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Asia League: Korean clubs aim to break Japanese dominance

by Bill Meltzer

Korean-American, Alex Kim is a former Canucks draft pick. Currently, he is tied for the league scoring lead with 30 points.
Now in its fifth season of existence, the Asia League of Ice Hockey currently consists of four Japanese clubs, two from South Korea and one from China.

Until now, the league has consistently been dominated by the Japanese teams. That’s not a surprise because Japanese hockey has historically been more successful, both domestically and internationally, than its South Korean and Chinese counterparts.

Within the context of Asian hockey, the Japanese easily have the most systematic organization, the strongest ability to maintain professionalized clubs, and largest pool of players to draw from within the pockets where youth hockey is popular. The top Japanese clubs also have been able to recruit a higher grade of imported talented to their teams, including some former NHL regulars like Derek Plante.

In each of the four prior Asia League seasons, the Nippon Paper Cranes of Kushiro were the top club during the regular season. In the playoffs, either the Cranes or the Seibu Prince Rabbits (formerly known as Kukudo Hockey and the Kukudo Bunnies) have won the league championship.

After 20 games played this season, however, Korean club High1 Chuncheon City holds down first place in the seven-team circuit, with a three-point lead on Seibu and a 13-point advantage over the Cranes. Meanwhile, Anyang Halla (the Asia League’s other Korean entry) sits in fourth place, three points behind the Cranes.

The play of the Korean teams has been a bright spot in a league that, despite its considerable long-term potential, is still struggling for an identity and a widespread following.

Unfortunately for the league’s competitive balance, the China Sharks remain far and away the weakest club in the circuit, despite receiving help from the NHL’s San Jose Sharks and combining the best players from the two Chinese teams that had been playing in the league.

Breakthrough season for High1

The Chungcheon City club was founded three years ago. The team is owned by real estate venture company Kangwon Land, which also owns hotels, casinos, ski resorts, golf and country clubs. The team was renamed High1 this season after being known as Kangwon Land Hockey in its previous campaigns. Last season, the team finished fourth and reached the semifinals in the playoffs.

This season, High1 has been led by a core of imported players, but a few of the native-born Korean players on head coach Kim Hee-Woo’s team have also performed well. In particular 22-year-old starting goaltender Eum Hyun-Seung has posted a stellar 2.29 goals-against average and .925 save percentage, while veteran Kim Eun-Joon ranks 22nd in the league’s import-heavy top goal-scorer list.

Among High1’s foreign-born players, the standouts have been Tim Smith, Korean-American forward Alex Kim, Bud Smith, Korean-Canadian forward Chi-Young Benedict Song, veteran Japanese defenseman Tomohito Okubo. The team also has former NHLer Steve McKenna on hand.

Tim Smith and Alex Kim are tied for the league scoring lead with 30 points apiece. Kim, a Californian, was a fan favorite during his ECHL stints with Long Beach and San Diego. He has also played in the AHL. Smith is a former Vancouver Canucks draft pick (ninth round of the 2000 Entry Draft) who was a junior hockey standout in the WHL and the ECHL. He played briefly in the American Hockey League with the Manitoba Moose.

Center Bud Smith, a Northern Michigan University product who also played in the ECHL, the German minor leagues and the top league in Italy, is seventh in the league with five goals and 22 points. The 26-year-old Song (seven goals, 12 points) is now a young veteran of the Asia League. Okubo (four goals, 18 points) quarterbacks the High1 power play from the point.

While High1 is currently in first place, it will face a tough challenge to remain there for the rest of the season. Both the Cranes and Prince Rabbits have four games in hand. Just as importantly, the jury is still out on High1’s ability to defeat the better opponents in the league.

High1 has done most of its damage this season against the woeful China Sharks (whom they have beaten in all six meetings) and fellow Korean club Anyang Halla (three wins and an overtime loss in four meetings).

On the flip side, they haven’t fared especially well against the Japanese clubs. High1 has dropped both games it’s played against the Cranes this season and split its two meetings with the Prince Rabbits. They’ve also split four games with the weakest Japanese club, the Nikko IceBucks. But High1 does own a pair of wins over Oji Paper in two games.

Strong Czech influence in Anyang City

The Anyang Halla club pre-dates the creation of the Asia League by nearly a decade. It was the top team in the former Korean League, and has finished as high as second in the Asia League standings. The team made some overseas headlines during the 2004-05 season when longtime NHLer Esa Tikkanen appeared in 30 games.

Most of the foreign interest in developing the Asia League has been directed toward investing in Chinese hockey to prop up its troubled hockey program in the short term while hopefully laying the groundwork for a long-term infrastructure that will enable the game to thrive. But there have also been efforts in Korea, spurred primarily through the participation of Czech coaches and players with the Anyang Halla team.

For several seasons, Anyang Halla has been coached by Otakar Vejvoda. A legend of Czech hockey as both a standout defenseman for HC Kladno and a successful coach, Vejvoda is now in his third season behind the Anyang Halla bench. Not surprisingly, many of the import players Anyang Halla has brought in during Vejvoda’s tenure have been Czechs.

Most notably, veteran center Patrik Martinec has been with the team for three seasons after a long and successful career in the Czech Extraliga (where he once led the league in scoring). This season, the 37-year-old center is seventh in the Asia League with 22 points (six goals, 16 assists).

Veteran defenseman Patrik Hucko is in his first season in Korea after playing for many years in his home league, as well as in Germany, Russia and Sweden. He leads Anyang Halla with seven goals and is 15th in the league with 15 points. Another former Czech Extraliga player, Filip Stefanka, is a regular starter.

For the first month of the current season, former Philadelphia Flyers left wing prospect Milan Kopecky played with Anyang Halla. He was replaced in mid-November by fellow Czech forward Tomas Hruby (who played last year in the Asia League for the Hosa team in China).

Among Anyang Halla’s Korean players, the top producers have been forwards Lee Yu-Won (who has scored a team-team seven goals), Kim Hong-Il (second to Martinec for the club assist lead with a dozen helpers), and Kim Han-Sung, whose 15 points ties him with Kim Hong-Il for the team’s point lead among native players. Defenseman Kim Woo-Jae (who played last year in Finland) is a key player on the blue line. Goaltender Son Ho-Seung has posted a respectable 2.59 GAA with a save percentage just a shade below 90 percent.

Anyang Halla is currently in fourth place, three points out of the third spot but also just three points ahead of sixth-place Nikko. Anyang has won three of its four games against the China Sharks, but the loss (to a team with all of two victories on the season) could ultimately come back to haunt the team in the tightly packed race for the playoffs.

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