ANYANG CITY, South Korea – When the Asia League Ice Hockey (ALIH) semi-finals got under way in March, much of the focus was on two arch rivals from Hokkaido, Japan – the Nippon Paper Cranes, who were defending their third championship title and the Oji Eagles, who featured the league’s top goalie, Haruna Masahito.
In the end, South Korea’s Anyang Halla raised the most eyebrows. After losing the first game in the best-of-five series against fellow countrymen High 1, Halla took the next three contests, winning their first ALIH playoff series and becoming the first non-Japanese team to play for an ALIH championship.
After the Paper Cranes defeated the Eagles, also three games to one, they advanced to their second consecutive championship series, against a team they had knocked out of the playoffs twice before.
The finals turned out to be a tremendous contest, going the full five games with four decided in overtime.
Anyang Halla secured a 2-0 series lead after forward Brock Radunske scored game-winning overtime goals two nights in a row at the Anyang Sports Complex Arena. Game three took place two nights later, with the defending champions facing elimination in front of sold out crowd in Anyang City.
Although Halla led the final shot count 40-36, a stellar performance by Paper Cranes defensemen and goaltender Hisashi Ishikawa led to a 5-2 win for the visitors.
Three days later at the Kushiro Ice Arena, the Paper Cranes upset what looked like a sure victory for Halla when Masahito Nishiwaki tied the game at 2-2 with just two seconds remaining in regulation. Darcy Takeshi Mitani scored the game-winner 6:26 into the extra frame, giving the Cranes a 3-2 win and tying the best-of-five series at two games a piece. The Cranes outshot Halla 31-21.
Hockey fans couldn’t have asked for a more dramatic game five the following evening. The Paper Cranes lead the game 3 – 1 midway through the second period, until a late second period goal and early third period goal by Halla tied the game at three. Then, with less than 2:54 remaining in regulation, the Cranes grabbed a 4-3 lead with a goal by Yoshinori Iimura. With the clock ticking down on their season and championship dreams, Halla’s Ki-Sung Kim scored with 17 seconds remaining to tie the game and send it to overtime.
When defenseman and team captain Woo-Jae Kim scored the winning goal 4:33 later, Anyang Halla not only defeated the Paper Cranes 5-4 to capture their first Asia League Ice Hockey Championship, but also became the first non-Japanese club champion of the Asian league since its foundation in 2003. In addition, Halla also became the second team (after the Nippon Paper Cranes in 2007) to win the leader flag (regular season champion) and the playoffs in the same year. The club calls their championship win the Korean version of the “Miracle on Ice.”
Needless to say, the South Koreans felt tremendous satisfaction after their victory.
“Ten years ago, Japanese teams ignored us when we asked to play exhibition games against them,” Halla General Manager Seung-Jun Yang said. “Korean hockey has developed a lot since then. We still have a long way to go, but now we can beat any team in this league and are not afraid to face anybody.”
Anyang’s victory was less than a complete surprise. The club was a playoff semi-finalist in 2009 and finished first during the regular season in each of the past two seasons.
Until recently, the Asian League has been dominated by its Japanese teams. Of all the countries in the Far East, the Japanese easily have the greatest influence on the sport, with the most systematic organization, the greatest ability to support professional clubs and the largest pool of players to draw from (21,027 registered players – the eighth-largest number worldwide). South Korea on the other hand, has only 1,247 registered players and is stymied by mandatory military service, which takes players away from the game while in their prime.
A significant factor in Halla’s success has been their experience with imports – the league allows teams to recruit a small number of foreign-born players in order to even out strength and experience as well as to increase the level of competitiveness.
Since joining the Asia League, Halla has attracted several high-caliber players to the team. Esa Tikkanen, the five-time Stanley Cup champion from Finland, was a player-coach during the 2004-05 season. Jaroslav Nedved (the brother of Petr Nedved) and former NHL player Zdenek Nedved played also played for the team (2005-07).
Last season’s squad included defensemen Jon Awe (US), Brad Fast (CAN) and Dustin Wood (CAN) as well as center Patrik Martinec (CZE) who played a total of five seasons with Halla and retired after the championship win. Martinec was hired as an assistant coach by the club in June.
