PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – Richard Park spent roughly a third of his life playing in the NHL — 738 games for six teams over 14 seasons. He tacked on a few more seasons playing professionally in Europe.
When he retired in 2014, he wasn’t sure of his next move, only that he wanted to stay connected to hockey.
One phone call charted his new course.
Jim Paek, the first Korean-born NHL player and a former member of the Minnesota Moose IHL team, called and invited Park, his fellow countryman, to help him coach the South Korean men’s hockey team in the 2018 Olympics.
The Korean Hockey Federation successfully secured an automatic bid under the assurance that Paek, as head coach, would build up the program’s infrastructure to compete against the world’s best talent in four years.
He enlisted the help of Park, who played three seasons for the Wild in the early 2000s and now works for the organization as a development coach working with minor leaguers in Iowa.
Park, who lives in Los Angeles, called it a “unique opportunity.”
“I don’t think [Paek] really knew what he was getting himself into either,” he said.
Park was born in Seoul but moved to Los Angeles with he was 3. He visited his native country only twice as a child and doesn’t remember much from it.
He relished the chance to learn more about his heritage while tackling the challenge of growing a sport that receives little attention in Korea.
“Essentially it was starting from scratch,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it was in rough shape, because that’s a criticism of people here before. But they did things that aren’t normal at the higher levels because they’ve never been there.”
They had to scout and develop players and build an organizational infrastructure that reflected the mission of becoming a top division program. Park didn’t know exact participation figures but said there is a “very low amount of players” in the country.
His job requires him to wear many hats: assistant coach, assistant director of player personnel, scout, etc. It has been a slow, challenging process to get the team ready for the Olympics.
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” he said. “Hopefully the people here can really grasp on to the game because they don’t really understand the game, the rules. They certainly don’t understand any of the history behind the game.”
This endeavor has given Park, 41, a chance to learn about his family’s history and the Korean culture. He has visited extensively the past four years.
“It’s been an interesting learning experience,” he said. “I’ve learned about myself and where my parents have come from and some of things that I was brought up as kid believing in and the reasons why.”
Not surprisingly, his team has struggled against stronger, more established opponents in the tournament. Korea lost all three preliminary round games by a combined score of 14-1.
The Koreans lost to the Czech Republic 2-1 in their Olympic debut, but the score was secondary to Park. That opening faceoff and seeing how far the program has progressed in four years mattered more.
“It was four years cultivating all into one moment,” he said. “You could feel so many different emotions. That was an energy that didn’t disappear.”
Park’s contract with the federation ends after the World Championships in May. Then he will resume his player development duties with the Wild. He said he owes the organization “a lot of my time.”
“Hopefully they will want it,” he said with a smile.