Important Import

Colorado Native Looking To Help Grow Hockey In His Adopted Country While Living His Olympic Dream
By: 
Joe Paisley

Like many youth players, Mike Testwuide dreamed of competing in the Olympics.

Those childhood hopes included donning a Team USA jersey. But four seasons in the Asia League created an unexpected opportunity for the Colorado native to become a Winter Olympian in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Years living in Seoul - a big city he enjoys as much as his hometown of Vail -  made South Korea feel like his second home. Even then, it took time for him to reconcile his dream of playing for a country other than the U.S. and accept the offer.

"I think any athlete growing up who watches the Olympics imagines themselves on that stage," he said. "When I was asked to get Korean citizenship the possibility became very real but it didn't really hit me until this year."

Testwuide has heard some negativity, with some wondering how he could potentially compete against the U.S., while others were critical of him taking a native's roster spot.

But his time competing with his Korean teammates has eased his initial trepidation.

"I have battled with these guys for the last four years and have become very close with all of my teammates here," he said. "We have built something special and these guys are like family to me."

Testwuide, who became a dual citizen in March 2015, knows there is a chance he may face his home country. If seeding holds, Pool A's Korea could face the Pool B winner, which may be the United States.

If that happens, his loyalty will be with his new team.

"When I'm on the ice and in the locker room I am very much Korean," said the 6-foot-5, 210-pound winger. "It may seem strange to a lot of people but I wouldn't have become naturalized unless I felt very connected to my teammates and the supporting people for Team Korea."

They are happy to have Testwuide, 30, who was the only American chosen for the men's national team after South Korea sped up its naturalization process to add him and six Canadians.

The country also pumped in $20 million over four years to develop the men's and women's programs, which included hiring Jim Paek as men's director and coach and Californian Richard Park as his assistant. They are the only South Koreans to play in the NHL.

Investment and imports were desperately needed. When the Olympics were awarded in 2011, South Korea had only 1,880 registered ice hockey players - including 133 adult men, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation.

Adding Testwuide was a logical choice for Paek, who won two Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh in 1991 and 1992.

Testwuide was the 2015-16 Asia League MVP and a top scorer in the Japan-based professional league in recent years. The Gangwon High1 forward has competed in 26 international games entering the Olympics.

"In that time, he made an impression with his size and skill," Paek said. "He has a great attitude being in a foreign country and has embraced the Korean culture. His character allows him to be good teammate. Mike's ability to play hockey at a high level excites fans."

Testwuide moved to Korea in 2013 after signing an entry-level contract with the Philadelphia Flyers following a four-year career at Colorado College. After three American Hockey League seasons, an NHL call-up was unlikely. An attractive contract - some imports command $200,000-plus a season - made Korea a good choice.

He didn't know it would lead to his childhood dream. 

"Never getting into a NHL regular season game was a pretty tough situation to swallow but I kept working hard and taking chances," he said. "So for me, this is the culmination of so much hard work and dedication to this game." 

The imports have helped Korea rise from a world ranking of 33rd to 21st, giving the hosts hope they won't be embarrassed during pool play against Canada, the Czech Republic and Switzerland.

"The promotion to the top level before the Olympics has been a great accomplishment for the team," Paek said. "My expectations are that we will work extremely hard and be prepared to play."

The Olympics are part of a bigger picture for Korean hockey, where the winter sport is a distant third in popularity behind speed skating and figure skating. Having a 14-year-old pro league, a stronger national program and an Olympics sparking youth interest suggests a better future.

Testwuide takes pride in doing his part to grow the game in his adopted country.

"Hockey in South Korea has come a long way in the four years that I have been here," he said. "Being a part of this growth and change has been very special and something that I am fortunate to be a part of.                   

"It has become one of the highest sought-after tickets for the Olympics and a growing interest is very visible. It is hard to say what the future holds for Korean hockey but a solid foundation has been built in the last few years."

 

Joe Paisley is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

 

Issue: 
2018-02

Poll

What did you work on the most this offseason?: