Anyang's breakout season. All three players returned this season, along with longtime Anyang standout, Patrik Martinec.
Radunske won four individual trophies last season, including regular season MVP, Forward of the Year, most goals (29) and most points (57 in 36 games). He also scored five goals in the series against the Cranes. The 26-year-old former Edmonton Oilers draft pick signed a three-year contract extension with the club last February, which is believed to be the longest contracted ever given to an import player in a Korean sports league. This season, he was limited to 28 regular-season games but scored at an even-higher point-per-game clip, tallying 48 points (19 goals, 29 assists). During the playoffs, he racked up an additional 13 points (6 goals, 7 assists) in 9 games and captured Most Valuable Player honors for the postseason.
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The 38-year-old Martinec, who is affectionately nicknamed "Grandpa", played his fifth season with Anyang after a long and productive career in the Czech Extraliga spent primarily with HC Sparta Prague. The 2009-10 campaign proved to be his best yet, as he grabbed league MVP honors for the regular season after posting 51 points (11 goals, 40 assists) and dressing in every game. However, he was limited to one playoff game, in which he also scored a goal.
Awe, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound rugged defenseman from the United States, scored 12 goals last season, which tied him with former NHL blueliner Ricard Persson (then with the Oji Eagles) for most goals among defensemen in the league. This time around, Awe only dressed for 18 regular season games but recorded 6 goals and 17 points. In the postseason, he added 2 goals and 6 points. Meanwhile, Fast played shutdown defense against opposing team's top forwards and compiled 7 goals and 23 points this season. He did not play in the playoffs.
Among the club's Korean players, the most accomplished from an international perspective is team captain Woo-Jae Kim. The defenseman formerly played in Finland for minor-league team Jokipojat Joensuu. In the Asia League, he plays on Anyang's top pairing and logs heavy ice time. Meanwhile, young forward Min-Ho Cho captured the league's Rookie of the Year award this season. In 36 regular season games, the now 23-year-old Cho compiled 14 goals and 44 points. He added 3 goals and 7 points in the playoffs.
During the 2008-09 campaign, the club staged a wire-to-wire run atop the standings but ended in disappointment after losing in a seven-game series to the Nippon Cranes in the playoff semifinals. This year, Anyang got revenge on the Cranes in the finals, although it wasn't easy. Anyang captured the first two games on the road, winning by 3-2 and 2-1 scores. Returning home with a chance to clinch the championship, Anyang skated off with 5-2 and 3-2 losses. As a result, the series shifted back to Japan.
In the deciding tilt, the Cranes led through two periods, 4-3. At that point, Anyang began to assert itself. Radunske set up goals by Woo-Sang Park and Ki-Sung Kim to force overtime. In the extra session, Woo-Jae Kim tallied the biggest goal of his career to bring the Asia League championship to his homeland. Radunske drew the lone assist.
Shim, who was named Asia League Coach of the Year, was understandably happy in the glow of victory. But even in accepting accolades, he couldn't help but challenge his club to continue improving.
"We made a lot of defensive mistakes today, and it reinforced a point for next season," he said. "But we picked up in the latter half of the game, especially to get the great result in overtime. We think it was a wonderful experience."