Korea’s hope in the net
Korea’s hope in the net
Matt Dalton’s path from Clinton to Anyang
The 29-year-old got the start in Korea’s first two games and has played well so far. Dalton has been the busiest goalie in the tournament with 68 saves. Among the goalies who played in two games, he and Austria’s Bernhard Starkbaum are leading with a 94.44 save percentage.
That’s exactly the kind of number the Koreans, who boosted their team during the last few years with five naturalized Canadians and an American, hoped to see in the net because goaltending has been an issue in the past Division I Group A editions.
In 2008 Korea was relegated with a combined 83.12 save percentage. In 2010 and 2011 that number marginally improved to 84.56 and 87.41. In 2013 Korea had its best placing in the World Championship program ever being ranked 21st overall when Hyunseung Eum and Sungje Park combined for an 88.55 save percentage.
One year later hopes were high when Korea hosted the Division I Group A on home ice in Goyang, a satellite city near Seoul, but the team went winless and was relegated. That time the save percentage of Park and Hoseung Son was 83.03.
A few weeks later Matt Dalton got the offer after three years in Russia to move to Korea to play for the country’s best Asia League team Anyang Halla with the ambition to have him in the net of the national team in view of the 2018 Olympics as well.
“It was kind of like that,” Dalton said about his transfer in 2014. “Obviously I had to go through a process to get my citizenship and nothing was guaranteed but it worked out and it’s good. I love it in Korea. I love the everyday life there. It’s very western-friendly, there’s a big influence of Americans there. I’ve enjoyed it a lot.”
And now he’s here in Katowice, as a Korean and on the Korean national team.
Originally Dalton hails from Canada and played his junior hockey in Canada and the U.S. before moving to U.S. college hockey with the Bemidji State University. He spent his first two years as a pro in the Boston Bruins organization where he played 22 AHL games for the Providence Bruins and 102 games for the ECHL’s Reading Royals.
That’s a situation when many players think about moving to Europe. In 2011 he joined Vityaz Chekhov in the Russian KHL, a club notorious for its enforcers rather than skill. Four of his teammates had more than 170 penalty minutes that season. The next summer he moved further to the east and played two more KHL seasons for Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk.
Dalton now lives in Anyang where his club plays, a satellite city of Seoul with 600,000 inhabitants and a 40-minute subway ride to the Korean capital.
Of course the goalie position is not the only one that matters and if you ask within the team, you will quickly be referred to last year’s Division I Group B win with Korean native Sungje Park in the net, who had a 90.4 save percentage in the tournament.
“You can put in anyone of our goalies. Sungje you may call the backup but last year he played really well. He won us the tournament and got into this division. But obviously Dalton is a world-class goalie,” Michael Swift said of the two goaltenders.
“Last year Sungje played extremely well and now we have Dalton too. Hopefully we can continue like that as long as we can,” head coach Jim Paek said about the goalie situation and the recent performance of his team.
After a shootout loss to Austria and a 4-1 win against host and last year’s bronze medallist Poland the Koreans are on the right track towards maintaining in the second tier of hockey, and may even dare to dream bigger.
“I think it’s a good start, we need to build on it. No game is easy. We have to get a rest and get ready for tomorrow. We simply need to play our game and see what happens,” Dalton said.
“We are not afraid of anyone. We might be the underdog but we’re going to play hard and do our best and put up a good fight and give Korea some respect for hockey.”
The Koreans put in some effort to get their new goalie and recently Dalton backstopped Anyang Halla to the Asia League title in a league normally dominated by Japanese club teams. He was named Playoff MVP with a 93.9 save percentage.
With all the new signings by the clubs and getting naturalizations of players approved, the expectations are high to perform well in tournaments like the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A and to get ready to face the best hockey countries in the world at the home-ice Olympics in less than two years from now. Despite that, Dalton doesn’t feel extra pressure on his shoulders.
“I’ve been playing hockey long enough. I just try to do my job, that’s all I can control and do the best I can,” he said. “Korea has been great to me and I enjoy my time there and I try to give back to Korea what I can.”
Dalton enjoys the lifestyle of the Seoul region and says there’s a ton of things to see in Korea. “The best is to check it out for yourself.” Just the question whether he likes kimchi, Korea’s famously fermented cabbage, he couldn’t answer that confidently.
After getting four out of six points against the European opponents, a neighbouring rivalry with Japan is next on the agenda. In league play that has worked out well for Dalton and his Anyang Halla teammates by winning the Asia League.
At World Championship events it’s a different story. Korea overtook China as the number-two Asian hockey country in the mid-2000s and has narrowed the gap to Japan in recent years. But although Korea managed to beat countries like Hungary or Poland in the past, the men’s national team has never managed to beat Japan in an official game, neither in World Championship events, Olympic Qualification tournaments nor in the Asian Winter Games. But the scores have become tight recently. In 2012 Japan needed overtime on home ice in Nikko to beat 3-2 Korea in the Olympic Pre-Qualification. In Division I Group A play Japan won 6-5 in 2013 and 4-2 in 2014.
“Japan is a great opponent,” Swift said after scoring his hat trick against Poland. “We know every single player from the Asia League. It’s going to be a big rivalry. The game will be huge. If we play our system for 60 minutes we can win the game.”
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