Hong plans to play for the 2022 Frozen Four finalist and becomes the 67th Jr. Ducks player to make a D-I commitment.
James Hong scored an average of two points per game during the 2020-21 season for the 16U AAA team. Photo courtesy of Tom Kluksdahl
One need not remind James Hong that hockey is a process.
The late 2004 birth year and former Jr. Ducks standout has used an indomitable work ethic and a laser-like focus on what’s in front of him to reach one of his goals – an NCAA Division I hockey commitment.
Hong’s recent announcement that he will continue his hockey career during the 2023-24 season at Minnesota State made him the 67th player with ties to the club to make a D-I commitment, and the 47th since the club launched a full-fledged AAA program in 2013.
“It’s been a long process for James,” said Jr. Ducks Director of Player Development Alex Kim, who coached Hong for two seasons at 16U AAA. “I met him at 8 or 9. He had no fear, he always wanted to play against older kids.”
Hong’s hockey journey began when he and his mother, brother and sister moved from Seoul, South Korea to the Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada area when he was 3. By 6 he was on the ice, and shortly afterward he began playing 8U hockey. Eventually, he and his mother (Eunkyoung Baek) moved to Toronto for two years so he could play 12U in the highly competitive Greater Toronto Hockey League. When he was 13, the family relocated to Orange County.
“I was the first person to play hockey in my family. My parents had no idea about it,” Hong said.
His parents discovered a Korean hockey blog and eventually connected with the father of former Jr. Ducks player Patrick Choi. Choi’s father recommended they get in touch with Kim’s father. That connection led to him training with Alex Kim and eventually joining the Jr. Ducks in 2018 to play 14U hockey for David Walker.
One of the appeals of the Jr. Ducks to Hong was playing for Kim, who also immigrated with his family from South Korea to North America as a young boy. Kim, whose family settled in Southern California in the early 1980s, went on to play in the USHL, Division I and professional ranks for almost two decades.
“I met Coach Alex when I was younger, I’d skate with him in the summer,” Hong said. “I liked him as a coach, and he really helped me develop. I’m grateful for him.
“He’s been in my shoes. He knows there can be racism, and he’s helped me overcome situations that could have been discouraging. We worked on being mentally stronger and tougher. That’s helped me a lot.”
Kim credited Hong’s approach and his will to improve for getting him to this point.
“He prepares like a pro,” Kim said. “He goes about his business, does his work every single day. When we would travel to showcases and tournaments, he would get up early and work out in the hotel gym. He will get up at 6 a.m. and go to a park and shoot pucks. He wants to do the work.”
Hong said his parents set the example for his approach.
“My work ethic comes from my mom and dad (Sahun Hong),” James said. “I learned if you want to be a good player you have to do all these things. That was reinforced by my Jr. Ducks coaches.”
Hong’s focus extended to the college selection process. Unlike many players who will leave their junior or youth teams to make college visits, Hong made it clear to schools he would only do that once his Waterloo Black Hawks team finished its United States Hockey League season.
Hong, who scored 24 points (11 goals) in 61 games during the 2021-22 campaign, made it clear he would stick to that. As a result, he found a school that was willing to be as patient as he was. It also helps that the Mavericks are on a heater, having reached the Frozen Four the past two seasons (the first two times that’s happened in program history).
“On my visit I saw how they do things; they strive for excellence,” Hong said. “They have a strong program for development. I liked the staff’s approach.”
While on his visit he reconnected with another former Jr. Duck – forward Josh Groll, who played a key role on this past season’s Minnesota State team. The two ate together and discussed all things hockey, Hong said.
What the Mavericks will get is a determined player whom Kim calls a “fantastic teammate,” and one with plenty of tools.
“There is a smoothness to his game – he’s fast and skilled,” Kim said. Hong scored an average of two points per game at 16U.
Ultimately, Hong’s next step is a testament to sticking with it.
“James and his family were patient with the process,” Kim said. “His story is the process.”