GOYANG, Republic of Korea – High1 center Mike Swift isn’t shy about expressing how he feels about his Asian ice hockey adventure.
“I’m having a blast over here,” Swift said. “When I first came over I wondered, ‘What am I doing here?’ But after a week or so, it felt like home.”
For Swift, the start of the 2013-14 Asia League Ice Hockey season has mirrored the success he’s had in the past two years playing for High1, a team based in Goyang, a suburb of Seoul, South Korea. During the opening weekend, the 26-year-old center, now alternate captain, tallied eight points (4 G, 4 A), including a game-winning goal in two road games against China Dragon in Shanghai. After six games, Swift has already contributed 15 points (10 G, 5 A, +7) and is on track for a third straight league scoring title.
In his first season playing for High1 (2011-12), Swift earned the league’s Regular Season MVP award and was also honored for Most Points (90), Most Goals (46), Most Assists (46) and Best Plus/Minus (+52). Last season, Swift was once again recognized as one of the league’s best players with honors for Most Points (97), Most Goals (39) and Most Assists (58).
Those numbers aren’t typical for most “import” players who sign on to play in the Asia League, which many compare to the ECHL. Swift attributes his success to the hard work and dedication he puts into his game every day. But he is still surprised he’s done so well, especially last season.
“It’s honestly hard trying to keep up with the stats since I’ve been over here,” Swift said. “The first year when I got 90 points I thought to myself I would never do this again. But then last season, I beat it.”
“I just want to win every game I play and be the best on the ice,” Swift added. “I just try and out think the other team. This is a good league – guys are fast and can shoot the puck but I feel like I just out think them and read the situation on the ice better than most.”
As High1’s scoring leader, Swift’s prowess on the ice also serves as a motivator for his Korean teammates who have good fundamental skills and can really skate, but lack the hockey sense that comes with his experience.
“In practice guys are coming up to me, asking me how I shoot the puck – so they are always watching me and asking questions and want to get better,” Swift said. “That’s a positive thing.”
The teams play a 42-game schedule with many more practices than in North America. Swift points out that unlike players back home, the Koreans train together during the off-season.
“The team takes one month off a year (in May) but they practice all summer and do dry land training all summer together.”
A native of Peterborough, Ontario, Swift played major junior hockey with the Mississauga IceDogs (OHL) where his passion and intensity, not to mention great vision in the offensive zone led to increased output each season.
By the 2006-07 season, Swift led the team in scoring with 93 points (34 G, 59 A, +37) and 76 penalty minutes. He capped off his junior career the following season with 100 points (38 G, 62 A, +36) and 130 PIM, earning the Leo Lalonde Trophy as the OHL’s Overage Player of the Year.
Swift added 18 points (9 G, 9 A, +5) and 22 PIM in 10 post-season contests before the IceDogs were knocked out of Memorial Cup contention in the second round by the Sudbury Wolves.
He then signed on with the Central Hockey League’s Laredo Bucks and contributed four points (1 G, 3 A), including his first professional goal, in 12 playoff games before the Bucks were defeated by the Colorado Eagles in the CHL finals.
In April of 2008, as an undrafted free agent, Swift signed an entry level contract with the New Jersey Devils organization. He spent the next three seasons in the American Hockey League, primarily with the team’s affiliate, the Lowell Devils.
Swift worked hard to earn a regular spot in the Devils’ lineup and make an impact. In 2008-09, he tallied 27 points (12 G, 15 A, +2) and 50 PIM and doubled that the following season with 55 points (24 G, 31 A) and 71 PIM. He developed a role as an instigator and also became a threat on the man-advantage, scoring five times on the power play and four more in short-handed situations.
During the 2010-11 season, he contributed 28 Points (16 G, 12 A, -13) in 48 games before being traded to the San Jose Sharks organization in a multi-player deal. In 18 games with the Sharks’ AHL affiliate, the Worcester Sharks, he managed just seven points (1 G, 6 A). Swift was not tendered a qualifying offer by the Sharks and became an unrestricted free agent. Then, the offer came from Korea.
