Sports & Recreation

Alex Frecon ’09

Passing the Puck in Pyongyang

Alex Frecon and teammate wearing hockey gear pose on ice rink with hockey sticks

Courtesy of Howe International Friendship League

When Alex Frecon ’09 left his home in Minnesota to play hockey against the North Korean men’s national team in Pyongyang in March 2017, he didn’t tell his parents — or anyone else except for two close friends.

“I didn’t want to hear everyone’s opinion,” Frecon says. “I wanted to do it for myself.”

Frecon had read and admired Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” as an English major at UW–Madison after transferring from Connecticut College his junior year. And today, working in advertising in Minneapolis, he retains the nonconformist, seize-the-day spirit the campus gave him. Which might explain how Frecon ended up spending a week on skates in one of the world’s most notorious dictatorships.

In late 2016, Frecon came across an internet link to the Howe International Friendship League, which promotes goodwill sports trips around the world. One of them was an opportunity to travel to Pyongyang and play hockey against the North Korean national team.

“It looked like a real trip,” Frecon says. “But I had no intention of going, originally. It was just so crazy.”

Still, he was intrigued. Frecon had played hockey growing up in Minnesota and recreationally as an adult. He emailed Scott Howe, the league’s founder, and peppered him with questions. Was it even legal for an American to go to North Korea? Could he take his GoPro camera? Yes and yes. Frecon signed up.

In Pyongyang, the visitors were met by English-speaking guides, who were a constant presence during the trip. “If you’re not provocative, they’re very polite,” Frecon says. “They were curious about life as an American.” Frecon found the city to be modern with respect to auto traffic, though lacking in electric stoplights and indoor heat.

The tourist team was outclassed on the ice, but the camaraderie with the North Korean players was the highlight of the trip. Although the Friendship athletes typically competed against their hosts, they did play one game mixing the visitors with the North Koreans. With everyone wearing Friendship League jerseys, laughing, and scrambling after the puck, it might have been an outdoor rink in Minneapolis.

“We knew we had the love of the game in common,” Frecon says. “A government doesn’t always represent its people.”

Afterward, Frecon traveled to Beijing and called his parents.

“They were in a state of shock,” he says. “But I think they came to realize it was a profound experience — a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Published in the Summer 2018 issue


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