He was going “stir crazy” not being able to compete in the sport he spent the majority of his life playing, so a former Okanagan hockey player, now transplanted in Jeju, decided to bring the game to South Korea.
Originally from Kelowna, Dave Cunning has played hockey for more than 20 years including over in Europe and has spent more than a few years behind the bench coaching. It was almost three years ago when he decide to make the move with his wife to Jeju, a small province located in South Korea. The only problem was adult hockey had disbanded in the city years before he arrived.
“Jeju's foreign community is largely comprised of English teachers who come and work for a year or so, then move on elsewhere. The transient nature of people here makes it tough to keep people involved long term and keep a program going,” explains Cunning. “There was a group here playing before I came, but by the time I arrived, they had disbanded and their old equipment had vanished. It was more than a year before I found another person here interested in hockey enough to buy some sticks online with me.”
The winning team of the Jeju Cup. (Photo Credit: Douglas MacDonald)
Luckily he was able to get a small group interested but the only problem was that sticks are expensive.
“No one was going to buy one just to try out the sport once, and we didn't have enough to lend out to new players. I reached out for some help, and we ended up forming a strong partnership with Warrior Hockey and Canadian Ball Hockey Korea -- a group based in Seoul. Between them both, we received all the sticks and goalie gear we needed to get hockey going properly. It was like Christmas morning watching it all come in to us. With all the gear we needed now at our disposal, we were finally able to attract new players.”
Dave Cunning dekes around the goaltender during Jeju Cup. (Photo Credit: Douglas MacDonald)
And he got those players, going from just a handful to about 40 in just nine months and creating his new adult recreational ball hockey team, the Jeju Islanders. From there the idea to raise money for the kids inline program the Jeju Inline Academy where he coaches, was launched and the inaugural street hockey Jeju Cup was born.
“We raised 1,000,000 KRW -- approximately $1000 CAD -- to help buy the Jeju Inline Academy its first set of goalie equipment. I hope it'll help them grow as much as we have. Right now they just shoot on open nets. It makes it really tough for them to compete against other teams who actually have goalies and all the equipment,” says Cunning. “The kids are aged 6 through 13, and speak only Korean, except for a handful who know a little English. It makes coaching them a little more challenging, but it's been a fun experience, and I've seen them get better since starting with them. They don't understand all the words I say but they pick up the X's and O's I draw on the coach's board pretty well. Hockey is the language we mutually understand.”
Photo Credit: Douglas MacDonald
Since the tournament was such a success, Cunning knows hockey won’t be leaving Jeju anytime soon saying players had a blast competing in the tournament.
“The feedback I received afterwards leads me to believe it will be around for quite a while. Like I said, we went from zero to forty competitors in nine months, plus many volunteers willing to give up their time to help, so we're undoubtedly got hockey on an incline here. We're garnering attention from mainland Korea too -- our tournament had one player commute from Seoul, and many more have expressed interest in attending next time around.”
Cunning’s would like to see hockey stay in Jeju permanently, saying it is a sporting community with residents playing soccer, baseball, volleyball and basketball. “Many other sports thrive here and I knew hockey could too. I think being Canadian and having played hockey for 20 years had a lot to do with me feeling like I had to do this.”
Participants! (Photo Credit: Douglas MacDonald)
“I love the game,” continues Cunning, “and I hope people here can make their own memories though this sport too. Half of them don’t know which way to hold their stick, but they know they’re having a great time paying and they keep coming back each week. If we can keep people having the time of their lives with us, hockey stands a great chance of becoming a permanent fixture in Jeju’s already vast sports landscape.”
You can find out more about hockey in Jeju by visiting their Facebook page. The organization is always looking for support or donations.