Matt Dalton
AP

South Korea hockey team leans on naturalized Canadian goalie

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SAPPORO, Japan (AP) — Growing up in rural southern Ontario, Matt Dalton never figured that his career path in professional hockey would take him to South Korea.

Dalton, along with a handful of other North American players, has acquired South Korean citizenship and is a key member of the men’s national ice hockey team as it prepares to take on the world’s best as host of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

“The possibility of getting citizenship intrigued me,” said the 30-year-old goaltender who is in Sapporo representing South Korea at the Asian Winter Games.

“Also, the job stability,” added Dalton, who played briefly in the Boston Bruins organization. “When you are playing overseas it’s kinda one year at a time. You can get bounced around pretty quick.”

Dalton was playing in Russia in the KHL before getting invited to play for South Korean team Anyang Halla in the Asia Ice Hockey League. The paycheck took him to South Korea. The lure of the Olympics is keeping him there.

The South Korean team has never qualified for the Olympics and is hoping to avoid an embarrassing drubbing on international ice hockey’s biggest stage.

The Korean Olympic Committee asked the justice ministry to fast-track the naturalization of the import players and they were approved in accordance with a revised immigration law that allows qualified foreign nationals to hold multiple citizenships.

Dalton said being able to maintain his Canadian citizenship made the decision a lot easier.

In the 12-nation men’s tournament in Pyeongchang, South Korea has been placed in Group A with top-ranked Canada, the Czech Republic and Switzerland, ranked sixth and seventh respectively.

With or without NHL players — the league is still undecided on whether it will take part — that’s a tough group for the hosts.

“Hockey-wise, we are in pretty deep with the competition,” Dalton said. “There are big challenges no doubt. But we are working hard and trying to get better so, hopefully, we can have a good showing for South Korea.”

Former NHL defenseman Jim Paek was hired to coach the team.

Paek, the first Korean-born hockey player to play in the NHL, won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992.

His team, 23rd in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s rankings, lost their opening game of the Asian Winter Games 4-0 on Wednesday to Kazakhstan, which is No. 16 in the world rankings.

“They are a good team,” Paek said of the Kazakhs. “We had some good chances but we couldn’t capitalize.”

Paek said getting in games against high-level competition is one of the toughest things about preparing his Olympic squad.

“The lack of game experience at a high-level is our biggest challenge,” Paek said. “In order for us to compete with top-nation teams we need to play them. Hockey is a small world where they have their small group of friends and it’s tough to get in and play any games. So we have to do the best we can and move forward.”

At the IIHF’s second-tier tournament in 2014, South Korea went 0-5 on home ice, was outscored by 30-12, a result that saw the team relegated to world hockey’s third tier for 2015.

South Korea has three clubs in the Asian League Ice Hockey, the only professional league in the region. Those clubs provide most of the national team’s roster.

While some would argue the import players are merely hired guns, Paek had a different take.

“Adding the import players has really helped grow and develop our (Korean) players,” Paek said. “I count on the kids that have been developed in Korea a great deal now.”

For now, Dalton and his fellow transplanted teammates will continue to work on their game and adjust to a new culture.

Having Paek as the coach has made the transition much easier.

“The cultures are so different that things don’t always mesh” Dalton said. “So it’s nice to have that buffer there and know he’s got your back.”

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MORE: PyeongChang 2018 daily schedule highlights

If no NHL players at Olympics, who goes to PyeongChang?

FILE - In this Jan. 4, 2017, file photo, United States' Troy Terry, right, celebrates with teammate Jack Roslovic after scoring in a shootout to defeat Russia 4-3 in a semifinal at the World Junior ice hockey championships in Montreal. If the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Quick, Jack Eichel and Ryan Suter aren’t available for the 2018 Winter Olympics, USA Hockey will look mostly to the college ranks. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP, File)
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If the NHL doesn’t send its players to the 2018 Winter Olympics, the hockey tournament in PyeongChang will look familiar.

It will look a lot like the Olympics in Lillehammer in 1994, Albertville in 1992 and Calgary in 1988.

Maybe even a little like 1980 in Lake Placid, site of the “Miracle On Ice.”

With a year before the opening ceremony, the league, players union, International Ice Hockey Federation and International Olympic Committee still don’t have an agreement to send NHL players to their sixth consecutive Olympics. There is still time – an agreement last time around came in July before the 2014 Games in Sochi – but everyone is forming a Plan B just in case.

Russia might have Alex Ovechkin if he makes good on his intention to go no matter what. But the United States, Canada and other countries are preparing for life without the best players in the world.

If the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Quick, Jack Eichel and Ryan Suter aren’t available, USA Hockey will look mostly to the college ranks. If Hockey Canada can’t take Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Drew Doughty or Carey Price, it will try to defend the gold medal with a mix of European-based professionals, North American minor leaguers and players from the Canadian junior leagues and NCAA.

“It’s a big world, and we’ve got to make sure that we’re ready to go,” Hockey Canada president Tom Renney said. “Should the NHL choose not to go, we’ll make sure we’re ready, willing and able a year from now.”

