It all started with a post on the Minnesota Wild subsection of Reddit.
“Who wants to come to North Korea with me to play hockey?” Alex Frecon recalls the headline reading.
Frecon thought, This is pretty cool if it’s really real, so he clicked the link out of curiosity.
He never dreamed that weeks later he’d actually pack a few suitcases and all his hockey gear and head for a place few Americans would ever dream of stepping foot.
He never dreamed that his life and overall perception of this mysterious country would change forever when he discovered ordinary, everyday North Koreans just want to live their life like all of us.
“You google, ‘Travel North Korea,’ and there’s a [State Department] security warning. Reading that is the most sobering thing,” Frecon, 30, who grew up in Minneapolis’ western suburbs, said.
“I mean, they lay it out: ‘Do Not Go There!’”
Frecon’s not kidding. The State Department makes it crystal clear that “due to the serious and mounting risk of arrest and long-term detention of U.S. citizens” and “unduly harsh sentences for actions that would not be considered crimes in the United States,” Americans should stay away from North Korea because the U.S. has no means of getting you out.
In fact, after months of nuclear threats from North Korea leader Kim Jong Un and after the June death of an American student who had been detained there, no American — unless on a special passport — is even permitted to travel to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
But this was in March, a few weeks before North Korea really started ramping up missile testing, and before the rhetoric between Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump really began to escalate.
Frecon loves the sport of hockey.
He loves playing it, loves watching it, and he was intrigued by the opportunity to travel to the reclusive DPRK to play with and against North Korea’s men’s national team.
The trip was set up through the Howe International Friendship League, a Vancouver, B.C.-based sports tourism organization that puts on a series of international events with the goal of promoting goodwill and building friendship between cultures through the power of sport. They recently completed a trip to Costa Rica where tourists played flag football with kids. In December, they’re going to Jamaica to play lacrosse with the national team.
There’s an important mission with founder Scott Howe’s trips to North Korea.
“We’re trying to begin the dialogue to bring the Special Olympics to North Korea,” said Howe, 29.
Once Frecon discovered there was an even larger purpose than playing the sport he cherishes, his curiosity grew more and more and he began peppering Howe with questions.
Seventy-four emails were exchanged. Frecon asked everything from can he bring his GoPro to can he bring mini Snickers bars.
“I just got to the point where I was confident if I behaved properly, I would be safe,” Frecon said. “I weighed the pros and cons and the potential risks. I just felt this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing for me. The main driving force was the hockey. I love the sport so much, and the idea of playing with and against an international athlete, I mean, I should never have that opportunity with my skill level.”
Knowing that his family, especially his parents, and friends would fret if he told them he planned to travel to North Korea, Frecon told nobody except two friends. One was Kyle Brett, his freshman year roommate at Connecticut College.
“I was right at the edge of committing to this trip and I trust and value Kyle’s opinion,” Frecon said. “I called Kyle and said, ‘I have to ask you a question, and if you say yes, I’m going to do this.’ He said, ‘OK, What?’ I said, ‘I’m thinking of going to play hockey against a national team.’ He goes, ‘Wait, what?’ And I go, ‘And here’s the other thing, it’s in North Korea.’
“The phone went silent for like 10 seconds. Then all I heard was, ‘Dude, you’ve got to do this!’”
Brett, also 30, is an entertainment lawyer in New York. In college, Brett got accustomed to Frecon’s antics.
“We had various adventures, and it was usually me saying, ‘Frecon, that’s dumb, but good luck, have fun and see you later,’” Brett said.
And that’s how Brett reacted to his friend’s latest escapade.
“I just remember thinking, If you do make it back, this will just be an amazing memory to have of this country, this State, that’s going to become incredibly important in the near future,” Brett said. “I’d watched a few Vice documentaries on North Korea, so it seemed like things weren’t as crazy as I had always assumed they were. I just assumed this was a place in complete lockdown, that no one even smiles. But watching these documentaries, you learn it’s a little less than how it’s represented in the imagination of the average American. So that gave me comfort.
