In ice hockey, it sure seems like it.
From the winning exploits of teams from the continent in recent international tournaments to players of Asian heritage poised to be picked in the 2017 National Hockey League Draft, to skaters of Chinese and Malaysian descent who were selected in previous drafts, hockey appears to be gaining ground in Asian nations and Asian communities in North America.
“I think it’s a testament to the growth of the game,” Richard Park, a retired NHL forward and an assistant coach for the South Korean national team that will compete in the 2018 Winter Games, told me recently. “I think it’s very welcoming, I think it’s very refreshing. I think it’s a testament again to all these cultures that the game is reaching.”
Park, who’s also a development coach for the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, and retired NHL defenseman Jim Paek, the South Korean men’s national team’s head coach, are helping guide the country of their ancestry up the world hockey ladder.
They coached South Korea to a dramatic 2-1 shootout win against Ukraine in April, earning a second-place finish at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship Division I Group A tournament in Kiev.
The victory bumped South Korea up to the IIHF’s top division next year, joining the United States, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland and other hockey powers.
“Korea has never ever been close, let alone in the top division in the world of hockey,” said Park, who played 738 NHL games for the Wild, Pittsburgh Penguins, Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Philadelphia Flyers, Vancouver Canucks and New York Islanders. “It’s huge. It’s big, it’s never been done before. But in saying that, what it leads to in the future is kind of up to not only the media, but the young kids, and the really young next generation in Korea.”
In North America, a next generation of players of Asian descent is already making its presence known. Just take a glimpse at NHL Central Scouting’s player rankings for the June 23-24 draft at Chicago’s United Center.
Owen Sound Attack center Nick Suzuki is ranked as the 10th-best North American skater. The 5-foot-10 native of London, Ontario, was Owen Sound’s second-leading scorer last season with 45 goals and 51 assists in 65 games.
His younger brother, forward Ryan Suzuki, was the first player chosen in the 2017 Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection Draft in April, plucked by the Barrie Colts.
Kailer Yamamoto is hoping to hear his named called at next month’s NHL draft. The 5-foot-8 right wing for the Western Hockey League’s Spokane Chiefs is ranked as the 17th-best North American skater by Central Scouting.
A Spokane native of Japanese and Hawaiian heritage, Yamamoto led the Chiefs in scoring in 2016-17 with 42 goals and 47 assists in 65 games. His older brother, Keanu, was Spokane’s fourth-leading scorer last season with 26 goals and 43 assists in 72 games.
Whether he’s drafted or not, defenseman Tyler Inamoto knows where he’s headed this fall. The 6-foot-2 blue-liner for the USA Hockey National Development Team, ranked the 68th-best North American skater, will be skating for the University of Wisconsin Badgers in 2017-18.
“He’s big, strong and has a mean streak,” said Badgers Head Coach Tony Granato, who enjoyed a long and prolific NHL career, “He’ll be a physical impact player right away next year.”
If drafted, Inamoto, Yamamoto and Suzuki, hope to join a small but growing list of players of Asian heritage who are on NHL career paths.
Last year, the Buffalo Sabres took London Knights forward Cliff Pu in the third round with the 69th overall pick in the NHL Draft. Pu led the Knights in scoring in 2016-17 with 35 goals and 51 assists in 63 regular season games.
The Florida Panthers chose Peterborough Petes forward Jonathan Ang in the fourth round with the 94th overall pick of the 2016 draft.
Ang, the first player of Malaysian heritage to be drafted by an NHL team, was the Petes’ third-leading scorer in 2016-17 with 27 goals and 32 assists in 69 games.
Andong Song also made history when the New York Islanders selected the Beijing-born defenseman in the sixth round with the 172nd pick of the 2015 draft.
Song, who has committed to play hockey for Cornell University in 2018-19, will likely be a key member of China’s hockey team for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which will be held in Beijing.
George Chiang’s voice fills with pride and hope when he talks about players like Pu and
“Cliff Pu has good size and plays for the London Knights, which is great,” Chiang told me recently. “Jonathan Ang just seems to become a better player every year in the Ontario Hockey League. It’s kind of cool seeing those guys.
Chiang is a Canadian hockey dad. His 14-year-old son, Lee Chiang, played for Lac St. Louis Lions Nord bantam AAA team in Quebec last season and will likely be selected by an OHL team in the league’s priority draft next year.
The elder Chiang dreamed of pursuing a pro career when he was younger. But that dream was stymied by his parents, immigrants to Canada from Taiwan, who initially forbade him from playing hockey.
” I came from immigrant parents and they didn’t understand hockey. I begged every year since I was five,” Chiang, 47, told me recently. “They put me in baseball because they understood baseball. It’s the national sport of Taiwan. Finally, when I was 12 they let me play on a (hockey) team.”
Unlike his folks, Chiang didn’t hesitate in allowing his son to lace up the skates and grab a stick.
“My plan was to also put him in baseball, but he ended up hating baseball and he loved hockey,” George Chiang told me. “He’s a hockey player.”
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