Olympic dream takes Bemidji State goalie to Korea
During his playing days at Bemidji State, Matt Dalton recalls seeing photos honoring the program's Olympians.
Players like Joel Otto, Blaine Comstock and Charlie Brown.
Now Dalton will be the next Olympian with a banner hanging inside the Sanford Center.
The Clinton, Ont., native who once backstopped Bemidji State to the Frozen Four will soon take to an even bigger stage at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Dalton will be in net for the Korean men's hockey team when the nation makes its Olympic debut at 6:10 a.m. Thursday against the Czech Republic.
"I always remember when I was at BSU that you'd always see pictures of people that were in the NHL or people that had played in Olympics," Dalton said. "I know there weren't very many that got the opportunity to play in the Olympics. It's something that I'm pretty lucky to have the opportunity to do. It's something I'm proud of. I'm proud to represent BSU."
No, the former Beaver is not Korean, and neither are six of his teammates. Dalton is one of seven North Americans on Korea's roster—six Canadians and one American.
But when Korea came calling, offering Dalton and others a chance to help grow the sport in the young hockey nation and compete in an Olympics, he couldn't resist.
After spending the prior three seasons playing in the KHL in Russia, Dalton was looking for a change in 2014 when he heard about the Asian League.
"At first I really wasn't too sure about it," Dalton said. "But I started calling some people and people that had played here, things like that, and with the possibility of the Olympics ahead and everything like that, I thought it was kind of a unique opportunity."
Dalton spent two seasons at BSU, leaving after the Frozen Four appearance his sophomore season to sign with the Boston Bruins organization in 2009. He was called up to Boston briefly on two occasions, but never saw the ice, and spent two seasons playing in the AHL and ECHL.
Dalton has experienced his most success playing professionally for Anyang Halla. He and the Korea-based team have twice won league titles with the former Beaver earning playoff MVP honors in both instances.
As the Olympics neared, Dalton attained Korean citizenship, which required studying the country's language and history, in order to join the national team.
"It was fairly hard," he said. "It was something that you didn't want to screw up, especially at that point. A lot of people had put a lot of effort into trying to help you to get it."
Dalton said he now knows a little bit of Korean.
"Not enough to have like a fluent conversation, but enough to get by," he said.
The members of the national team have gone through a lot in preparing for 2018, rising to No. 21 in the IIHF World Ranking after being No. 33 as recently as 2010. Whatever language or cultural barrier that may have existed between the North American and Korean players has subsided in the years leading to Pyeongchang.
"It's been the same group of guys for quite a while so we've spent a lot of time together, and they speak pretty good English," Dalton said. "There's always going to be a bit of a cultural difference, but when you look at the whole situation, I think people would be amazed at how good the team chemistry really is."
Make no mistake, Dalton knows how daunting it will be for Korea, the lowest-ranked team in the tournament that qualified automatically as host country. Korea will meet the Czech Republic and Switzerland, plus Dalton's birth country and nine-time gold medalist Canada, in the preliminary round.
"Honestly, we're huge underdogs," Dalton said. "And I think rightfully so."
Winning isn't necessarily the point for South Korea, a nation with 2,675 registered players in 2016-17, according to the IIHF, a number that has grown from 1,880 when the country was awarded the Olympics in 2011.
"I think our main goal is to grow the game of hockey here in Korea," Dalton said. "That's kind of our main goal. To try and promote more people to play the game and things like that.
"I think at the end of the day, for me personally, when I leave Korea I want to know that hockey's in a better place than when I came here. And I feel like I've been a pretty good part of that. That's something that's very rewarding to me."
Bemidji State Hockey Olympians
Charlie Brown; men's hockey, USA, 1972
Blaine Comstock; men's hockey, USA, 1976
Matt Dalton; men's hockey, Korea, 2018
Jim McElmury; men's hockey, USA, 1972
Joel Otto; men's hockey, USA, 1998
Gary Ross; men's hockey, USA, 1976
Zuzana Tomcikova; women's hockey, Slovakia, 2010
Nina Ziegenhals; women's hockey, Germany, 2002