“Plus,” Brett said, “sometimes you just have to do shit for the story.”
Because he didn’t want anybody to worry and would be unreachable and disconnected from the rest of the world for more than a week, Frecon told everyone he was vacationing in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, China, which was partially true. His seven-day trip to North Korea did technically originate and end with flights in and out of Beijing.
Frecon supplied Brett and another pal with his full itinerary … and a last will and testament.
“I told them, ‘Here’s what to do if you don’t hear back from me by this time,’ so I definitely was prepared,” Frecon said.
When Brett received his friend’s will, he remembers thinking, If he doesn’t make it back, I’m going to look like a fucking asshole. But Frecon’s an incredibly smart guy and I trust him in any environment, so I wasn’t worried that he was going to do anything dumb. I just didn’t know a ton about the North Korean government and whether they randomly decide to seize an American tourist for leverage. I just remember thinking, Hopefully, Kim Jong just ignores this.”
Frecon is self-deprecating when it comes to his hockey ability.
As a kid, he played until age 12, then stopped until his senior year at Breck School in Golden Valley, Minn., when he played on the junior varsity team because they didn’t have enough players.
“So, I’m not very good,” he says.
He played club hockey at Connecticut College, then intramurals at the University of Wisconsin.
After graduating, Frecon returned to Minnesota and got into the pond hockey scene as well as weekly beer league games in the Adult Hockey Association throughout the Twin Cities.
“I’m pretty fast. I can skate, but I’m not a gamer,” Frecon said.
Once arriving in Beijing, there are two ways to get to Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea— plane and train. Americans must fly, so Frecon, Howe and two other Americans from the state of Washington flew to Pyongyang while the rest of the group — all Canadians and two Finns — weaved through the countryside by rail.
“The scariest part for me was walking off the plane. You see all the guards, and that’s when you realize you’re in North Korea,” Frecon said.
He surprisingly breezed through customs.
Shaking with nerves, Frecon handed his passport to an agent who simply flipped through it and handed it back without a stamp.
Tourists must list every single item they’re taking into North Korea. An agent asked to see a book Frecon was bringing into the country, a piece of nonfiction about a famous U.S. trial, Frecon recalls.
“I gave him the book, he looks at it and walks off into a room,” Frecon said. “He was gone for five minutes, then comes back without the book and stands back where he was standing before. I’m standing looking at him and he’s not looking at me. I stood there for five whole minutes, then finally turned to another worker and asked, ‘Can I go?’
“She goes, ‘Yes,’ and that’s when I realized,” Frecon said with a chuckle, “I’m not getting the book back.”
Frecon and his three new friends were then met by two government minders on the other side of customs.
“You’re with them 24/7. You’re not allowed to go anywhere on your own,” Frecon said. “You hand them your passports. They hold on to them for ‘safe keeping.’”
The rest of the team wouldn’t be arriving until the following day, so Frecon had a chance to begin playing tourist.
The first thing he discerned is how clean and modern Pyongyang is and how friendly the North Koreans were. Buildings were red, beige and what he called “North Korean green.”
“I don’t know what I thought it would be like, but I figured it would be a gray, ugly place and that the people would be almost robotic, like nobody showing any emotions,” Frecon said. “This sounds dumb, but I remember standing outside one night and I looked up at the moon.
“I remember turning to one person and saying, ‘I’d never think the moon would be beautiful in North Korea. But it’s the same planet.”
On Day 2, the rest of the group arrived via train. Frecon, his three new friends and their “tour guides” arrived at the train station to pick them up.
“It was funny,” Frecon said. “Twenty tall Caucasian dudes all carrying hockey gear walking in a line, and we were all met by a camera crew because this was a big thing for the State — a bunch of Canadians coming to play their national team,” Frecon said. “These poor guys had been on a train for 24 hours and we bussed straight to the rink for our first evening game.”
