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Alex Frecon is a 30-year-old copywriter and musician living in the Twin Cities. It’s hard to describe how much he enjoys playing hockey — beer league, he calls it. So, I'm going to let him tell you...in song.
Last March, Alex took a plane to Pyongyang, North Korea, handed his passport over to his tour guides and stayed for a week. How did he get such a crazy idea?
"Yeah, that's a question, surprisingly enough, I get a lot," Alex says. "I was on the internet — specifically, I was on this website called Reddit."
Reddit is an online community. People post stories, rants, articles and web links.
"And I saw this post that simply said, 'Hey, who wants to come to North Korea to play hockey with me?'" Alex says. "And I thought to myself, 'OK, that sounds interesting. Very click-bait-y.' "
The link took Alex to a website for the Howe International Friendship League — a sports tourism organization based in Canada.
"And I x'd out of the window and I didn't think anything of it," Alex says. "I didn't even consider going. I didn't do those kinds of things. Like, I love adventure, but that to me was so foreign."
But somehow, the idea stuck. He decided to reach out to the man leading the trip. His name is Scott Howe.
"My first email was so overwhelming," Alex remembers. "I had questions about the hockey, questions about the travel, questions about the tourism aspect. I mean, it was extensive."
Alex and Scott exchanged 74 emails, and Alex still had a lot of concerns. Here's one you might not think about, unless you’re a hockey player.
"So the game of hockey, a lot of people who enjoy it, they have a great sense of humor. And they love, you know, it's called 'chirping.' It's very playful banter," Alex explains. "But I was under the impression that humor was going to be a no-go there. Be prepared to be questioned, be on-guard all the time. Those kinds of things."
On the other hand, this was the opportunity to play hockey against a national team.
"Does the North Korean national hockey team have a reputation for being good?" I ask.
"Well, that's a very nice way of asking the question," Alex says, laughing. "Let's say their talent has limitations. They're not the best hockey players in the world. Fine. That's fair. But, the prospect of playing against a national team, given my skill level, that opportunity is going to come around once in a lifetime."
Alex jokes a lot about his hockey skills — or lack thereof. But he’s not a guy who likes to lose. So he looked up some videos of his would-be competition on YouTube.
"They were old. But I got a feel," he says. "I was, like, 'OK, I can hang. I think we have a good shot here.' "
'An Elaborate Ruse'
Alex says he wasn’t really thinking about politics. But his decision wasn't easy.
"And I talked at length with Scott about that," Alex says. "As an American, there's a lot to be discussed there.
"To me, the worst-case scenario was, maybe something is said in the political arena that forces the borders to get shut and I get stuck in this country."
Alex decided to go. But he only told two people. And they’re not the people you might have expected.
"I did not tell mom and dad," he says.
As far as his family, his coworkers and his beer league teammates knew, Alex was going on a tour of China: Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
"I remember having to Google things to do in Shanghai and Hong Kong, just in case people asked me," Alex says. "I could be, like, 'Oh, yeah, I'm going to see this!' It was an elaborate ruse. I know. I am ashamed."
Alex’s days were spent researching and planning — both for the trip he was taking and for the trip he was telling people he was taking. He says he didn’t have time to get nervous, until he actually boarded the plane in Beijing that would take him to Pyongyang.
"The airline I took — I believe it's called Air Koryo — is the worst rated airline in the world," Alex says.
The flight was uneventful. Alex landed in Pyongyang and breezed through customs. They didn’t even balk at the camera equipment he brought to document his trip — a gallon-sized zip-lock bag filled with his GoPro camera, extra batteries and memory cards.
In fact, everything went really smoothly, until Alex’s teammates arrived and 17 strangers had to figure out how to play hockey together.
"In an ideal situation, I would have been the worst player on the team. But that was not the case. So we had a great range," he says. "We had one individual — I think it was his second time playing hockey ever. Yeah, and I mean, talk about confidence. Not only are you willing to try a new sport, OK? But you're willing to try that new sport against a national team...in North Korea."
Not long after that revelation, the North Korean team took to the ice for warm-ups. That’s when Alex learned how out-of-date those YouTube videos had been.
"Got out on the ice and I was watching them warm up. And they're all skating in one big circle, very, very fast," he says. "And then, all of a sudden, someone just kinda yells, like, 'Hut.' And they all stop on a dime. And just snow ominously kicks up, all in unison. And I'm thinking to myself, 'OK, we are going to lose. I skated over to Scott and was like, 'We are in some trouble.' And he said, 'Oh, no. We'll be fine.' Well, spoiler: We were not fine."
