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South Korea’s Brock Radunske, a New Hamburg, Ont., native nicknamed ‘Canadian Big Beauty,’ right, vies for the puck against Grzegorz Pasiut of Poland during the Four Nations Tournament in November, 2014.

Tamas Kovacs/AP

Matt Dalton would have preferred to take a slap shot high and hard off his mask.

But this was what he had signed up for, almost a year and a half earlier. The money was good, and the conditions far nicer than in the two years he spent playing for Nizhnekamsk of the Kontinental Hockey League, in the heart of Russian industrial gloom.

So the goalie, who grew up in little Clinton, Ont., began to sing Aegukga, carefully enunciating the foreign words he had memorized with the help of teammates in front of a panel of steely-eyed officials.

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If he wanted to stop pucks at the Winter Olympics, this was the only way. He had to become South Korean. And to do that, he had to sing.

"Daehan saram, daehan euro giri bojeonhase," Dalton intoned.

"Stay true to the great Korean way," he was proclaiming – roughly – to his new countrymen.

Six years ago, Dalton was the backup to the backup goalie for the Boston Bruins. Never drafted, he had turned pro at the age of 22 after a big season in college and got a taste of the NHL by sitting on the bench for a few games. He ended up bouncing around leagues, teams and countries the way many players on the cusp of the big leagues do.

But in 2014, he got an offer from Anyang Halla, a team based in a Seoul suburb, in a country and a league he knew nothing about, and everything changed.

Then, it was four years out from the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, and the Korean Olympic Committee badly wanted to have men's and women's teams in one of the marquee Winter Games sports. The International Ice Hockey Federation, however, was worried they would be embarrassed – a fair concern given that the teams were then ranked 22nd and 23rd in the world, respectively.

The IIHF didn't want to guarantee anything, even though every Winter Olympics host nation in history has at least had a men's hockey team in the tournament.

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"Get better," was the message from Rene Fasel, the head of the IIHF. "Get better and we might let you in."

"There's been some pressure there from the get-go," said Jim Paek, the Korean coach and former NHL defenceman.

So the hosts began a search for ringers, and as a result, South Korea's team at the Division 1 Group A world championship last month in Katowice, Poland, was filled with North Americans. Dalton started every game in goal and posted a sparkling .930 save percentage. Michael Swift – who grew up in Peterborough, Ont. – led the team in scoring with five goals in five games. Towering 6-foot-5 forwards Brock Radunske and Mike Testwuide (the lone American) and defencemen Bryan Young and Eric Regan rounded out the import crew, and none had a hint of Korean ancestry.

Two of the team's new stars, Radunske and Young, were drafted in the NHL by Edmonton; Young played 17 games for the Oilers almost a decade ago. Two others had captained their junior teams in the Ontario Hockey League.

They were all castoffs of various ability, and none would be considered for the Canadian or American Olympic teams.

But once the imports took on new passports, the Korean team began to win at the Division 1 world tournament. They fought Austria to overtime in a narrow 3-2 loss. They beat Poland 4-1, then scored the country's first-ever win over Japan – in their 22nd meeting – a 3-0 shutout. Their showing in the tournament was so impressive that, had they beaten Italy in their final game – a 2-1 loss – they would have advanced to the top tier next year to play as one of the top 16 hockey countries in the world.

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This for a country with 133 adult men registered as hockey players.

"We definitely showed everybody we can play," Dalton said.

"I was very pleased when I saw the result in Poland," said Fasel, who is leading the IIHF's push to grow the game in Asia; the federation has now granted Olympic berths for the two South Korean teams. "That gives them momentum, enthusiasm and emotion to go and fight [to get better]. I'm really happy we made the decision to give them a chance."

Passport-swapping in order to star for another country at an Olympics isn't new. There have been controversial stories, such as those of middle-distance runner Zola Budd, basketball star Becky Hammon and Viktor Ahn, the South Korean short-track speed skater who changed his name and citizenship and won three gold medals for Russia at the Sochi Games.

Often the switch is for opportunity, with athletes able to more easily qualify in another country. Sometimes there's financial gain involved, as with Qatar buying eight Bulgarian weightlifters for millions of dollars prior to the Sydney Games in 2000. In Ahn's case, he had tired of the impediments to skating for his home country and became something of an international free agent, offering to win medals to the highest bidder.

Canada is no stranger to outside help. According to the Pew Research Centre, it had the most foreign-born athletes of any country at the 2014 Olympics with nine.

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And the Canadian government has no qualms with citizens who want to take on an additional passport, even to play hockey. "Under Canadian law, a Canadian can also be a citizen of another country," said Jessica Séguin, a spokesperson with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. "There are many reasons why an individual may want a second citizenship."