Forward Brock Radunske, a third-round draft pick (#79 overall) of the Edmonton Oilers in 2002, played four seasons in the AHL, ECHL and the DEL (Germany) before signing with Halla in 2008. He became the first North American-born player to sign with the team and at 6’ 4”, he’s the tallest forward in the club’s history. Radunske won four individual trophies last season, including regular season MVP, Forward of the Year, most goals (29) and most points (57 in 36 games).
Radunske, 27, also led the playoffs with 13 points (7 G, 6 A) in nine games. With five goals in the finals against the Paper Cranes, he was named Playoff MVP.
“It was a great accomplishment, but the feeling of winning the championship was far better,” Radunske said. “The past two years, our team has put in a lot of hard work, and for our team to accomplish this goal meant a lot for everybody involved.” Radunske, who is affectionately nicknamed “The Canadian Big Beauty” in South Korea, has been very impressed with the effort that the Halla franchise, coaches and players have made to develop themselves into a championship-caliber team.
“As a country, they pride themselves on how hard they are willing to work, and this was a good example of this philosophy having success,” Radunske said. “You have to give them credit for the improvements they have made, and it’s more then just they past couple of years, because for them to get to this point it has been a work in progress for many seasons.”
The hard-working forward also brings attention to the progress of the ever-improving South Korean hockey program. “They recently won their first game ever at the World Championships in the Division 1, Group B tournament in Slovenia , beating Croatia 5-2. They also played close games against Great Britain, Hungary and Poland. This was also a big step for Korean Hockey.”
Radunske, a native of Kitchener, Ontario points out that South Korean hockey players are a rare breed and that compared to other countries, the number of individuals drawn to the sport is much smaller, but their commitment to the sport is intense.
“In South Korea, it is considered a “noble sport” and expensive to play as a kid, so they don’t have the sheer amount of players coming through the system, as we are accustomed to in Canada and the United States.”
Although Asian hockey is hard to compare stylistically to other leagues he’s played in, Radunske immediately appreciated the sheer athleticism and dedication of many of his teammates.
“I was surprised when I came over to see the skill level of some of these players. The speed of most of these players in exceptional, but their team game needs a little work,” Radunske said. “This has been improving over the past few seasons, as (Halla) has decided to bring in Eric Thurston, (head coach at the University of Alberta) to run the training camp and implement some systems that are commonly used in North America. I think we could compete with most second league teams from other European countries.” While language can sometimes be a hindrance, Radunske says that all involved have found ways to communicate, especially when it counts the most.
“For the most part, it has not been very difficult because the team has made sure we have translation whenever it is most important,” Radunske said. “There are times where it is difficult but you just need to understand that you might not always know what is going on, or happening around you. It has made for some awkward moments that we can laugh about once we get home.”
Radunske says that the popularity of Halla continues to grow and the league itself is getting more and more attention. Halla sold out each of its 18 home games last season as well as all six playoff contests.
“Starting last season, for the first time, South Korea has started to show the regular season games on SBS Sports, which is the major sports channel but it is still slowly gaining traction,” Radunske said. “Our arena has started to sell-out for games but we have also had winning seasons. This upcoming season, we’ll play two games in Tokyo, which currently doesn’t have a team, in an attempt to gain some publicity and interest in the game – this is a major market and the potential for hockey to regain popularity (there) is huge.”
Halla is currently wrapping up their rigorous training camp, which included practice games against Team Korea University on August 14th and Team Primorie Ussuriysk Vladivostok on August 23rd and 26th. They also played Yonsei University on August 20thand 24th with two more matches to follow on the 27th and 31st. The majority of players from last season are expected to be on the final 2010-11 roster.
The team will open the upcoming season facing their Korean rival, the High 1 for the third consecutive season. A two-game series will be held at the Anyang Sports Complex Arena on September 18-19th followed by another two-game series at the Eui-Am Rink in Chuncheion City on September 25-26th.
Halla will raise an Asian League championship banner during a special ceremony on opening night.
The ALIH season will feature seven participating teams who will play a combined 126 games over the course of six months. Each team will play each opponent six times (three home and three away) for a total of 36 games.
Four teams atop the final regular season standings will advance to the playoffs and will vie for the title of Asia League Champion. Both the semi-finals and finals will feature a best-of-five series format which will begin in late February and conclude in March.
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Photo Credits: Anyang Halla Hockey Club