Born: December 23, 1944 (Neys Camp 100, Ontario)
Died: June 2, 2015 (Sapporo, Japan)
Originally published in the Globe and Mail, July 15, 2015
Herb Wakabayashi overcame a diminutive physique to skate in three Winter Olympics as a hockey player — not for his Canadian birthplace, but for his ancestral homeland of Japan.
His achievement was all the more poignant owing to the circumstance of his birth in an Ontario internment camp during the Second World War.
Wakabayashi, who has died of cancer at 70, showed great athletic promise as a youth. He starred on the baseball diamond and on the ice rink in Chatham, Ont. After earning a scholarship to play hockey for Boston University, the 5-foot-5, 160-pound doodlebug forward set collegiate scoring records.
Too small to make the NHL, Wakabayashi joined the Seibu Tetsudo team in Tokyo, where he would enjoy a 16-year career. He became one of the best known and most popular players in Japan, though he had arrived in the country in 1969 unable to speak the language.
He scored five goals with four assists in 11 Olympic games. In 1980, he carried the flag for Japan during the Opening Ceremonies at Lake Placid, N.Y.
A quiet, humble and laid-back personality off the ice, Mr. Wakabayashi was an intense figure on it, skating low while handling the puck to avoid the mayhem intended by larger opponents. He rarely served time in the penalty box.
He was the fifth of eight children born to Hatsuye (née Nishizaki) and Tokuzo Wakabayashi. His father, a labourer, was born in Japan, his mother in Vancouver. They married at the Kitsilano Buddhist Church in Vancouver in 1937, a union arranged by their families.
In 1942, with Canada at war against Imperial Japan, Tokuzo lost his job at a nearby sawmill and the family was ordered from their home and into an internment camp in the British Columbia Interior. A son, named Hitoshi and known as Mel, was born while they were interned at a camp in Slocan City in 1943. The family was moved to Lemon Creek, B.C., and later to Neys Camp 100 in Ontario, a prisoner-of-war camp on Lake Superior, where another son, named Osamu and known as Herb, was born two days before Christmas in 1944.
After the war, the family moved to nearby Fort William, Ont., as they and other Japanese-Canadians were barred from returning to the West Coast until 1949. The family eventually moved to southwestern Ontario, where the father found work at a rendering plant.
The family’s modest home at 9 Degge St., next to railroad tracks in east-end Chatham, housed three boys and five girls. The home was a hive of activity, especially known for playing host to elaborate new year’s festivities. As well, it served as a clubhouse of sorts for neighbourhood youth, among them Eddie Wright, who lived a block away and was known as the fourth Wakabayashi brother.
As teenagers, Herb, Mel and Eddie worked odd jobs, hauling heavy sacks of flour and working the nearby fields picking tomatoes, building muscles they’d use in the sporting arena.
The boys played hockey in winter and baseball in summer. (A peer named Ferguson Jenkins lived a kilometre away; the pitcher would later become the first Canadian to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y.) While Donald Wakabayashi, the eldest brother, shortened his sports career to take a clerking job at the rendering plant, Mel and Herb and Eddie played hockey for the junior Chatham Maroons.
The slick skating and stellar playmaking of the Maroons attracted the attention of American collegiate scouts. Mel got a hockey scholarship with the Wolverines at the University of Michigan in 1963. Two years later, Herb was recruited by coach Jack Kelley to join the Terriers at Boston University. It is said the university’s publicity man complained about the difficulty in learning to spell an unfamiliar name like Wakabayashi. “Wait until you see Herbie play,” the coach replied. “You’ll never forget how to spell it.”
In his rookie season of 1966-67, Wakabayashi scored 16 goals with 51 assists in 31 games, setting an Eastern College Athletic Conference record for most assists in a season. The 5-foot-5, 160-pound centre played on a line with Serge Boily and Maxwell (Mickey) Gray, also of Chatham, a trio dubbed the Pinball Line for the way their crisp passes ricocheted along the ice.
The line had an outstanding tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York in December, 1966, as the Terriers defeated the Princeton Tigers (13-6), Minnesota Gophers (8-5) and New York Golden Knights (3-2). Wakabayashi had a goal and seven assists in the three games.
The following season, Wakabayashi’s childhood friend, Eddie Wright, replaced Mr. Gray on the line, which was renamed the United Nations Line.
“One is Japanese, one French, one a Negro,” wrote the syndicated American sports columnist Red Smith. “All three are Canadians and none of them is much bigger than 65 cents’ worth of liver. Serge Boily (is) the French-speaking giant of the line at 5-foot-9.”