“I was in the AHL for three years and had pretty good years and never got a shot in North America,” Swift said. “You’re just another number, so I thought to myself, ‘Why not come over here?’ The money was really good, so I couldn’t turn it down.”
Compensation varies in the Asia League, but generally the team pays the living expenses of each player, provides each with a vehicle to use, and pays similar (if not better) than what Swift made in the AHL.
Swift lives in an apartment about 20 minutes north of Seoul, in a nice area close to numerous shops and restaurants. Swift says the High1 organization and their fans helped make the transition to living and playing overseas easy.
“The Korean people treat me unbelievably,” he said. “They’re the kindest people I know. They’re always asking me if I need anything or what they can do to make me feel better. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best player on the team or the 3rd string goalie. Everyone is a family and they all get along really well.”
Outside of getting to experience some Korean delicacies and learning how to use chop sticks, Swift found that the proliferation of western restaurants and food items also helped with his transition.
“The food over here is honestly the same as in Canada,” Swift added. “They have Costco and all kinds of North American restaurants, so the adjustment was really easy.”
The only negative of his journey is that his family can’t see him play regularly as they did when he was in Lowell, Albany or Worcester during his AHL career.
“I come over on August 1st and leave March 31st. It’s a 13-hour plane ride away from my home. I have a really close family – we always Skype, but the biggest knock is being away from home.”
As for his new Korean “family”, Swift says he has a lot of fun with his High1 teammates and has developed a number of friendships with the Koreans and other import players.
“We spend a lot of time together as a team,” Swift said. “We usually have one day off a week and on the ice for an hour and a half. When we’re on the road, they put me with a Korean guy so I can learn the language. I’m trying, but it’s really difficult. Every guy on my team can understand English. There are just a few that can’t really speak it, just the basics. I know they wish they could because they are trying.”
High1 is owned by a Kangwon Land, which also owns and operates the High1 Resort and Casino which offers numerous amenities for the players.
“Sometimes during the winter we’ll take off for a night or two and go skiing in the mountains,” Swift said. “The hills are very steep, so we try not to go too fast,” he laughed. “There’s also an amusement park that opened up about five minutes from my place that has water slides and an indoor ski hill, so I’ll hopefully be spending some time there this year as well.”
In addition to his Korean teammates, Swift’s High1 family also includes a real family member: his cousin, defenseman Bryan Young.
“It’s pretty cool having Bryan over here,” Swift said. “He was kind of the one that got me over here in the first place. He came over a year before I did. There are three import players on the team so it’s always nice knowing who you’re going to be playing with.”
High1 finished sixth in the seven-team league and missed the playoffs last season. Part of the problem was that a number of their top players left the team in December for military duty. This season, those players, as well as those from Anyang Halla, another Korean team in the Asia league, are playing for a new team: Daemyung Sangmu.
The creation of the Sangmu team is in effect, a solution to the issue of mandatory two-year military service for Korean men, which has side-lined many professional hockey players in the past. The team’s roster is comprised of several players who are currently serving their military commitment, allowing them to continue to develop so that they are able to continue their careers afterward. The initiative is also intended to help the country to prepare for the 2018 Winter Olympiad, to be held in Pyeongchang, 110 miles east of Seoul.
Swift said there’s a concerted effort on the part of the Koreans to improve their skills and hopefully get the chance to participate in the Olympic hockey tournament.
“The Koreans are doing an amazing job…they are always talking about it over here and everyone wants to be in it.” The Korean National Team is picked from my team and another team in Korea that’s in my league and they are always working hard everyday because they have the Olympics in the back of their heads.”
“It would put Korea on the map for ice hockey. It’s great hockey,” Swift added. “It’s just that most people don’t know about it.”
As for Swift’s future plans, he puts it simply.
“Hopefully, I’ll get to spend a few more years over here.”
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