Two brothers born in Canadian internment camps, Mel and Herb Wakabayashi, became hockey phenoms at American universities before the world’s richest man enticed them to come skate in Japan, spurring an enduring sporting legacy that still links the two nations.

No one could have anticipated that two Canadian brothers of Japanese ancestry born in confinement during World War II would someday become symbols of how athletes and sport can unite nations—and electrify hockey fans on two disparate shores. 

Just as in the U.S., Canada unfortunately chose the dark path of confining citizens of Japanese descent in internment camps soon after that war broke out. Mel (Hitoshi) Wakabayashi was born in a camp in Slocan City, BC in 1943; his brother Herb (Osamu) made his world debut just before Christmas 1944 in Ontario in Neys Camp 100.

Barred from returning to British Columbia in the early postwar years, the Wakabayashi family of ten—including three boys and five girls—eventually settled in Chatham, Ontario. Mel and Herb picked tomatoes and hauled sacks of flour in their teens, helping them to power up for baseball in the summer and hockey in the winter. Their home was also a neighbourhood gathering place, and the Wakabayashi kids in general were recognized from an early age as something special.

At around five and a half feet tall and 160 pounds, though, Mel and Herb had to be smart, slick, quick and focussed to dominate on the ice. They were both forwards, not built to rumble but to pass and score.

Ferguson Jenkins, Canada’s first Baseball Hall of Famer, grew up just a kilometre away from the Wakabayashi clan. He played ball with Mel on a championship junior team, and once remarked that if Mel had been six feet tall he’d have been in the NHL. And that was in an era when pro hockey only had six teams.


University Days

Their passing, playmaking and scoring abilities on the Chatham Maroons junior team brought the brothers a lot of high-level attention from universities down south. In 1963, the University of Michigan scouted Mel, and he joined the Wolverines under a scholarship. 

Boston University recruited Herb a few years later. Herb was a first-team All-American as a junior with the Terriers, and duplicated that feat as a senior. Herb set an Eastern College Athletic Conference record in his rookie year for most assists in a season—51—and scored 16 goals as well. His record for assists at Boston U—ninety—still stands. 

Along with Eddie Wright, his best friend from back in Chatham, and Serge Boily, Herb played on what was referred to as the United Nations Line, since Wright was black, Boily was from French-speaking Quebec, and Herb was of Japanese descent. The trio were master penalty-killers, frustrating opponents to no end. 

Meanwhile, Mel went on to lead the Wolverines to the NCAA title in 1964, scoring two goals in the final contest to beat the University of Denver 6-3. His time on the ice also included playing against Michigan Tech, with Tony Esposito in the net. For some reason, Mel noted, he could score on Esposito easily. As a senior in 1966, Mel was the leading scorer in the WCHA, and was named the league’s Player of the Year. 

Mel also played baseball at Michigan as a second baseman. He made the All-Big Ten Conference squad in 1967 and was invited to the Detroit Tigers spring training camp in his final year, but that opportunity didn’t pan out. Unfazed, he signed with the Detroit Red Wings and played on their farm team, the Memphis Red Wings, and for the Johnstown Jets in the Eastern Hockey League. 

Around the time the Red Wings invited him to fall camp that year, however, an unexpected call came from Japan. The Japan Ice Hockey League (JIHL) was entering its second year. Would he be interested in playing there?

Mel didn’t speak any Japanese, but he grabbed the opportunity, becoming the league’s second foreign player.


On Japanese Ice

Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, then recognised by Forbes magazine as the world’s richest man and the head of the massive Seibu Corporation, had an unusual passion for ice sports. In fact, his first business venture in 1956, while still at university, was to open the Karuizawa Skate Center in Nagano. After inheriting control of Seibu, he became interested in hockey. Part of that was practical—he had a string of skating rinks and wanted to do something more with them.

But that wasn’t all, according to Terry O’Malley, a three-time Olympian for Team Canada and teammate in Japan of both Wakabayashi brothers at one time. “Tsutsumi was actually crazy about hockey,” he recalls. “I mean, he ran 200 companies and had 200,000 employees, but he’d go to games and even practices. It must have puzzled a lot of people.”

So Tsutsumi started his own team, Seibu Tetsudo, and entered the fledgling JIHL. Determined to gain an edge on the competition in the six-team league, he began a hunt for superior foreign players. 

Bob Moran, a coach and advisor to the Japanese national team who served as an advisor to the squad during the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, and again in 1972 in Sapporo, was the one who scouted Mel and later Herb to play for the Seibu Tetsudo team. Tsutsumi had asked him to introduce Japanese-American hockey players, but Moran knew that Tsutsumi would love the Wakabayashis.

Tsutsumi later headed up the Japan Olympic Committee, and used his influence to bring the 1998 Winter Games to Nagano. He was voted into the builder category of the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame in 1999. An insider trading scandal six years later, however, weakened his influence in many arenas, including hockey.


Teammates, Rivals and Friends

Both Terry O’Malley and Barry MacKenzie, who’d played with and against the brothers, were in Tokyo last November to pay tribute to Mel Wakabayashi, who’d recently passed away at the age of eighty. (Herb had died in 2015 at seventy.) The event drew around 130 people, including many former teammates, to the reception.

“Both of them were wonderful, wonderful people,” O’Malley says. “I talked about Mel at his tribute, and I couldn’t say enough positive things about him. Mel was an artist and a racehorse, a thoroughbred, and he played with real joy.”