South Korea's push with its fledgling hockey team, however, is unheard of for a country that has always been ultra-protective of its passports. When Radunske – a New Hamburg, Ont., native nicknamed "Canadian Big Beauty" – became the hockey team's first import three years ago, he was the first professional athlete in any sport without Korean lineage to be given citizenship.

The Korean Olympic Committee has since run through the arduous naturalization process with five more North Americans, which speaks to how important the 2018 Games – and their hockey team – are to the country. South Koreans have a reputation in international sport for being fiercely competitive, and their fear was that the hockey teams could become the laughingstocks of the tournament. (The men are in a tough group with Canada, the Czech Republic and Switzerland.)

That's why a seventh import, defenceman Alex Plante – yet another Oilers draft pick – is expected to gain citizenship next season.

"I don't think they just love throwing out passports on any Tom, Dick and Harry, by any means," Plante said. "But it does show how invested they are in getting better."

"The fact that the Korean government is willing to engage in this practice is significant," explained Steve Jackson, a professor from the University of Otago in New Zealand who specializes in the socio-cultural analysis of sport. "It points to a new approach to leveraging sport to serve the nation."

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Jackson has a unique perspective. He played against South Korea in 2005, when it was ranked 33rd in the world and so far down hockey's totem pole it was relegated to face teams such as New Zealand in one of the game's lowest tiers. Korea beat the Kiwis, Jackson recalls – but not by much. "Nobody imagined they would climb as fast as they have," he said.

Jackson calls the North Americans who have joined South Korea's team "athletic mercenaries," a description that seems to fit given the benefits they receive.

Once the IIHF granted automatic Olympic berths for its hockey teams, the Korean government began pumping $20-million into their previously ignored hockey programs. That allowed the hockey federation to hire Paek and another former NHLer, Richard Park – both of South Korean descent – as elite-level coaches.

Some import players earn as much as $200,000 to play a 48-game season on Korean teams in the Asia League, meaning they are better paid than many players in more established leagues in Finland, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. They also receive furnished two-bedroom apartments and company cars.

Drawing talent to the league is important. Under IIHF rules, players must play at least two years in a foreign league before they're eligible to play for that country at the Olympics. "It's part of the promotion of the sport in the country," Fasel said.

While the Asia League has never been much of a destination in the past, that is changing.

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"I'd spent three years in Russia before, and this felt like paradise compared to there," Dalton said.

"They're definitely investing everything they have into it right now," added Plante, whose wife gave birth to their second child while he was playing in Anyang, just south of Seoul. "The hockey is surprisingly very good. I was absolutely shocked with how fast the whole Asia League was."

Making it better has become part of the group's mission. For Paek and Park, the only two NHL players born in South Korea, there is a personal side to growing the game in the country they knew mostly through their parents.

Their hope is that their seven import players will increase the level of play and help kick start the development of hockey there.

"Before my father passed away, his dream was for me to go back to the homeland and represent them, as a coach or a player," said Paek, who has been living away from his wife and children back in the United States while he works 16-hour days in Seoul in preparation for the Olympics. "That's come true. My mother's very proud. All her girlfriends send her news clippings from the Korean papers. Hopefully she can remember these things. She's getting old. But every time I talk to her, she's very proud that I'm representing Korea."

"Really, he's the perfect guy for the job," Dalton said of Paek. "We're pretty lucky."

Dalton, meanwhile, is proud of his new passport. It was difficult to get, and teammates still rib him in the dressing room by replaying videos of his crude Korean language skills – his citizenship test made the news.

When players from other teams have made snide comments about his lack of Korean heritage, he gets a little upset. "There's a lot of other countries that do the exact same thing," Dalton said. "It's just we kind of stand out."

Paek endured similar catcalls when he was often the lone Asian player playing minor hockey in Toronto. He chuckles thinking about his Canadian players now getting taunts for not being Asian enough.

Hockey has come a long way, he said.

"They worked extremely hard to become Korean-passport players," Paek said of his imports. "They feel like they belong, and they're a part of something. … They want to be here. They want to be a part of this program. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them. They've taken hold of that."

"I'm not going to sit here and say we're going to win this game or do this or that," Dalton said of playing at the Olympics. "But if the result is the game is growing in Korea and more kids want to play, I think we've done our job. You can't really ask for much more. It'd be nice to leave hockey in Korea better than when we came."

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KOREA'S NINE NORTH AMERICAN RINGERS

Forwards:

Brock Radunske (New Hamburg, Ont.), Michael Swift (Peterborough, Ont.), Mike Testwuide (Vail, Colorado)

Defencemen:

Eric Regan (Whitby, Ont.), Bryan Young (Ennismore, Ont.), Alex Plante (Brandon, Man.)

Goalie:

Matt Dalton (Clinton, Ont.)

Head Coach:

Jim Paek (Toronto)

Assistant coach:

Richard Park (Rancho Palos Verdes, California)

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