GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Mike Testwuide is playing at the Olympics for a country he couldn’t find on a map.
As a kid in Vail, Colorado, Testwuide dreamed of playing college hockey and reaching the NHL. He accomplished that, and then a funny thing happened: His path took him to the Asian League and now the spotlight of the biggest moment in host South Korea’s brief hockey history.
“You don’t even really know this country exists when you’re young,” Testwuide said. “The hockey world, it’s a crazy journey and it can lead you to do pretty crazy things and pretty amazing things, and that’s the journey we’re on right now. I couldn’t have imagined it, but I’m really happy I’m living it.”
Testwuide isn’t living it alone. He’s one of seven North American-born players on the Korean national team along with Canadians Matt Dalton, Alex Plante, Bryan Young, Eric Regan, Brock Radunske and Michael Swift — all now dual citizens who feel as comfortable wearing “KOREA” on their chests as they do any other uniform.
It felt normal for Regan in just two weeks.
“At first you’re a Canadian guy hoping to play in the Olympics and you put on the Team Korea jersey for the first time as only a Canadian citizen, it’s a little weird,” Regan said. “Growing up in Canada, cheering for the Maple Leaf and then after the first tournament, I was really comfortable with it. I’ve played with all these guys. I’ve lived in Korea now for four years, so I’m definitely more comfortable.”
At the same Olympics where the Korean women’s team includes players from both North and South, the men’s team is a mix of North Americans and South Koreans. But these players have been together for years and developed a bond that blurred nationalities.
“There’s 25 Korean players,” said coach Jim Paek, who was born in Seoul, South Korea, and spent much of his life in North America. “It’s not North Americans or Koreans or anything else. We’ve got 25 hockey players that play for the Korean national team.”
It wasn’t always like that.
When Dalton moved to South Korea in 2014 and joined the national team, he noticed friction.
“I’d like to say it’s been all smooth, but I think maybe at the start, it took some time to gain the trust and everything of our teammates,” Dalton said. “It’s kind of a touchy thing, I think, at the start, until our teammates got to know us.”
Americans and Canadians coming from the NHL, or even the American Hockey League or Kontinental Hockey League, assimilated into the culture and didn’t want to offend their Korean-born teammates. They learned how much Koreans care about age as a measure of seniority, so much that younger players would often walk through the airport carrying three bags because older players told them to do it. They often had to keep their mouths shut about how primitive the hockey program was.
“You have to be careful how you come into this at the start,” Dalton said. “You don’t want to come off as being you’re too good for it or arrogant or anything like that, and it’s something that you could easily do because of the way things were when you first got here.”
Radunske has lived in and played for Korea for 10 years and made the effort to learn some of the language for common courtesy to communicate at restaurants or in cabs. He leaned on Koreans who played major junior hockey in Canada to help with the language barrier.
On the ice, there’s no barrier. Paek, who won the Stanley Cup twice as a player with the Pittsburgh Penguins, stopped using translators and runs practices almost entirely in English.
“They learned English and I’ve learned Korean and they’ve learned the hockey language, so there’s three languages that they’ve learned over the years,” Paek said.
The seven North American players make up each other’s support group living halfway around the world, but the work needed to improve enough to play at the Olympics gave the entire team a connection. Tournaments in places like Hungary and Poland — and turning Korea into a good enough team to even hang with the sport’s powerhouses on the international stage — had a powerful effect.
“We’ve had some lows and we’ve had some highs, and I think that’s kind of what brings you together, too, is the good times and the bad times,” Dalton said. “It’s a hockey team now.”
It’s a better hockey team for the addition of North American players because Testwuide, Plante and Young all have NHL experience and Dalton and the others have been part of high-level leagues.
“They’ve got a great foundation in North American hockey, international hockey and a lot of game experiences,” Paek said. “You look at our Korean players, a lot of them haven’t experienced it. They’ve come out of Korea. They’ve just experienced Korean games and Asian League games versus Japan and Russia and China.”
Now the North American players have experienced it, too, riding the buses and going through the same trials and tribulations as their Korean teammates the past several years. Testwuide considers that Korea’s biggest advantage and the thing he finds the most unfortunate about the unified women’s team being put together on the eve of the Olympics and not getting a chance to really unite as a team.
Korea’s men’s team absolutely has.
“You feel like a family, and you really embrace these guys, they embrace us,” Testwuide said. “A lot of people think it’s super weird and we’re outsiders and we don’t have any connection, but we’re super connected to these guys. We’ve sacrificed a lot, they’ve sacrificed a lot and we’ve formed a common bond and we wear the Team Korea jerseys.”
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