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Wild's Park realizing Olympic dream as South Korea assistant coach

Former Wild player, current development coach hopes PyeongChang Games can help grow sport in Asia

by Dan Myers @DanMyers /

Richard Park doesn't recollect much from his childhood in South Korea. Born in Seoul, Park and his family moved to the United States when he was just three years old. 

But the Wild's player development coach will certainly make his fair share of memories as he returns to his birth country this month as an assistant with the South Korean men's national team that will compete as the host nation at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang.

Park's participation in the Olympics itself is a bit of a dream come true.

A blue-collar athlete during an NHL career that spanned 14 seasons and six teams, including three seasons with the Wild from 2001-04, Park wasn't the type of player chosen to play in the Games. But as his NHL career wound down in 2012, in his second stint with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Park began to contemplate what he would do once his playing days were done.

The previous summer, PyeongChang had been selected from a group of three potential host cities for the 2018 Winter Games. Park's career shifted to Switzerland, where he played two more seasons of professional hockey before hanging up the skates for good in 2014.

It was then that the wheels for this opportunity were set in motion. 

"Anyone would aspire to be a part of the Olympics as an athlete," Park said. "To be part of the staff and get to experience this, is something that's going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for myself.

"The games were still four years away. But there were a lot of reasons why being a part of an Olympic event would entice somebody to want to be a part of it."

One of the biggest reasons was an opportunity for Park to explore more about his own native culture.

Park moved to Los Angeles with his family then moved to Canada as a teen to continue his hockey career and hadn't been back to South Korea since until last month, when he began working directly with the national team in advance of the Olympics.

"It's allowed me to gain further insight into my heritage and being Korean," Park said. "I'm not very familiar with the culture, and it's allowed me to educate myself in terms of just where my parents came from and the environment they grew up in and the mindset in Korea that's different than in the U.S. From that perspective, it's been real educating and interesting, to say the least."

While Park has played hockey at its highest levels all around the world, serving the South Korean national team has been an eye-opening experience. 

The NHL is just beginning to make a concerted effort to break through in the Asian market, highlighted by a pair of preseason games between the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks in China last fall. South Korea, currently 21st in the IIHF men's world rankings, will compete in its first Olympics in both men's and women's hockey.

The latter team made waves when it announced it will feature a joint roster with North Korea, and athletes from both countries will march under a unified flag in Friday's opening ceremonies.

With the Olympics in South Korea this month and the winter games returning to Asia in 2022 in Beijing, the hope is that the game will become more popular in the world's most populous region because of exposure.

Park admits there are plenty of challenges ahead for the sport there, but having such a bright spotlight on the game can only help.

Video: Richard Park overtime winner

"It's what makes our sport unique, is that you can't pick up a ball or a bat and just head out to a field and practice," Park said. "You need the rinks, you need the equipment, you need the coaches. Those aren't easily accessible here, so there's a lot of things that would have to go into it.

"But there's no reason why it can't. There's a lot of people. There's people that have an interest in helping to grow the sport. But it's going to take some time. It isn't going to happen overnight. This is hopefully the beginning of that process."

Every player on the South Korean team plays in a pro league in South Korea. Several are Canadian-born and raised, but have been offered and accepted South Korean citizenship in order to be eligible to play. Still, it faces an uphill climb against other countries with more hockey tradition. Even without NHL players at this year's Games, Team Canada has more than 2,000 games of NHL experience on its roster. 

Russia, Sweden, Finland and the United States, among others, are also expected to field very competitive teams.

So where does that leave the hosts, and what are their goals as the games begin?

"Our message to the players is no different than any other team; that they can go and win the hockey game," Park said. "Certainly, the odds are stacked against us. The experience and the caliber of the other teams are a level that's above us. But there's no reason why we can't go in there and shock the world and win a hockey game. And in this tournament, if you win the right hockey game, much like Slovenia did in Sochi [in 2014], you live to fight for another day. 

"Our mental fortitude is really going to be tested here, because there's going to be some challenges and some moments where we fall down. But it's going to be how we respond to those moments that determine our success in this tournament."

In the meantime, Park will try to soak in as much of the experience as he can, sharing it with his wife, Devyn, his son, Preston (17), and his daughter, Olivia (11). His parents, Paul and Jean, who met and married in South Korea more than four decades ago, will also be there. 

"It's not going to be short in terms of providing things to enjoy and experience here," Park said. "We're in a different country, and I think the whole experience is really important to soak up and enjoy."


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