'It takes your breath away': Canadians on South Korean team embrace matchup with Canada
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GANGEUNG, Korea, Republic Of — South Korean forward Brock Radunske had to pinch himself prior to Sunday's game against Canada at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
The 34-year-old from Kitchener, Ont., has played professional hockey in South Korea since 2009 and became a naturalized citizen in his adopted country in 2013.
Still proud of where he's from and where he learned the game on the other side of the world, Radunske suited up in a tournament against Canada in December. But looking across and seeing a Maple Leaf on the opposing team's jerseys — at the Olympics, no less — was still strange.
"In warmups it takes your breath away a little bit and you realize what you're doing," Radunske said. "You've got to focus pretty quickly once the puck drops if you don't want to get embarrassed out there."
Radunske and his teammates were far from embarrassed against the Canadians — a group with more than 5,500 games of NHL experience — falling 4-0 on a night where the Olympic hosts hung tough despite getting outshot 49-19.
South Korean defenceman Alex Plante agreed the scenes before the opening faceoff were surreal.
"You're just trying to focus on what you've got to do to win a hockey game," said the 28-year-old from Brandon, Man. "(But) before the game and right before the pucks drops, you look over and just have a chuckle to yourself."
South Korean goalie Matt Dalton, another transplanted Canuck, also took time afterwards while speaking to a throng of Canadian reporters to reflect on the experience.
"It's special ... that's the team that, for my whole life, I've cheered for," said Dalton, a 31-year-old from Clinton, Ont. "(If) you asked me five years ago if I'd be playing in the Olympics against Team Canada, I'd say you're crazy.
"I just tried to enjoy it and take it in."
Radunske, Plante, Dalton, forward Michael Swift of Peterborough, Ont., and defencemen Bryan Young of Ennismore, Ont., and Eric Regan of Whitby, Ont., are six of the seven foreign-born members of the South Korean men's hockey team. They don't have South Korean blood, but as professional players in the country, were invited to join the national setup ahead of the Winter Games in hopes of beefing up the program.
They're here to win, but also know this tournament is laying the foundation for hockey's growth in a country where almost nothing was known about the sport until very recently.
"I've been here for seven years," said Swift, who got his citizenship in 2014. "When I came over here there would be 50 people at a game in the Asian league.
"I'm trying to give back to Korea for giving me a chance to play."
The South Koreans bounced back with a much better effort against Canada after losing 8-0 to Switzerland on Saturday night, a disappointing result that came on the heels of an encouraging 2-1 setback at the hands of the Czech Republic in their tournament opener.
"We took some pressure off ourselves and talked about enjoying the experience and not being so worried about being at home," Dalton said. "I feel like guys played a little looser."
South Korea will now take on Finland in Tuesday's qualification round, with the winner facing Canada in Wednesday's quarter-finals.
Fans at Gangneung Hockey Centre, and across South Korea, are still learning hockey's basics. The wild cheers for breakout passes or dump-ins Monday drew smiles from the Canadian media, but the players said it's all part of the process.
The crowd might have blown the top off the building if their team had scored against a country that, despite not having any NHL players at these Games, remains one of the sport's powerhouses.
"We love it," said the 30-year-old Swift. "It's an unbelievable atmosphere out there. It gets us going, it keeps us up.
"They're very passionate."
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