Check out hockey, Korea-style
Don’t be “that guy.”
No, I’m not talking about the U.S. military campaign against excessive drinking being waged via American Forces Network public service announcements.
I mean those visitors to foreign lands who won’t “lower” themselves to go to sporting events in their new country because the brand of (fill in the name of any sport here) is nowhere near as good as that sport is played back home.
You know, sports snobs.
I must admit to a bit of sports snobbery when I first got to South Korea.
Baseball here was an early target. How silly, I thought, for the locals to get so excited rooting for Korean players who would be lucky to be riding the buses of the low minor leagues in the U.S., or the limited number of imported players looking to milk the last few paychecks out of their not-quite-major-league talents.
But, over time, I came to appreciate the quirks and quaint things that make Korea Baseball Organization games in many ways more interesting than their American counterparts.
So, by the time I found my way to my first Asia League Ice Hockey game, I was more than ready to accept that while the quality of play might not be National Hockey League-caliber, the quality of the experience might be.
For the most part, I was not disappointed.
There are seven teams in the Asia League, based in South Korea, Japan and China. They play a 42-game season that starts in September and ends with the four-team championship playoffs in late March.
Interest in the league and the teams varies greatly by location.
A foreign player on one of the Japanese teams joked to a spectator that their games are sometimes played in front of little more than the rink staff. One can only imagine what attendance must be like for the China Dragon, a team that 38 games into this season had yet to win a game and often loses in lopsided fashion.
A few recent visits to High1 games in Goyang, South Korea, featured small but enthusiastic crowds led by a few cheerleaders dancing to the same song over and over again during breaks in the action. Goals by the home team were followed, inexplicably, by the blasting of the Judas Priest song “Breaking the Law” from the arena speakers.
The price of admission was certainly right for the High1 games — free — but anyone looking for beer or other concessions had to buy their food and drink from a convenience store across the plaza and bring it into the arena.
The best place to catch a game in South Korea is Anyang, home of the Halla — a team that won the league championship for the 2009-10 season, and was named co-champion in the tsunami-shortened season the following year.
The team frequently draws about 1,000 fans to games, which have some of the features you might expect at minor league hockey games in the U.S. Admission is about $8.
Much like the baseball teams in South Korea, Asia League teams are allowed to employ a small number of foreign players with the goal of increasing the competitiveness of the league while improving the skills of the home-country players.
As it turns out, a healthy number of National Hockey League players have spent time in the Asia League. But, as a reformed sports snob, I would have been happy either way.
South Korea: Anyang Halla and High1
Japan: Nikko Icebucks, Nippon Paper Cranes, Oji Eagles and Tohoku Free Blades
China: China Dragon
Admission prices vary by facility.
March 9-17: Semifinals
March 23-31: Finals
Varies by facility; some sell concessions, and some do not.