Alex Plante nearly missed his chance to play on an Olympic hockey team — because when the offer that would eventually lead him to the Olympics first came up, he turned it down.
“I was at a bit of a crossroads,” said the 28-year-old Brandon, Man., native when an agent first contacted him years ago, telling him a South Korean hockey team was looking for a “big, red-headed defenceman with experience in the AHL and a little NHL experience.”
So he turned the offer down.
“It was a little difficult for me to find a job … [where] just every column seemed to fit me.”
But the Asian hockey league he has now played in for three seasons kept pressuring him, eventually leading him and his young family to pack up and move from Norway, where he had been playing after moving from Canada.
Little did he know he would be one of six Canadians, plus a Canadian-raised coach, playing on the South Korean men’s hockey team at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
Plante, who now plays for Anyang Halla — one of three Korean teams in the Asia League Ice Hockey (ALH) — was joined on the South Korean men’s hockey team by Canadians Brock Radunske of Kitchener, Ont.; Bryan Young of Ennismore, Ont.; Eric Regan of Whitby, Ont.; Mike Swift, of Peterborough, Ont., and goalie Matt Dalton of Clinton, Ont.
Coach Jim Paek was born in Korea but raised in Canada. He became the first Korean-born player to make it to the NHL and played on two Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins teams.
Their journey began when Pyeongchang was announced as the host of the 2018 Olympic Games. Korea had never qualified to have a men’s hockey team in the Olympics, and so it did what many countries now do — it went shopping for talent to fill out its roster.
Plante says playing in the the Olympics was an experience he’ll never forget.
“There’s no real egos. Everybody’s super friendly,” he said of his fellow players. “I feel incredibly blessed and thankful.”
Playing on Olympic stage
Plante says learning to play in the ALH — a league he joined in 2015 and which also includes four Japanese teams and a team from Russia — was a challenge.
“You’ve got to change gears all the time,” he said, noting the differences in the game in Canada versus overseas. “You play a Japanese team, they play a different style. You play a Russian team, they’re all massive.
“You always kind of find yourself finding styles, learning how play different teams…. It kind of rounds you out as a player.”
But playing on the Olympic stage was a whole different game — and one that would see him and his Canadian teammates standing across the blue line from Team Canada during preliminary round action.
“I was always wondering what that was going to be like,” he said. “Oddly enough, it was just worth a chuckle. It’s not like I’m turning my back on my nation.
“As soon as that puck drops, I’m sure most professionals will say, a switch happens and you turn into game mode.”
Plante said he wasn’t sure what to expect when he walked into the Gangneung Hockey Centre — one of two hockey venues for the Pyeongchang Olympics — as the home team.
“We had no idea what to expect. Everybody here was so focused on ‘how are you guys going to do, what’s it going to be like … are you going to embarrass it, or win?’ Nobody knew,” he said.
“Our goal was to compete and to just see what happens and I think that’s what we did.… No matter what the score was, nobody gave up.”
Even though professional hockey is still in the early stages of making gains in the Asian country, Plante said the hometown fans seemed to enjoy every minute of it.
“No matter what the score was, they were on their feet after every game and super excited and really eager to learn about the game,” he said.
Plante’s parents, along with his brother and his family, made the journey to South Korea for the Olympics.
North Korea tension
On the women’s hockey side, there was much buzz about the fact that the Korean team included players from both North and South Korea.
But “for us, it was just hockey,” said Plante. The men’s team did not include any North Korean players.
“For the North and South Korean stuff, everybody has their opinion on what that is. Nobody really knows what’s happening.”
On the women’s team, he said players from both sides seemed to gel together.
“It’s super refreshing to know a sport like hockey can be a platform and humanity takes over.”
Reflecting on games
Now that the games are over, Plante said he finally has some time to reflect on the experience.
“I’m slowly starting to digest what happened. [It was] nothing but [an] amazing experience for me and I’m sure everybody could say that as well,” he said.
“After our last game, everybody stuck around — they were carrying the Korean flag around,” Plante said.
“It’s a memory that I’ll never forget.”