"The love for the game translates across the world."Alex Frecon
Alex and his teammates lost every single game. And there were a lot of games.
"We played about six hours a day. Three in the morning, three in the evening. And in between then, we would tour all day," Alex says. "You know, it's nonstop."
Filming In North Korea
Alex had only planned to use his GoPro camera during hockey games. He didn’t think his tour guides would allow him to use it outside the rink. But soon he found himself taking it everywhere.
"I'll admit, I was nervous, even though they were telling me it was OK," Alex says. "I would always ask permission. Every time. 'Hey, can I film this? Can I film this?' And they almost started getting annoyed with me, because they kept being, like, 'Yeah, it's fine.' "
So, Alex recorded his time in North Korea, from the three-lane bowling alley, where he bowled with hotel staff, to the bus tours of Pyongyang and the surrounding countryside, to the dinners where he and his teammates were entertained with live music.
"Asian polka is the best way for me to describe it," he says. "But it's awesome."
One day, as the group was visiting Pyongyang’s Hollywood-style movie studio, one of the tour guides, Miss Lee, turned to Alex and asked him a question.
"'Alex, did you see what, um, President Trump said?' And I just, in my mind, I'm like, 'Oh, no. Oh, no. What did he say? Please don’t let him have said anything about North Korea,'" Alex remembers. "And I said, 'No, Miss Lee. You know, my phone doesn't work here. Like, I don't know. What did he say?' "
Turns out — at least on this day — the president hadn’t said anything about North Korea. Miss Lee explained that she’d heard something about the U.S. maybe pulling out of a U.N. humanitarian council. She just wanted to know why. Nothing more ominous than that.
"She wasn’t trying to communicate anything other than curiosity," Alex says. "Our tour guides, especially, were extremely curious about all things United States. They were curious, just like I am. And they asked the same questions I would ask."
The Final Skate
Alex had traveled to North Korea to satisfy his curiosity. But he was also there to play hockey.
The last game of the tournament was a mixed-team scrimmage. The North Korean players took off their national team jerseys, and everyone put on the jerseys of the Friendship League. Alex says, at that moment, the North Korean players, who had been serious and competitive, changed.
"Immediately, I was approached by two players from the national team and they just pointed, you know, one, two and then at me, three," Alex says. "And they pointed to the ice. And I was, like, 'OK, yeah, we just made a line, right there.'
"I think to them it was, like, 'OK, we're so much better than this kid, we're gonna get them to score. Like, that's going to be our joy.' So I got this really awesome cross-ice pass.
"I kinda had this nice, little semi-breakaway. And I shot it right into the goalie's pads. And so I go back to the bench and I sit next to a North Korean player. And I'm just shaking my head and he's kinda looking at me. And I said, 'You know, my shot.' And I motion with my stick. And then I hit my shin pad. 'Oh, I shot it right into his pads.'
"And without missing a beat, he kind of holds up his finger, like, 'No, no, no.' And he motions with his hands between his legs. 'No, no, no. Don't shoot it at the pads. Shoot it between the pads.' He started laughing, and I started laughing. But I realized, like, I just got chirped by a North Korean national hockey player."
"Did you ever think that that would be part of your experience?" I ask.
"No, I never thought that would be part of my experience, and that's why I found it so enjoyable. It was crazy," he says. "The love for the game translates across the world."
After his flight back to Beijing, Alex had a more sobering task: telling his parents where he’d been. So he FaceTimed them from his hotel room.
"And I was, like, 'OK, let's get this over with. I'm nervous,'" Alex says.
After some hesitation, Alex finally told his parents that he had spent the past week in North Korea.
"And then there was silence," Alex says. "Yeah, and I don't blame 'em."
"Did they ever say anything?" I ask.
"I think the first thing my mom ended up saying was, 'Well, that's a goofy thing to do.' You know, it definitely deteriorated from that point. Some of my closest friends didn't want to talk to me for a little bit. It was, for all the positives that came out of this trip, and it was a great experience, you know, a lot of people just didn't know how to respond."
The Friendship League is getting ready to go back to Pyongyang in March for another tournament against the North Korean national team. With the travel ban, it’s no longer possible for U.S. citizens like Alex Frecon to attend — even if they wanted to.
"If, if, if — and I'll say 'if' 50 more times — if I were to ever go back, I would have a full and lengthy discussion with my family beforehand," Alex says. "I love you Mom and Dad. You're the best."
This segment aired on February 10, 2018.
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