Richard Park doesn’t have many memories of his childhood in South Korea, having moved to the United States with his family at just 3 years old.
But he’s looking to make some new ones as assistant coach and assistant director of hockey for the South Korea national team.
Both when Park was a boy and now, South Korea isn’t a nation known for its hockey. Park became the second Korean ever to play in the NHL when he debuted in the 1994-95 season. He enjoyed a 14-year career, and didn’t have many opportunities to return to his homeland.
Park visited South Korea just twice prior to retiring from professional hockey in 2014. But these days, the 41-year-old is making the long flight to South Korea far more frequently.
Park is now in his fourth season working with the national team. In February, he will be alongside head coach Jim Paek on the bench leading South Korea into its first Olympic Winter Games. It will be the first for Park as well, who did play in four IIHF World Championships with the U.S. Men’s National Team.
“To be involved with the Olympics is something that doesn’t come along very often for anybody,” Park said. “To be able to be part of the Olympics is special, especially given the situation where it’s at.
“Where I’m at in my life, I feel very fortunate.”
Park and South Korea get that special opportunity by virtue of hosting the Games, taking place in PyeongChang, about 75 miles from Park’s birthplace of Seoul. The close proximity to where Park spent the first three years of his life has been a real eye-opener in his trips to South Korea.
“It’s interesting, I’ll be honest with you, because it’s enabled me to kind of get a real deep insight into some of the cultural background of my parents of where they’re from and how I was raised,” Park said. “It’s been really informative, if anything, for my childhood.”
Park has become quite the world traveler since accepting the jobs with South Korea. He lives in Los Angeles, but is the player development coach for the Minnesota Wild, a team he played with for three seasons. Park also travels overseas whenever the South Korean national team gets together, which is about three to six times per year.
In 2014 after Park had wrapped up his 19th season in professional hockey — the final three years with Swiss team HC Ambri-Piotta — he pondered retirement. Over the previous few years, Park had thought about his interests and what he could pursue after his playing career ended.
Park represented Team USA at four IIHF Men's World Championships
“I’d entertained the possibility of playing one more year to maybe finish off here in North America,” Park said. “That 20th year sounded enticing, but when push came to shove and it was time to see if my body and if I had that mental fortitude to training and put my body through what’s required to play a full season, the writing was on the wall. The answer came clearly to me that it was time to move on to the next chapter in my life.”
Paek reached out to Park to join the South Korea national team staff. It didn’t take Park long to jump at the chance to be an assistant coach and assistant director of hockey. Most ex-NHL players who retire and try to stay in the game either go into coaching or a management role. Park got the opportunity to select two avenues to find out where he’s best suited.
“I enjoy the coaching,” Park said. “But equally as much I really enjoy the directing part and helping out and being part of that team as well.”
Park, who played for six NHL franchises after being a second-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1994, has used his on-ice experiences and his off-ice experiences with the Wild to better teach the South Korean players.
“It’s funny, you can read all the books and do all these things but the one thing that I’ve realized is there’s nothing that replaces experience,” Park said. “Obviously, I’ve had a lot of on-ice experience, but I didn’t really have much off-ice experience. I think that part of my life has been accelerated by my experiences with the Korean Olympic team and Minnesota. It’s allowed me to learn quite a bit, maybe at a faster pace because of my on-ice experiences. I’ve really been able to comprehend what goes into building a team, developing a team and making a team run properly and efficiently and having success on the ice.”
Under the leadership of Park and Paek, the South Koreans have built a formidable hockey program. The team is coming off a runner-up finish in the IIHF Division 1, Group A World Championships held in Kiev, Ukraine, in April. That top-2 finish means promotion to the top division for 2018, and the chance to face off against teams such as the United States, Russia and Sweden.
“This is something that we’ve really worked hard to build an identity and a competitive product on the ice,” Park said. “It’s allowed us to gain a little bit of respect in the hockey community, because not only are we in the Olympics but we’re in the top division at the World Championships.”
Since South Korea isn’t a perennial hockey powerhouse, the country might not be looked upon to do much in the Olympics. But Korean fans are thrilled about the team’s prospects.
“There is definitely some excitement and hopefully we can do our part to make the people proud and give them something to identify with and kind of live through come February,” Park said.
Win or lose, Park will enjoy his first trip to the Olympics.
“It’s been a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I’m really thankful and appreciative [for] being in the situation I’m in right now,” Park said.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.