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New-look Anyang Halla adds western flavor

by Bill Meltzer

Canadian Samuel Kim, the host of a local hockey show in South Korea, was hired earlier this year by the Anyang Halla hockey club as a scout.
The Asia League of Ice Hockey (ALIH) is entering its sixth season of existence, but South Korean entry Anyang Halla club pre-dates the creation of the Asia League by nearly a decade. The five-time champion of the former Korea Ice Hockey League has never finished first in the ALIH nor won a championship.

Last season, the team from Anyang City, Gyeonggi-do, finished fifth in the seven-team Asia League and lost in the playoff quarterfinals.

Until recently, the club has never had a North American player on the roster. The team’s imports (as well as its head coach) were brought in from the Czech Republic.

That has changed in a big way this offseason.

After firing longtime assistant coach and vice general manager Kim Sae-il in March, general manager Yang Seung-jun hired Samuel Kim to scout and recruit players from North America. Kim, a Canadian citizen, hosts South Korea’s only televised hockey program, featuring weekly highlights from the NHL and occasional live broadcasts, including Game 5 of the 2008 Stanley Cup Final.

"I started working as an NHL reporter back in Vancouver, and I was lucky to grab a chance to work as an analyst for SBS Sports," said Kim. "Hockey is not as popular here as it could be, but the sport has a lot of potential to appeal to Koreans. Right now, though, soccer, basketball, baseball and even volleyball are hot here. I’m basically by myself in Korea, trying to spread word of the coolest game on Earth. It's not easy."

Kim’s knowledge of the various North American hockey leagues has paid off this offseason with the signings of three players who figure to excel in the Asia League. Defensemen Brad Fast and Jon Awe have signed one-year deals, along with forward Brock Radunske.

Fast, a former Carolina Hurricanes blueliner, played in just one NHL game but was a collegiate standout at Michigan State University and an above-average offensive defenseman in the American Hockey League prior to playing in Switzerland’s Nationalliga A, Germany’s DEL and Austria’s Erste Bank Liga.

Radunske, 25, was a teammate of Fast’s at Michigan State. The 6-foot-4 forward was selected by Edmonton Oilers in the third round (No. 79) of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, but was unable to advance to the NHL. The Kitchener, Ontario native spent last season in the DEL with the Augsburg Panthers, playing 37 games and producing seven goals and 26 points. His best pro season was 2005-06, when he scored 38 goals in 63 games for the ECHL’s Greenville Grrrowl.
Awe, 28, will become Anyang Halla’s first player from the United States. The Memphis, Tennessee native spent four seasons at Northeastern University before making his pro debut in 2005-06 with the ECHL’s Gwinnett Gladiators. He was named to the ECHL All-Rookie Team, and led all rookie defenseman with 14 goals (in just 49 games) and a plus-14 rating. The following year, he led all ECHL defensemen with 24 goals and won the hardest shot competition at the All-Star skills competition. In 2007-08, he spent most of the season with the AHL’s Houston Aeros.
Prior to the recent signings, the team last drew some western attention during the 2004-05 season, when it brought in former Oilers and New York Rangers forward Esa Tikkanen to appear in 30 games. However, most of Anyang’s non-Korean recruiting was done in the Czech Republic and Japan.

From 2005 until the end of last season, Anyang Halla was coached by Otakar Vejvoda Sr. A legend of Czech hockey as both a standout defenseman for HC Kladno and a successful coach in his homeland, Vejvoda brought several Czech and Slovak players to bolster the team, including former Toronto Maple Leafs forward Zdenek Nedved, former Czech Extraliga scoring champion Patrik Martinec and defenseman Jaroslav Nedved (older brother of longtime NHL forward Petr Nedved).

Martinec is the only Czech slated to return this season, but the 2008-09 campaign will mark the first time Halla doesn’t have any Japanese players on the roster.

Anyang Halla’s new head coach is Shim Eue-sik. The club’s small – but loyal – fan base needs no introduction to Shim, who was the club’s all-time leading scorer as a player and the only Anyang player to have his number retired. During the club’s preseason training camp, the club will bring in University of Alberta head coach Eric Thurston (winner of two CIS championships) to assist for the first three weeks. The hope is that Thurston can help the North American players get situated quickly while also imparting some of his coaching know-how to Shim.

Among Anyang Halla’s Korean players, by far the team’s most notable addition is the re-acquisition of 28-year-old right wing Song Dong-hwan. He last played for the team in 2005-06, scoring 31 goals and 62 points in 38 games to win the ALIH scoring championship. He missed the last two years due to military service. Back in 1999, he scored 33 goals in a single junior national-team game against Thailand. The accomplishment has been commemorated by the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, where his jersey from the game is on display.

Song will join promising second-year left winger Lee Yu-won, playmaking center Kim Hong-il, former ECHL player Kim Han-Sung, team captain and defenseman Kim Woo-Jae (who formerly played in Finland) and goaltender Son Ho-Sung to form the native-born nucleus of the roster.

The club has also added several prospects from Yonsei University, one of the primary feeder systems for Korean talent. Both Kim Ki-sung and Park Woo-sang attended the New York Islanders prospect camp in the summer of 2005 as unaffiliated invitees of the club.

In addition to beefing up the roster, Anyang Halla hopes to gain wider media exposure both within South Korea and internationally (in addition to his other duties, Kim serves as spokesperson and translator for English outlets). The club has also expanded its broadcasting schedule. Former Halla forward Bae Sang-wun serves as the team’s radio announcer, along with Kim. Retired player Oh Sol-gil serves as main commentator on the club’s cable television broadcasts.

"The Asia League in general and Anyang Halla in particular has an opportunity to continue to grow and develop," said Kim. "The Chinese component of the league will still take some time, but the continued involvement of the San Jose Sharks in sponsoring the China Sharks team is crucial. From Anyang Halla’s standpoint, we feel as though we have a good chance to become the first non-Japanese team to win the Asia League championship."

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