Unique Olympic experience

Korea forward Michael Swift kisses the trophy. The second-place finish at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Ukraine lifted Olympic host Korea also to the top division of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship (along with Austria) for the first time. Photo: Andri Basevych

Swift suiting up for Korean Olympic team

Michael Swift was pondering his hockey-playing options during the summer of 2011 when a call from his cousin Bryan Young changed his career path.

Swift had just completed his three-year entry-level contract with the New Jersey Devils after signing as a free agent and wasn’t enthusiastic about spending another season in the American Hockey League. As a result, he decided to take his cousin’s advice.

Young, a 2004 fifth-round selection of the Edmonton Oilers, had just completed his first season playing for High1 in the Asia League where his club played against opponents from Korea, Japan, China and Russia’s Far East.

“When I was talking to Bryan that summer he was like, ‘Why don’t you just come over here?’ He had nothing but good things to say about Korea,” recalled Swift. “Something told me to sign and come over and I did. It was obviously the best move I made for my hockey career.”

The Peterborough, Ontario native admittedly wasn’t an avid traveller prior to signing with High1 and put a lot of trust in Young while making the move overseas to continue his hockey career.

“Well, a) I didn’t even know there was ice hockey in South Korea, to be honest,” he said. “I had not even thought about (it). I’m not a world traveller or anything like that so it was pretty outside of the box when people found out I was coming over to Korea to play hockey. I just took his word. He just said, ‘You know, the people are really friendly. The hockey, you’re not killing your body day-in and day-out’. It’s pretty good money for what we get paid to do.”

Now in the middle of his seventh season playing for High1 in Goyang next to the capital of Seoul, Swift is one of six Canadians (plus one American) with dual citizenship preparing to represent Korea at the 2018 Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament.

“After three years of playing over here, the Korea Ice Hockey Association approached me to see if I’d be interested in becoming a dual citizen,” he said. “So I’ve had my passport now for four years. I played for Team Korea the last four years in the IIHF World Championship.”

Last April Swift scored a goal and three assists in five games as Korea edged Ukraine 2-1 at the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A to earn a promotion to the top division at this year’s IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Copenhagen and Herning, Denmark. It was the first time Korea qualified for the top-level event.

This season, the 30-year-old has 14 goals and 28 assists in 27 games playing for High1 as he prepares for his first Olympic experience.

Growing up in Ontario, and going through the Ontario Hockey League with the Mississauga IceDogs, Swift admits the Olympics was never on his radar.

Swift scored 73 goals and 108 points in 208 games over four seasons in Mississauga. He moved with the team as the franchise relocated to Niagara after the 2006/07 season and became the Niagara IceDogs’ first captain. During his final OHL season, Swift netted 38 goals and 100 points in 68 games.

The five-foot-nine, 165-pound centre’s strong play earned him an entry-level contract with the Devils. He appeared in 176 AHL games with New Jersey’s affiliate before wrapping up his North American career with the Worcester Sharks.

“Honestly not in a million years,” Swift said. “It’s one thing that growing up as a kid people trying to play in the NHL, how many people get a chance to play in the NHL, let alone play in the Olympics every four years?

“The Olympics is, they say, the biggest stage in the world, so it’s something pretty special. Obviously I’m not playing for Canada, but even to just be a part of the Olympics for any country it would be someone’s dream come true.”

Off the ice has been a pleasant surprise for Swift, who didn’t know much about the country prior to moving.

“It’s so easy. Everything is so westernized,” said Swift. “The team gives me a two-bedroom apartment, they give me a vehicle that I drive. You go to the restaurants, everyone speaks English, they’ve got English menus (and) westernized food. You can walk around. Basically I walk out my back door and I can walk into hundreds of restaurants and bars. It’s a pretty neat area.”

Swift says he had no reservations about returning to South Korea despite tensions with North Korea at times.

“Honestly, when I came back over here in August, people from Peterborough, back home, were like ‘Well, you’ve got to watch out for the north’, but I don’t hear anything to be honest,” he said. “Over here I don’t watch TV or the media or read the newspaper so I’m honestly oblivious to what’s going on out there with the north and the south.”

Swift spends his summers in his hometown of Peterborough helping out with the family’s construction business. He hasn’t given much thought to life after hockey. Since receiving his Korean citizenship in April 2014, his focus has been the Olympics.

In December he suited up for the national team at the Channel One Cup in Moscow. Though the Koreans failed to win a game against top-6 nations, Swift says it was a good learning experience.

“We played against Team Canada there so that was a great experience for me and my team that we were able to get that out of the way, to play Canada,” he said. “It was a (surprise), definitely, when we suited up against them there in Russia in December so I think it’s going to make it easier for us when we play against them coming up in the Olympics.”

Swift knows the odds are against his team heading to the Olympics, but is maintaining a positive outlook.

“Our goal is to try and win every game (we play),” he said. “You’re playing against Canada, No. 1 in the world, and no one knows about Korea and we’re obviously a huge underdog, but we’re not going to go into each game preparing like we’re going to lose. You can’t think like that.

“You’ve got to go in with a positive attitude and play hard for 60 minutes. See what happens. You never know, the hockey gods could be on our side, we get a lucky bounce, keep it close - you just don’t know until you play the games.”

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