GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Four and a half years after being named director of hockey operations and head coach of the South Korean national hockey program, Jim Paek is about to face the biggest challenge of his coaching career: the Olympics.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Paek said. “I’m very honored and very proud to represent Korea. I was born there and to be representing your county, I’m so honored.”
He’ll be leading the home team: The 2018 Games are being held in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Four years ago, shortly after helping to lead the Grand Rapids Griffins to their first ever Calder Cup championship, Paek was summoned home to his native South Korea.
“I was commuting for two years; I’m going into my fourth,” Paek said.
“It was a tough commute,” he added with a laugh. “Sixteen-hour flights, but I thought it was a very important to keep my kids in school here.”
Paek was entrusted with building a hockey program, essentially from the ground up, to compete with the best teams in the world.
“Here’s an opportunity where you can put Korean hockey on the map,” Paek said. “And to have that responsibility, that’s fantastic. So we’ve worked extremely hard.”
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Paek grew up in Canada and spent most of adult and professional hockey life in the U.S. — the majority of that in West Michigan.
“This is home,” Paek said. “Grand Rapids is home for us. I’ve been here nine years. My children are 14 and 12, so this is where they grew up. We have great friends and memories here. They call it home and I call it home.”
Paek also spent three years in Muskegon, where he was part of an International Hockey League Turner Cup championship team in 1989.
“I’m part of this community (as well), for sure,” he said.
A year later, he became the first Korean-born player ever in the National Hockey League. A year after that, the first to win a Stanley Cup and have his name engraved in hockey’s holy grail.
“to finally make the big team, you’re life dream, your goal as a kid, and to accomplish that and then, winning a Stanley Cup and hoisting that over your head, that was a true blessing,” Paek said.
His coaching career took off when he was hired as an assistant by the Griffins in the summer 2005.
“This is where it all started,” Paek said, smiling.
He remains the longest tenured coach in Griffins history, spending nine years with the program under four different head coaches and winning a cup with his last.
“That was an exciting time,” Paek recalled. “That (cup) was a tough one to get.”
Now, in just four years, South Korea has earned a spot in the top tier of international hockey.
“I don’t think anybody thought we’d get to where we were, where we are now,” Paek said.
Sometimes he can’t believe it, either.
“There’s moments where you sit back and you think, ‘Wow, I’ll be standing here in the Olympics,'” Paek said. “So it’s exciting. It’s going to be exciting.”
You can watch the Olympics on WOOD TV8 starting Feb. 8.