By Pat Evans –
GRAND RAPIDS – When Jim Paek first went back to South Korea in 1982, there was hardly a national team.
The team was second tier, nowhere close to competing with top national programs. Still, Paek, who was born in Seoul, South Korea but grew up in Toronto, kept tabs on the team, keeping close with some of the higher-ups within the organization while building a resume that now includes 19 years as a player and 11 as a coach.
In late July, it was announced Paek would leave his position as assistant coach for the Grand Rapids Griffins to head back to South Korea and take the helm of the national team and serve as the director of the Korea Ice Hockey Association.
“It was a quick process, through conversations and all of the sudden it was, “Would you like to come over and coach the Korean national team?” Paek said, who last visited Korea in 2002. “It’s been a while since I’ve been back, but I’ve kept tabs and relations with people in the hockey community. It’s always been an interest of mine to help coach and develop the national team and Korea develop their hockey.”
He’s gained great experience developing players through his nine seasons in Grand Rapids, mentoring dozens of Griffins players who moved up through system to star on the Detroit Red Wings. Paek’s been called up several times as well to coach the reserves that make the Red Wings’ playoff roster as well, helping the squad capture the 2008 Stanley Cup.
A lot of time was spent in Grand Rapids and he’s not quick to pick out a favorite player or moment from his tenure.
“When you look back, going through it you might have some ups and downs but as you look back over the nine seasons, every day was a great day,” he said. “Being apart of hockey and the Detroit Red Wings and Grand Rapids Griffins, you couldn’t ask for anything better.”
He and his family, including wife Kortney and two children Megan and Kyler, are fond of their memories in Grand Rapids, but look forward to start anew in South Korea.
Ultimately, when he looks back, his favorite moment with the Griffins will be the moment he could sit back and watch the players celebrate their capturing of the Calder Cup in 2013.
Perhaps that’s because it took him back to his heralded playing career that included four championships.
Paek was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the ninth round of the 1985 NHL Entry Draft. He spent three seasons with the Oshawa Generals in the OHL before moving to the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the IHL in 1987, where he helped guide the team to the 1989 Turner Cup. He also saw 48 games of action with the Canadian National Team in 1990-1991.
In 1990, the the Penguins made Paek the first Korean-born player to see ice time in the NHL. With the Penguins, he won two Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992 as Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr led the way.
“The stuff you learn from Mario, you don’t learn, in a sense, because you can’t do what he does,” Paek said of his time with Lemieux. “You just watch in awe. I remember being on the bench and every time he touched the puck I’d be shaking my head, ‘oh my gosh, I can’t believe he just did that.’”
Paek’s Penguins jersey now is displayed at the Hockey Hall of Fame, as he was the first Korean-born player to play in the NHL and have his name engraved on Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Paek spent parts of four seasons with Pittsburgh before being traded to the Los Angeles Kings. He scored four goals and assisted on 25 more as a defenseman.
In Los Angeles, he played with Wayne Gretzky and learned that it’s more about leadership and how a player is as a person than the talent behind them.
After the season, he signed with the Ottawa Senators for the 1994-95 season, but only saw action in 29 games before moving ot the Houston Aeros of the IHL.
His NHL career spanned 217 games with five goals and 29 assists, with 27 playoff games.
Paek spent the rest of his career moving from the Houston Aeros, to the Minnesota and Manitoba Moose and the Cleveland Lumberjacks of the IHL. Despite playing just 11 games with the Aeros in 1998-99, he won his second Turner Cup.
After his time in the IHL, Paek made the leap across the pond in 2000 to the British Ice Hockey Supeleague’s Nottingham Panthers for three seasons, except for 40 games in 2001-2002 where he saw time with the Anchorage Aces in the West Coast Hockey League.
Following retirement, Paek was named coach of the Orlando Seals of the World Hockey Association 2 in 2003. Eventually, he was named assistant coach for the Griffins in 2005.
The Griffins went gone 357-272-33-46 during his time as the franchise’s longest-tenured coach.
The Griffins and Red Wings are sad to see Paek go, but wish him the best of luck in his new adventure.
“The Detroit Red Wings congratulate Jim Paek on his appointment to the Korea Ice Hockey Association and Korean National Team,” said Ryan Martin, assistant general manager of the Red Wings, in a release. “We are thrilled and excited for him on his well-deserved opportunity. With the 2018 Winter Olympics to be held in Pyeongchang, this is a tremendous opportunity for Jim to oversee the development of hockey players, coaches and administrators across all levels of hockey in his native South Korea.
“He possesses a wealth of experience as a player and coach at all levels, as well as a strong passion for hockey development. Jim’s multi-faceted skill set will be a great asset in leading the Korea Ice Hockey Association in developing its national programs.”