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The Unprecedented Bid of Korea University Men’s Hockey for ACAC Membership

It’s an unexpected collaboration that could lead to an unconventional partnership.

The Korea University (KU) men’s hockey team has been touring across Alberta and Saskatchewan this month as part of a six-game series against Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference (ACAC) competition.

It’s been billed as a tour that both highlights the evolution of hockey in Asia and celebrates the international sports ties between Canada and Korea. But there’s more on the line for the Korea University men’s hockey program and the seven-team ACAC hockey circuit. KU has applied for ACAC membership and a permanent home in the league. The ACAC will use the trip – which includes games between Jan. 12th and Jan. 31st – to evaluate the idea and help make a decision on adding KU to the mix.

ACAC Chief Executive Officer Mark Kosak took time to answer questions about the tour and its potential legacy. Here’s what he had to say in this Q&A session:

Q: Can you describe the origin of the interest from Korea University in participating in the exhibition tour and why the hockey team selected the ACAC as an appropriate landing spot?

A: Last January, the Korea University team came to Canada seeking a more competitive experience and to explore options to play in a Canadian post-secondary hockey league. They arranged to travel to Camrose and played ACAC member Augustana U of A (losing both games by 4-2 and 5-2 scores).

Their local contact here in Calgary is Wooje Sung, a Korean national who was raised in Calgary, played in the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) and now coaches hockey. Sung reached out to an ACAC colleague to make the initial inquiry broaching the ‘crazy’ idea of playing in the ACAC. It was then forwarded to me and that’s when my involvement began.

During that trip we met in Calgary to begin those discussions, learn about their objectives and their vision and let them know what they need to do moving forward if they were serious.

There’s a four-team university league in South Korea and the Korea University Tigers dominate the league. The university is prestigious, ranked No. 74 in the world, and boasts 40,000 students and over 350,000 alumni. They want to test themselves against Canadian opposition and improve not only their program but South Korean hockey in general. KU was looking for an opportunity to play high level post-secondary hockey in Canada and after they did some research, they settled on the ACAC as their best fit. The reasons for that are the ACAC is cost efficient, with seven members in close proximity, so busing and not flying to opponents. The ACAC also offers an elite level of play and KU believes they can be competitive. In addition, there are 20,000 ex-pat South Koreans in Calgary, so they will have a support network here.

Q: Korea has a strong reputation internationally for baseball. What can you tell me about hockey in Korea and the growth of that sport?

A: Baseball is definitely king, but apparently hockey is one of, if not the fastest growing sports in Korea. The highest level of hockey is university hockey, which KU dominates. And Koreans have shown a strong interest in watching hockey, which was further ignited by the 2022 Beijing Olympics. We expect that KU is the development ground for home-grown future national team and Olympic-calibre Korean hockey players.

Q: How competitive is the Korea University men’s hockey team, relative to their Western Canadian opponents?

A: The results so far this trip include a 4-3 loss to Concordia University of Edmonton, a 4-1 loss to NAIT and a 7-3 win over Portage College in Lac La Biche. They also lost a close 3-2 rematch against Augustana that saw the winning goal scored in the final two minutes. Unfortunately their game against SAIT had to be canceled, but we’ll get a chance to watch them practice in Calgary.

They’re good, hard working, skilled and fast. The ACAC teams have been physical with them and while they don’t necessarily give it back to the same level, they certainly don’t shy away from the physical play. I believe the ACAC is a good fit for their level of play.

Q: This exhibition tour will be used to evaluate the Korea University men’s hockey team’s application to be a member in the ACAC on a more permanent basis. How exactly would that work? Walk me through some of the logistics of this and some of the potential challenges of welcoming KU into the ACAC?

A: Where to begin? We have made it clear that if they want to play in our league, there will be no compromises or exceptions in terms of the expectations for a league member. There are a number of hurdles to overcome and we were very transparent but fair to them. They indicated they understood what it would take and agreed to meet all the requirements. Prior to our ACAC spring meetings in May 2023 they submitted their membership application. We accepted it and began the new membership review process to evaluate if they can be accepted.

Aside from the written submission, there are two key elements to this evaluation process. This tour is intended to observe their competitiveness. They tell us they can play at the ACAC level, but we want to actually see it. And secondly, while the delegation is in Calgary we will meet with the coaching staff and administrators from Korea University. That’s a day long process where we will ask questions, discuss requirements and expectations, tour their anticipated facility, etc.

From our standpoint, we will treat them just like any other ACAC member – no compromises and no exemptions from our requirements. Every player must be a full-time student and they must be prepared to pay all ACAC fees, provide the same ACAC game experience, meet all schedule obligations and so on.

The Review Committee will include former SAIT coach and international hockey consultant Ken Babey, as well as the current Athletic Directors at SAIT (Wade Kolmel), Portage College (Jim Knight – ACAC President) and Medicine Hat College (Terry Ballard – ACAC Men’s Hockey Convener) and myself. The committee will produce a report and recommendation to be considered and voted upon by the ACAC Conference Council in May. If accepted by a majority vote of current ACAC members, they will begin a three-year probationary membership in the fall of 2024. It’s certainly not a slam dunk because, as mentioned, there are a lot of hurdles to clear.

Q: What benefits does Korea University gain from this relationship and what is some of the potential upside for the ACAC?

A: As previously stated, KU receives the opportunity to compete in a league that will test them and improve their program.

For ACAC, this is a very unique opportunity to do something extraordinary that no one else in Canada has done and to help grow hockey in what we would consider to be a non-traditional market. We didn’t go looking for this partnership, but since it was presented to ACAC, we have taken a very open-minded approach to see if this is something that can work. It may but it may not.

The benefits to the ACAC are thus: it’s created some attention for a league that doesn’t receive its share. Our players will receive an international hockey experience like no other, and it will be fun. Somewhere down the road I’m anticipating a scenario where we send two ACAC teams, on a rotational basis, to South Korea each August-September to conduct a training camp and enjoy an exchange and a unique cultural experience. That’s a recruitment incentive for ACAC teams.

Lastly, we hope to grow a new and potentially large viewing audience for ACACTV in South Korea. There are 68 million South Koreans and if this experiment captures the imagination of hockey fans, we could sell a whole lot of ACACTV subscriptions for our game streaming service. 

Q: After the exhibition series concludes, what are some of the next steps and timelines in considering Korea University’s ACAC membership application?

A: The Review Committee meets Jan. 29th. It will take about a month to finalize a report with recommendations. That report is sent to KU first for their review and response. Eventually it works its way through the ACAC decision-making process before it arrives on the agenda of the ACAC’s Spring General Meeting and AGM from May 8-10 in Red Deer. We present the report and discuss or answer questions from members and ultimately there is a vote to either accept or decline.

Q: Geographically, Korea University seems like a bit of an odd fit for the ACAC. You have a bunch of Alberta teams competing and then one team from across the world potentially coming in. What, in your mind, makes sense about welcoming Korea University to the ACAC?

A: Ha. Nothing makes sense about it. They asked if it was possible and we looked inward and asked, ‘why not?’ It’s not conventional and the easy route is to just say no but I think this has all sorts of fantastic benefits for everyone involved. It’s much more challenging for them to come over here and play, then it is for us to make accommodations in our league to make it happen. If they’re willing to overcome the challenges and cover the considerable costs, then in my mind we need to find a way to see how we can make it happen.

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