From thin Ice to top Division: South Korea’s thrilling Ice Hockey transformation
When former ice hockey professional Jim Paek took over as coach of South Korea’s ice hockey team in 2014, he had an ambitious vision: to turn the country of his birth into an ice hockey nation.
As the first Korean to play in the National Hockey League and have his name engraved in the Stanley Cup, Paek, who grew up in Canada, certainly had the track record to turn the game around for the Korean team. Still, the ice hockey legend faced major hurdles on his mission. For starters, ice hockey was not popular in Korea, with no professional clubs or leagues in the country.
The faltering team morale from being low on wins was just one of many challenges. The lack of a spotlight on the sport also meant that the team had to make do with hand-me-down equipment and transport their equipment themselves.
Paek knew that he had to professionalize the team to turn the situation around. This included securing the best gear, upgrading the team’s training, and a partnership with DHL Express Korea to fix the logistical problems plaguing them over the years.
Now, nine years down the road, the South Korean ice hockey team has made a remarkable improvement, jumping up two divisions in international hockey.
“We have to think like a top-nation team,” Paek said back in 2018. “If we think we’re always a bottom-feeder, then we’ll always be a bottom-feeder.
Keeping their stick on the ice
Unlike most sports, hockey players have a ton of gear to carry around. From the pucks to the sticks and the thick sportswear, each player requires an entire ensemble before taking the rink. Heavier equipment, such as sharpening machines, can weigh over 38 kilograms.
The team had to choose between risking their equipment being late or damaged through ordinary air delivery, or personally lugging them to the arena themselves. With the latter, the athletes often strained their backs and shoulder muscles when handling their heavy luggage, compromising their physical condition before matches.
This was compounded by the tricky business of clearing customs. Certain equipment – like skate sharpening machines – were often rejected by airlines. On one occasion, the team had to resort to borrowing their competitor’s polishing machine to sharpen their skates.
Opting for ordinary air delivery had its fair share of issues too. Equipment would often arrive late, sometimes mere moments before the game commenced, preventing the team from warming up or practicing before their match.
On some occasions, the equipment would be damaged or lost during transit, causing the players much anxiety, and affecting their performance before matches.
A much-needed assist
Paek, who played at the highest levels of hockey, had to resolve the physical and mental challenges associated with the equipment. To him, the solution was simple: the team needed a partner who could fix their logistics problems.
In 2015, the team reached out to DHL Express Korea, establishing a partnership that would resolve their challenges with heavy-weight equipment logistics. The decision was a game changer, as DHL took on the end-to-end project, forming a task force to handle paperwork, pick-up, customs, and the last-mile delivery to wherever the team traveled. This relieved the team’s worries about whether their equipment would get to their destination on time.
As early as one month before a scheduled match, the DHL customer service team receives all relevant details regarding the competition. Next, they would draw up a comprehensive game plan, accounting for any possible delivery issues that could arise. To avoid delays at customs, the DHL Express Korea team also pre-arranges for a carnet, ensuring the team’s equipment and personal effects cleared customs smoothly.
On the delivery front, the equipment is picked up from the team’s training stadium, where the shipment is consolidated. Before the athletes’ departure, the shipment is sent to its destination country via air freight, monitored in real-time by the DHL Express Korea team. Upon arrival, the equipment goes directly to the team’s respective accommodation or competition arenas – well ahead of their arrival.
Supporting the team beyond the rink
But athletes need more than their hockey sticks, pucks, skates, and helmets. Besides training equipment, many bring along personal belongings like foam rollers, electric heaters, and portable massage beds to condition themselves before a game.
To ensure that the players’ diverse equipment and personal effects were delivered intact, DHL Express Korea customized boxes in seven different shapes and sizes to transport the diverse equipment. The boxes are also designed to be stackable, and anti-slip wheels were added for convenient storage and movement around the arena and locker rooms. They are also secured with sturdy locks to ensure that things do not get stolen or fall out during their journey.
“When I played in the NHL, we had supporting staff that took care of all the distractions. Now with DHL, it’s the same. So that’s been very important to our performance,” said Paek.
Hyunwook Lee, DHL Express Suwon sales team manager, who has managed the partnership since its conception in 2015 recalled how the team felt a tremendous responsibility in servicing the national team.
“We knew how important the equipment was, and how the delivery could impact the athletes’ performance,” said Lee. “So, when we started this partnership, I remember staying up all night to monitor the shipments for any exceptions. Thankfully, the delivery process went smoothly.”
The partnership, however, started with a steep learning curve for both parties. For instance, certain destination arenas did not support temporary storage for the equipment. In such a case, the DHL Express Korea team adapted quickly by arranging for DHL stations to hold the shipments until the athletes arrived. Special vehicles and equipment for heavy-weight boxes were also required depending on the destination's environment.
On one occasion, the team accidentally packed equipment with batteries inside the shipment, resulting in the entire shipment being barred from moving on from their transition station in Leipzig, Germany to their next location.
With the clock ticking away, the DHL Express Korea team worked overtime to prepare the required paperwork, corresponding with their colleagues at the Leipzig hub to ensure that the delivery could be completed with the little time they had before the competition. The shipment arrived just in time, and since then, the team has taken extra precautions for all battery-powered equipment to be carried separately.
“Now, eight years into the partnership, we’ve built a stable network and we’ve gained experience, so we are well-equipped to deal with any exceptions or unexpected issues that might occur,” said Lee.
Icing the competition
With logistical hassles and unwanted distractions out of the way, the team could focus on getting their heads in the game. In 2017, the men's team clinched their first-ever silver medal at the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo.
In the same year, they qualified for the top division of the World Championships – yet another first in South Korean ice hockey history.
Their performance has since gained momentum. From making history at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics to making the final qualifiers of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and the International Ice Hockey Federation’s (IIHF) Men’s and Women’s World Championships in Europe, they are steadily carving their mark on the international ice hockey scene.
DHL Express Korea extends partnership with Korea National Ice Hockey until 2024
DHL Express Korea extends partnership with Korea National Ice Hockey until 2024
On July 29, 2022, ByungKoo Han, Country Manager of DHL Express Korea and HoJin Lee, Chairman of Korea Ice Hockey Association(KIHA), signed an agreement to extend the partnership for another two years to promote the national ice hockey team’s development.
Since 2015, the logistics provider has delivered over 46 tons of equipment for the team across 20 international competitions without fail, with each shipment weighing about 1.8 tons of the players' personal items and team equipment.
For DHL, the partnership means being able to support the growth of a sport which has since become a source of pride for the nation.
“We are happy and honored to continue our support for the national ice hockey team and play a role in creating an environment where the team can perform its best," said Han. "We will continue to provide our best services to support the national ice hockey teams in delivering their best performance as well as to expand the fan base and popularize the sport.”
Beyond logistics, DHL is also invested in a national drive to promote ice hockey culture and build a stronger following for the sport. For instance, DHL customers have been invited to stadium tours and ice hockey games, such as a match at the 2023 IIHF Women's World Championship Division I, hosted in Korea earlier this April. The DHL Express Korea team is also looking to arrange friendly matches to garner interest in the sport in the coming year.
A leadership lecture program has also been organized, given by none other than Paek, who has stepped down as South Korea’s national coach in 2022 but remains intimately involved in promoting the sport.
As Paek told USA Today when the team played in its first Olympics game against Switzerland in 2018, "It's incredible how far Korea has come. How they've opened their minds to this wonderful sport is fantastic, and to be a part of this is incredible. It's a dream."
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