The U.S. has a fresh set of heroes after shootout star Troy Terry, defenseman Charlie McAvoy and goaltender Tyler Parsons won world junior gold last month. Mix them with top college players like Notre Dame’s Anders Bjork and Wisconsin’s Trent Frederic and ex-NHLers Keith Aucoin and Nathan Gerbe who are playing in Europe, and the Americans will have plenty of youth and experience.

Dave Starman, a former coach in the minors and now an analyst for CBS Sports, said USA Hockey’s priority should be scoring, scoring and more scoring.

“You can’t win unless you can score,” Starman said. “It’s got to have a ton of speed, it’s got to have a really high skill level, it’s got to have defensemen who can get in the play. You need a little bit of dog on bone in your lineup, but I don’t think you can sacrifice skill guys for toughness.”

No problem there for Canada, which has plenty of big, tough skill players and hasn’t waited for the IIHF to set any 2018 parameters as it prepares its contingency plan. Canada’s team for the December Spengler Cup in Switzerland could serve as a blueprint: minor leaguers Cory Conacher and Zach Fucale and European recent NHL players Daniel Paille and Nick Spaling.

While IIHF President Rene Fasel would like a final decision sooner than later to plan for South Korea, Renney said Hockey Canada could put a team together quickly. Like USA Hockey, Canada can pull from its national junior team but has more veteran talent in Europe and the American Hockey League to choose from. Former NHL goaltender Ben Scrivens in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey league is an option, for example, as is journeyman Michael Leighton, who is in the Carolina Hurricanes’ system.

Though Leighton firmly believes NHL players will go, the 35-year-old said he would “train as hard as I possibly can to get that job” if they don’t. AHL president and CEO David Andrews expects his league to be open to allowing players to go to the Olympics as long as NHL teams give individual minor leaguers permission.

“I think it’ll be an interesting question, though, for a lot of general managers because the player that is going to be asked for is going to be probably their No. 1 player outside the NHL club,” Andrews said. “They kind of face that question of, ‘Do we want our No. 1 call-up to be in South Korea for two or three weeks?'”

Some NHL owners might even give their elite players permission to go, and Ted Leonsis of the Washington Capitals has said repeatedly he’d let Ovechkin, Swede Nicklas Backstrom and Canadian Braden Holtby represent their countries, though Holtby said he would never leave the Capitals midseason. The IIHF might set roster parameters to prevent NHL players from participating, too.

“We want to have that opportunity,” two-time U.S. Olympian Justin Faulk said. “If that’s taken from us and we don’t have that right anymore, at least it gives other guys an opportunity.”

Hall of Fame defenseman Mark Howe would be fine with that. After winning a silver medal playing for the U.S. in 1972, he supports amateurs because he feels the 1980 “Miracle On Ice” victory over the Soviet Union had a greater impact on the sport than professionals playing in the Olympics.

“Probably the greatest victory I think I’ve ever seen in hockey was when the 1980 team beat the Russians,” Howe said. “There was some guys on that team that never had a chance to play in the NHL or impact the NHL. That was their two weeks of fame. A guy like Mike Eruzione, Jimmy Craig – they’re phenomenal stories.”

True, but 1998 and 2002 U.S. Olympian John LeClair is worried about a talent discrepancy next winter if Russia put Ovechkin and dominant KHL players Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk against American college kids.

“You get different variations of who’s playing and who’s not,” LeClair said. “You’re getting back to what it used to be where Russia had all their pros. You want everybody on an even (playing) field.”

MORE: 2018 Olympic hockey groups set

Bob McKenzie: No NHL Olympic decision expected soon

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The NHL probably won’t decide for at least another month whether it will participate in the PyeongChang Olympics, hockey insider Bob McKenzie said on NBCSN on Wednesday night.

“The puck is now on the stick of the National Hockey League and the NHLPA,” McKenzie said. “Maybe the National Hockey League is just sitting back, waiting for the National Hockey League Players’ Association to provide a concession or an inducement or something that would change the owners’ mind about going to PyeongChang.”

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said league owners are feeling “fatigue” after going to the five Olympics. They are worried about another midseason interruption and potential injury risk.

On Monday, the IIHF council held a conference call with representative from all 12 teams qualified for the Olympics.

“The majority of this group felt that the NHL will likely need to decide during the month of March because of their scheduling needs for next season,” IIHF president Rene Fasel said on the IIHF website. “However, we do not feel at this time that it would be constructive to set a hard deadline for the NHL and NHLPA to confirm their participation.”

Fasel said that if the NHL does not participate, the Olympic men’s hockey format would likely not change to an under-23 tournament similar to that of Olympic soccer.

“Olympic ice hockey has a wonderful and exciting history that goes further back than just Nagano [1998],” the first Olympics with NHL players, Fasel said. “Look at the Swedes in Lillehammer [1994], the Soviets in Cortina d’Ampezzo [1956], and the Americans in Lake Placid [1980] … these are just some of the great moments we have witnessed playing under the rings.

“If we do not have the NHL in PyeongChang, I have zero doubt that the Olympic men’s tournament will still be as thrilling and competitive as any we have seen.”

MORE: Toews says hockey ‘misrepresented’ if no NHL at Olympics