The camera crew never left the next five days. It was almost like State TV was watching every move, but Frecon said for the most part the trip felt like any normal tourist trip.
“I went on this trip prepared to be intimidated left and right,” Frecon said. “That I would be treated like a spy. The reality is that I met a bunch of polite, humble and curious human beings.”
After arriving at the arena, things got funny.
As the group from the Friendship League began suiting up in the locker room, it dawned on everyone that nobody knew each other’s positions.
How the heck would they cobble together line combinations and defense pairings.
There was a group of three from Montreal. One of the men, Felix Moffat, began going around the room asking, “What do you play? What position do you play?”
The only woman on the trip, Misty Seastrom, became Frecon’s defense partner.
“She pulled me through each game,” Frecon said.
Finally, the players from the Friendship League hit the ice for warmups.
“Looking at their team, I knew right away we were going to get crushed,” Frecon said, laughing. “Like, there was no doubt in my mind. These guys could skate. And they were coordinated.”
Plus, with all due respect, the Friendship League’s goalie, “a great guy named Mark,” was 71 years old.
The North Koreans, who are currently ranked 39th in the world by the International Ice Hockey Federation, indeed smoked ‘em, 16-1.
“I accidentally got a high-sticking penalty. I literally smacked a guy in the face in the first game,” Frecon said, covering his hand over his mouth. “I was so nervous, like, Oh my God, what’s going to happen to me?
“But I just got two minutes.”
In five days, the westerners practiced six hours a day and faced the North Koreans three times. One of those games was a mixed game where the players from both teams were combined. The group from the Friendship League also ran two practices for both the men’s and women’s national teams.
“There was so much camaraderie,” Frecon said. “It was like sports diplomacy. There were some uncomfortable moments where some of the guys were asking the North Koreans about their government and kind of running their mouths. One of our minders came over to me and said, ‘Did you see what your President just said?’ I was like, ‘No, my phone doesn’t work here.’ That made me a bit nervous.
“But they all seemed to genuinely like us, and when you play hockey for six hours a day together, you develop this kind of trust because you know you have this sport that you all love in common.
“Like, you know they’ve got to be a little cool because they play hockey. During the drills, the North Koreans joked around with us and tried to help us chirp their teammates. It was a playful environment.
“Part of me wonders if world problems were discussed over a friendly game of softball, would things get solved a lot easier?”
That’s certainly what Howe hopes. Next month, he’s scheduled to make his fifth trip to North Korea.
He’s not bringing a hockey team. Instead, he’s bringing two disability experts to begin a dialogue with the government so they can hopefully begin the tall order of fulfilling certain requirements to be part of the Special Olympics.
“Historically speaking, the DPRK has refused to engage with the international community on the issue of disability,” said Howe, whose father, Dan, is currently CEO of Special Olympics B.C. and has been involved in the Special Olympics for nearly 40 years. “Over time, that has gradually eased on the physical disability side. For example, they do have Paralympic athletes now and a few hearing-impaired and sight-impaired organizations.
“But to date, nobody’s managed to really break through in the areas of intellectual disabilities. So we’re hoping to do so using sports programs as a catalyst to start discussions in these areas.”
On this next trip, Howe is also hoping to begin training potential Special Olympic athletes in basketball and soccer so when he returns with a hockey team in March, the country will show some advancement in those areas.
Unfortunately, Howe said, no Americans like Frecon will be able to travel to North Korea on the March trip.
Frecon, who works at a worldwide ad agency, is well-known in Minnesota circles for producing some comical hockey music videos on YouTube.
There’s the renowned “Cake Eater Anthem” making fun of the affluent city of Edina, “Bruce is Loose” on the raised expectations coach Bruce Boudreau would bring to the Wild and the “Beer League Anthem.”
Frecon brought with him his GoPro to North Korea because he figured capturing video would be a cool keepsake to show family and friends. He says he had no initial thought of making a YouTube documentary short until the North Korean team had no problem with him wearing his camera during practices and games provided he didn’t break down and broadcast their systems.
