At the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, 13 of South Korea's 14 medals were earned in speed skating and short-track speed skating. That haul included five gold medals, the most of any country in the speed skating events.
Having never been to Asia, former NHL player Ric Jackman wasn't prepared for that speed when he signed last year with Asia League Ice Hockey's Anyang Halla, the top pro team in South Korea.
"The hockey is a lot better than what I expected, definitely. They're great skaters. Their game is a lot faster than what I was used to," said Jackman, who played 231 NHL games with six teams. "That was one of the areas I had to improve on in the preseason. Getting faster and losing a few pounds. It was definitely an eye opener in training camp."
Former NHL player Ric Jackman has found stability in the Asia League, helping raise the profile of ice hockey in South Korea. (Photo Credit: Anyang Halla)
After winning the Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007, Jackman spent three years playing in Europe before suiting up for 16 games with the ECHL's Utah Grizzlies in 2010. Looking to enjoy the last few years of his career in one place, the defenseman accepted a three-year offer from Anyang, which in 2010 became the first Korean club to win the Asia League title. The team had signed other Westerners before Jackman, including Carolina Hurricanes draft pick Brad Fast and former Michigan State standout Brock Radunske.
"I was looking for the security of being in the same place for that long," said Jackman, who was among the Asia League's top scorers in his first season with Anyang. "We decided to take a chance and we've loved it ever since. It's great over here."
Bringing over a player of Jackman's talents wasn't just an effort to improve Anyang Halla. It was also an opportunity to help a South Korean national team that has been slowly climbing the global rankings in anticipation of the 2018 Winter Olympics, which will be hosted in the South Korean city of PyeongChang.
"Ric Jackman is very accomplished. He won the Stanley Cup. Everybody knows that and everybody respects him," said Yang Seung Jun, Anyang Halla's general manager and a former manager with South Korea's national team. "Just being on the ice, he's a great role model. Off the ice, he helps with our players."
For more than a decade, Yang has been at the forefront of Korean hockey. As a young man, he interned with the Cleveland Lumberjacks of the International Hockey League. His Anyang team has steadily improved since the Asia Hockey League was founded in 2003.
South Korean hockey reached its apex last April, when the national team beat host-nation Poland in the final of the Division 1, Group B World Championship. The 3-2 win earned the team promotion to Group A, one level below the IIHF's main World Championship. With a strong performance a month later at the U-20 Challenge Cup of Asia, South Korean hockey had arrived.
"Every year we are getting better," Yang told NHL.com. "Before, we would lose to Japan 10-0, 20-0. Now we're competing with them."
South Korea isn't expected to appear at the 2014 Olympic tournament in Sochi; instead, it's looking to play not-so-gracious host in 2018. But recent history hasn't been kind to Olympic host teams in non-traditional hockey countries. At the 2006 Games in Turin, an Italian team made up primarily of dual citizens finished last in its division after sustaining losses of 6-0 to Finland and 7-2 to Canada.
"Ric Jackman is very accomplished. He won the Stanley Cup. Everybody knows that and everybody respects him. Just being on the ice, he's a great role model. Off the ice, he helps with our players."
-- Anyang Halla general manager Yang Seung Jun on Ric Jackman
Whereas the host Italians earned automatic qualification in 2006, South Korea must be ranked 18th or higher in the IIHF rankings by 2016 in order to play at the PyeongChang Olympics -- so the race is on to get the team up to snuff.
That means importing players like Jackman as well as shipping top Korean talent to Europe. This year, 10 South Korean players were sent to Finland to play in their third-tier division. They included Park Woo-Sang, who previously played in England before going to Finland, and Cho Min Ho, who has become known as the "Korean Crosby."
There has also been talk of a Korean team joining Finland's second-tier league and even Korean businessmen acquiring a team in Finland.
"We haven't decided anything yet. We need to talk to the federation to get all the information we can," Yang said. "It's not easy to buy a team in another country. We're going to work on it."
Until then, an improving university system, an under-18 team that won promotion in January, and the contributions of North American players could help South Korea turn some heads in 2018.
"The country is definitely moving up the ranks. They've gotten a lot better," Jackman said. "It will be pretty interesting to see if they qualify, just to see them play in front of their own crowd."