When it comes to Cinderella stories, even the best online sportsbook wouldn’t have offered odds on Jim Paek’s journey to the NHL coming to fruition.
The coach of South Korea’s national men’s ice hockey team, Paek, 53, continues to travel a trendsetting path that sees him compiling one hockey first after another on an impressive resume of success.
He guided South Korea to the country’s first Olympic ice hockey appearance and to make it even more special, did so on home ice at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games.
Born in Seoul, Paek, the youngest of four children, was barely a year old when his parents Bong-hyeon and Kyu Hui Paek moved the family to Canada, settling in the vicinity of Toronto.
Soon, the family learned that to be Canadian meant to play hockey. “If you wanted friends, you had to play hockey,” Paek told NHL.com. “My older brother played, and you want to be like your older brother. So I was following him to the rink, carrying his sticks and just loving the game.
“I had that passion ever since I was a small kid.”
It led him to a junior career with the Oshawa Generals. There, he was part of an Ontario Hockey League championship and Memorial Cup finalist team in 1986-87. Two years earlier in 1985, the Pittsburgh Penguins selected Paek in the ninth round of the NHL entry draft with the 170th overall pick. It meant he’d have a chance at an NHL career but it would be a slim chance at best.
Against the odds, Paek made it to the big leagues and in doing so, he made history. When he stepped on the ice for the Penguins to face the New York Islanders on Oct. 13, 1990, Paek became the first Korean-born player in NHL history.
“That really didn’t cross my mind at the time,” Paek said. “It was more of, ‘I’m a hockey player and I want to play in the NHL.’ But then with people recognizing the achievement and the Korean community rallying around you, you’re like, wow, okay, yeah – I’m very proud to be Korean-born and to play in the National Hockey League.”
Making Stanley Cup History
When the Stanley Cup playoffs began in the spring of 1991, Paek, who’d played just three regular-season games, was on the Penguins roster but was considered an extra defenseman. He’d only play if calamity were to hit the Pittsburgh rearguard. Which it did.
Pittsburgh lost three defenders to injury and by the second round of postseason play against the Washington Capitals, Paek found him suiting up and setting another standard. He was the first Korean to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Penguins would march all the way to the Stanley Cup final for the first time in history. They’d clinch the Cup via an 8-0 victory over the Minnesota North Stars. The seventh goal of that night would be tallied by Paek, turning the rare feat of tallying his first NHL goal in a Stanley Cup-clinching game. Naturally, it was the first goal by a Korean in the NHL playoffs and the first by a Korean in the Cup final.
Since he only played three NHL games, Paek still qualified as a rookie for the 1991-92 season. He’d play a role in another Cup win, this time over the Chicago Blackhawks. Paek dished out three assists in the final series. He became the first rookie to win back-to-back Stanley Cups and to register points in successive Cup final series.
A Happy Homecoming
Paek’s Penguins jersey is displayed in the Hockey Hall of Fame, symbolic of his role in Korean hockey history. To be able to return to his homeland and help his countrymen make progressive steps on the world hockey stage is just as dear to Paek’s heart.
In 2014, Paek moved with his wife and children to Seoul, accepting the position as director of hockey for the Korea Ice Hockey Association (KIHA) and head coach of the South Korean men’s national team.
“I’ve always kept in touch with Korean hockey, and it was always a dream of mine to help Korean hockey grow and develop,” Paek said. “And this was an opportunity for me to coach them in the Olympics.”
With just 3,000 registered hockey players and only a smattering of ice rinks, there’s still plenty of growth to be achieved in Korean hockey. But Paek sees positive steps being taken every day.
“We’ve hit some milestones here in Korea that are unchartered waters,” Paek said. “So now, it’s continuing sustaining that.
“It is absolutely amazing how the hockey part of this country has grown.”