Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Puck by Any Other Name

I was watching the Penguins/Islanders game recently when a name caught my attention. “Richard Park” the announcer said, referring to an Islander player. Immediately, my interest was piqued. “Park” is commonly a Korean surname. I am half-Korean and spent my formative years in South Korea with my mother while my dad did his duty for Uncle Sam in Vietnam for 6 years. My mother was keen on making sure I kept up with my Korean heritage. Hence, even now, decades later, I still speak the language and know and respect the culture. And I cook a mean bulgogi.

But I digress.

I became interested in Richard Park because as long as I’ve watched hockey, I don’t remember hearing any Asian names. So, like any self-respecting nosy person, I started digging for more. And I came up with some interesting info. Richard, I learned, was born in South Korea and raised in the US. I also learned he is the second Korean-born player in the NHL. (more on the first Korean-born player just ahead). He was drafted in 1994 by my favorite team- the Pittsburgh Penguins. I did not know this and my only excuse is that I stopped watching NHL hockey for several years (between 1990 and 2000) for reasons I’d rather not go into here. Richard bounced around from team to team , marking a measure of success with each, before landing with the Islanders in 2006. Since then, he seems to have grown, both as a player and a humanitarian. Last season, the Islanders presented him with the Bob Nystrom Award, which is awarded to the Islander who “best exemplifies leadership, hustle and dedication.” This year, Park sports the “A” and from what I can see, is living up to it.
After reading up on Richard, I searched through team rosters to see if I could find any other Asian players. I found two, including one I’ve liked for years but never realized he had Asian blood.

Paul Kariya's mother has Scottish blood. His father is Japanese and sports quite a life history. His grandparents were sent to an internment camp in BC during World War II. His father was born there. The family doesn’t talk much about it and by his own admission, Paul was raised more Canadian than Japanese. He and one of his sisters attended a Japanese school for a while to honor their grandmother but the rest of their lives were spent more or less immersed in sports. I read that Paul nearly gave up hockey to pursue golf and join others in breathing a sigh of relief that he didn’t. I learned that Paul is more revered in Japan than stars like Wayne Gretzky. I also learned he detests labels and does not like to talk about himself. That’s okay. He speaks volumes on the ice. After years with Anaheim, he landed with the Blues. From what I read, the transition was not that pleasant and he is no longer a favorite with many Ducks fans.

Paul Kariya is a favorite player of the next Asian player I found.

Devin Setoguchi is also half-Japanese/half-Canadian. He was born and raised in Alberta. Like Paul Kariya, Devin’s family has been touched by a shameful part of history: his grandparents were also sent to an internment camp during World War II. Unlike Paul, hockey runs through Devin’s blood. His father Dale played junior hockey in Alberta (he was the AJHL’s MVP in 1979), spent a year playing in Japan and still plays in a senior hockey league.

It’s kind of funny. I identify as much with Paul Kariya as I do with Richard Park. I have straddled two cultures all my life, like Paul (and probably Devin, too). Unlike Paul, my mother insisted that I not only know my heritage, but live it too. When you look at me, you won’t automatically think I’m Asian, yet speak to me in Korean and I will respond. I’ve had fun standing in line or shopping in a Korean store here in the Seattle area, eavesdropping on others as they chatter away, not realizing that a “hapa” (half Asian) is standing nearby who can understand almost every word. My mother taught me to be as proud of my Korean heritage as I am of being American, or being German-Irish on my dad’s side. We lived in Germany for 6 years and traced his mother’s family to a town outside Cologne. I know how his grandfather arrived in NYC from Ireland in 1910. But ask me about my background and I will veer more toward the Korean side because it was so pervasive. My older brother and sister are full Korean. They and our mother became American citizens in 1971. I still remember the ceremony. My oma (mom) chose the American name “Lee” to complement her Korean name “Hyon”. My unee (sister) chose the name “Sharon” to go with “Kyong”. My opa (brother) chose the name “Richard” to sit alongside his Korean name “Byong.”

This brings me back to Richard Park. I don’t know his Korean first name, but I do know the given name of the first Korean-born player in the NHL. It’s Chison Paek.

His parents gave him the Anglo name “Jim” when he was three, so he could integrate into Canadian society a little more easily. Call him Jim or call him Chison, one thing is very clear. He picked up hockey like a native! By the time he reached Juniors, his parents were such fans they attended 106 of 108 games he played with the Oshawa Generals. His first NHL team is my favorite: the Pittsburgh Penguins. He joined them in 1992 as the Pens rode a high from winning their first Stanley Cup. He arrived in time for the 92 playoffs. We all know what happened next. (for non-hockey fans: The Penguins won their second Stanley Cup championship)

Jim Paek left the Pens in 1994 and played with the Los Angeles Kings and Ottawa Senators before ending his career in the IHL and joining the coaching ranks. Last year, he returned to Pittsburgh, but this time, he was on the Red Wings bench. He is part of the coaching staff of the team’s Grand Rapids affiliate and spent last year’s Stanley Cup finals working with the Red Wings’ extra players.

What is the meaning of this blog? I really don’t know. I guess when I look back at it, the message I see is that it doesn’t matter where you come from. If you’ve got the talent and desire, you can make it in the NHL. You don’t have to be a Russian powerhouse, a Finnish or Swedish superstar. You can be from a country like South Korea, and make it to the Stanley Cup.

In fact, you can make ANY dream come true, if you believe in yourself.


  1. Pretty crazy that the Pens drafted the 2 most notably Korean hockey players in history.

    Park is still a beast for the Islanders, especially on the PK, and always seems to make an impact when they play the Pens. I remember one specific game last season when he netted 2 goals in the Mellon Arena.

    Paek was a force on the blue line. He combined physicality with a gracefulness that was abnormal for a defenseman, especially one of his size.

    Seeing how Setoguchi is racking up the points this season, I suspect that there will be a lot more interest in scouting Korean and other Asian country prospects in the near future.

  2. It is so great to see you pursuing your passion, Su!

  3. Su --

    When you mentioned bulgogi I immediately got hungry... :) My family hosted a Korean exchange student in our home for three years, and her and I are like sisters. Last summer I had the opportunity to spend a month in Korea -- I love the country, the culture, and the food. :)

    I learned about Park when I researched to see if there were any Korean players in the NHL -- it was some of the most fun in my life introducing our exchange student to ice hockey. :)

    Loved your post! :)

  4. Mmmm...bulgogi! You'll have to make some for me when we come visit! And the noodles, you know, the see through ones.

    I didn't know Park is a common Korean name, although I should have, since I know several Koreans with that last name! LOL