After reviewing all his footage at the end of his trip, Frecon thought, Maybe I can tell a larger story.
Frecon stayed two extra days in North Korea to sight-see with Howe. They went bowling, attended a soccer academy for kids and toured an enormous soccer stadium. They even went to a library where Frecon got to speak English to an English-speaking class.
The guides took Frecon and Howe outside of Pyongyang where they did see some run-down outer farm towns. Frecon understands for the most part the government minders made sure their entire group saw what they wanted them to see.
“We were fed so much food, which was weird when you know there are shortages around the country,” Frecon said. “I’m not an expert on anything, and I always tell people to figure out things for themselves and make their own conclusions. But don’t just look at what someone else says and be like, ‘That has to be it.’ Because that’s what I did. And then I went to North Korea and I got a completely different perception.
“I went there thinking North Koreans hated us. I wondered, Do they have cell phones, what are the cars like, what’s their food like? A lot of kimchi, by the way. And I was really surprised at how curious and interested they were in me being American and how many questions they had for us.”
Howe said it still even catches him off guard when he sees “ordinary human emotion” from the North Koreans like when “you meet somebody on the street and they say a funny joke or you drive past a soldier walking his young child home from school. I think a lot of the coverage in the western media can serve to dehumanize ordinary North Koreans because we don’t really have an adequate source of information on North Korea.
“But every time I go back to the country, my impression of it changes and I feel like every time I go I learn how little I know about the country and how little the western world, in general, knows about the country.”
What Frecon has tried to convey to everybody, including his parents, who were not pleased when he informed them via cell phone from Beijing that he had fibbed and had actually spent a week in a place that scares the average American, is that ordinary, everyday North Koreans are a lot different than what's going on with their government.
That’s what Brett discovered when watching his good friend’s documentary short.
“I bought into North Korea being this total police state, and then when I saw him on the ice joking around with all those North Koreans and when I saw how much fun he had and how beautiful that place was, I was like, Man, I’m glad he did it,” Brett said.
Frecon was aware of the risks. He returned from North Korea and had friends who wouldn’t talk to him and critics who said he just did it “to go viral.”
“But my look at the world has changed a little bit because I realize more than ever now that everyone is trying to just live their life the best that they can,” Frecon said. “There are a lot of larger forces tugging at each other. But my perception of the world has changed dramatically.”
In total, the trip cost Frecon about $3,500. He says the experience was invaluable.
He spent seven days unconnected from the rest of the world. No cell phone. No internet.
“It was surreal, I came back home and I was like, None of this really matters,” Frecon said. “I’ve got Instagram. I’ve got Facebook. I don’t feel the need to check these anymore. It was cool to be unplugged.”
For the record, Frecon is back on his social media platforms.
He is often asked what far-off land he’s headed to next. Usually, he doesn’t have an answer.
After all, how can an American top playing hockey in secretive North Korea?
Earlier this week, Howe reached out to Frecon about a hockey tour he’s planning next November to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Frecon didn’t hesitate. He’s “super-psyched” and hopes other Americans — particularly Minnesotans — come along for the ride.
“I could use a few more linemates,” Frecon said.
Note: This article was originally published on The Athletic. The full article with related photos and video can be found by CLICKING HERE.
Michael Russo is a Senior Writer who covers the Minnesota Wild and National Hockey League. Before coming to The Athletic, Russo spent 27 years with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Minneapolis Star Tribune and has covered the NHL since 1995. He is a three-time Minnesota Sportswriter of the Year and in 2017 was named the inaugural Red Fisher Award winner as best beat writer in the NHL. Russo can be seen on Fox Sports North and the NHL Network and heard on KFAN (100.3-FM in Minneapolis) and on the Russo-Souhan Show (mnspn.com). Follow Michael on Twitter @RussoHockey.
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