The trio were featured in a filmed report by Heywood Hale Broun on a broadcast of the CBS Evening News in 1968.
Mr. Wright, who stood just 5-foot-4 and weighed only 135 pounds, joined Mr. Wakabayashi as a penalty-killing specialist. The duo would play keep-away — stick-handling and passing the puck between themselves much as they did as kids against older and bigger opponents back home in Chatham. The Terriers credit the pair with 36 consecutive minutes of playing a man short without allowing a single shot on goal.
Despite their great skill, the Terriers’ hopes for a conference and national championship were thwarted during Wakabayashi’s three-year collegiate career by the presence of a lanky goaltender in the nets for rival Cornell University. His name: Ken Dryden.
Wakabayashi was a two-time hockey All American. He was also named his team’s most valuable player, as well as Boston University’s top athlete.
In his senior year, Wakabayashi played baseball for the Terriers, hitting an impressive .367 to lead his team to the regional finals.
Meanwhile, Mel Wakabayashi signed a professional contract with the Detroit Red Wings organization after completing his own stellar collegiate career. After one season in the minors, he moved to Japan in 1967 to skate for a team sponsored by the Seibu Railway Company. After graduating, Herb joined him for the 1969-70 season.
“At that time, (Japanese) hockey was not really as good, not really as physical, and they didn’t know the game, so it was a really huge adjustment for me — the way they played the game, the way they practiced, what the customs were,” Wakabayashi told the Chatham Daily News in 2003.
In 1972, he made his Winter Olympics debut, as Japan played host to the Games in Sapporo. The Japanese finished ninth in the Olympic tournament with Mr. Wakabayashi scoring three goals, including crucial markers in a 3-2 victory over Yugoslavia and a 7-6 win over West Germany. He also had an assist. His parents traveled from Canada to watch him play.
Four years later at the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, Mr. Wakabayashi scored single goals in a 6-4 win over Switzerland and a 4-3 victory over Yugoslavia. He had three assists in that tournament.
In 1980, Wakabayashi was named flag bearer for Japan at the Opening Ceremonies at Lake Placid. Once again, his parents were in the stands to witness their son’s honour.
The 1980 Winter Olympics marked Canada’s return to Olympic hockey competition after a 12-year hiatus in a dispute over the use of professionals. Hobbled by injury, Mr. Wakabayashi was unable to play in Japan’s 6-0 loss to Canada. (His brother, Mel, was Japan’s coach.) The only game in which Herb skated was against the Soviet Union, a mismatch in which Japan trailed by three goals after 10 minutes of play on the way to a 16-0 shellacking. The brilliant Soviet team, who outshot the Japanese by 67-17, featured Vladislav Tretiak in goal, Viacheslav (Slava) Fetisov on defence, and Boris Mikhailov and Vladimir Krutov at forward. (Later in the tournament, the Soviets were upset by a hard-working American team of college players in a game remembered as the “Miracle on Ice.”)
Wakabayashi also skated for Japan in eight hockey world championships, enjoying his best tournament in 1979 with nine goals and seven assists.
In 1982, he replaced his brother as Japan’s national team coach, guiding the team to a 7-0 record at the world championships and a welcomed return to the International Ice Hockey Federation’s B-Pool.
He skated for Seibu until age 40, when he became the team’s coach. He also served as a director of the team, as well as for the Nikko Ice Bucks and the Sapporo Ice Hockey Club.
After retiring from hockey, he became a director of Miura Golf, a company responsible for handcrafting golf clubs at a forge in Himeji, for centuries a city associated with the manufacture of samurai swords. Wakabayashi, often serving as an interpreter, helped establish the company’s sales, marketing and distribution headquarters in Vancouver.
Wakabayashi leaves his wife Miyuki (née Kuramasu), a son, two daughters, three grandchildren, two brothers, and five sisters.
He was inducted into the Boston University Athletics Hall of Fame in 1978 and the Chatham Sports Hall of Fame in 2003. He is also a member of the Beanpot Hockey Tournament Hall of Fame for his outstanding play in the annual tournament among Boston-area schools.
In 2011, Mr. Wakabayashi was named one of 50 top players in the history of the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference, a list including NHL stars like Dryden, Joe Nieuwendyk, Adam Oates and Martin St. Louis.
A trio skating for the Boston University Terriers were known as the United Nations Line, gaining national interest. The three, all Canadians, were (from left) Serge Boily, Herb Wakabayashi and Eddie Wright. The latter two were childhood friends in Chatham, Ont.