When O’Malley first came to Japan in 1971, he played with both Mel and Herb on the Seibu Tetsudo team. “Tsutsumi later decided to create a second team because he wanted to make Tokyo a strong center for hockey,” he says, “so he split the team up, with Mel and I going to the Kokudo Keikaku team.”

O’Malley recounted one game when Mel was playing against the Oji Seishi team. He’d scored goals in the two top corners and the two bottom corners. “Their goalie, Otsubo, was so incensed that when Mel got another breakaway and put his head down to control the puck Otsubo charged out of his net almost to the blue line and slid him through the puck. Mel was so shocked that he couldn’t do a thing.” 

Barry MacKenzie came over three years later and joined Herb on the Seibu team. A two-time Olympian for Canada in 1964 and 1968, winning bronze in the latter Games, MacKenzie played with Herb for three years starting in 1974.

“Mel was a very aggressive racehorse, and Terry and I were the Clydesdales,” MacKenzie recalls with a laugh. “My job was to stop Mel from scoring. He was very talented, good vision, and could score. In fact, the only one in the league that could really control Mel was Herb. He anticipated what Mel was going to do. Mel gave Herb a hard time too, though.”


Five Rings

Herb went on to skate in three Olympics for Japan from 1972 onward. He scored three goals that year in the Sapporo Winter Games, spurring wins over Yugoslavia and West Germany. At Innsbruck, Austria in 1976, he scored two more and had three assists in two victories. In 1980, he carried the Japanese flag during the opening ceremonies at Lake Placid, NY, with Mel looking on as Japan’s coach and their proud parents in the stands.

Herb played sixteen seasons in Japan, and was a player/coach on several national teams. After retiring as a player, he coached Seibu’s squad and served as a director for the Sapporo Ice Hockey Club. 

After hockey, Herb became a director at a golf club manufacturer, Miura Golf, and later set up the firm’s headquarters in Vancouver—a full-circle journey for the Japanese-Canadian lad from Chatham, linking Japan with Canada yet again. 

Mel ended up playing eleven seasons in the JIHL, primarily for the Kokudo Bunnies, and was nearly always a scoring leader. He later coached Japan’s national team at world competitions, chief among them the 1980 Winter Olympics. He coached in Japan until 1994, when Tsutsumi hired him as the president of Seibu Canada, primarily to oversee the flagship Westin Prince Hotel in Toronto. 

The Tohoku Free Blades take on a Korean team, High1, in 2011

The Next Generation

Bart Wakabayashi, the son of Herb Wakabayashi, had a hockey career in Japan that was intentionally short. “I played for the Shinagawa Juniors, which was the big team back then, through elementary school,” he recalls. “I was disenchanted with the Japanese style of play, though—practice for two hours and use a puck for ten minutes. I got away from it then, but later played club hockey in college.”

Instead, he got into the financial world. “I currently work for State Street Bank and Trust, a Boston-based custodial bank, as its representative in Japan and as its Tokyo branch manager,” Bart says.

While Mel’s son Chris stayed longer on the ice, he decided that coaching was his calling. “While I was at the University of Michigan, I played club hockey in Blenheim during my freshman year and then for a year at Michigan, but I knew I wasn’t going to be a great player like Herb or Mel,” he notes. “I love the game, though, and I’ve always wanted to be a coach. I started coaching a high school team in Michigan, coached in the North American Junior Hockey League for a while, and then came to Japan.”  

After ex-Calgary Flames and Team Canada coach Dave King signed with Japan to head up Japan’s national and Nagano Olympic team in 1997, Tsutsumi basically assigned Chris as King’s translator in the middle of the team’s first camp in Sapporo. 

“I actually never played a game in the Japan League or even registered in the league,” Chris explains, “but it was a good way to learn how to coach hockey from Dave. I was going to every camp, and then I went to the Asian Winter Games and the world championships and the Netherlands and so on.”

Chris has been coaching professionally in Japan since the 2002-03 season with Kokudo, the Seibu team (later called the Seibu Prince Rabbits), and the Tohoku Free Blades. He was the head coach or general manager of the latter team, which competes in the Asia League, from 2011 until the 2022-23 season. He also coached Japan’s national team in many world championship competitions over the years. During that period, squads he led or helped coach won a world championship (2003-04) and five Asia League championships (between the 2004-05 and 2014-15 seasons).

“Now I’m a general manager and executive director of the operating company that owns the Free Blades, the Tohoku Ice Hockey Club,” Chris says. “We’re up in Aomori Prefecture in Hachinohe City. When the team was formed in 2009, we drew several players from the Seibu Prince Rabbits team.” 

The Asia League currently includes a team from South Korea, and also had one from Sakhalin before Russia invaded Ukraine.


Remembering Their Fathers

What was it like to grow up as the son of a star athlete in Japan playing an atypical sport?

“There were times when we were completely anonymous and other times in certain areas where we would be surrounded by people,” Bart says. “Japan was a very different place in the late sixties and seventies. And I could pick my Mom—a blonde from the States—out in a crowd from across the arena, even at Yoyogi National Stadium when it was packed. There was definitely tons of pride going to the games, though, and fun meeting all the other foreign players that came over, like Terry O’Malley and Barry MacKenzie.”

Chris Wakabayashi doesn’t remember much of his father’s playing career, which ended because of bad knees and an eye injury. “It’s more his coaching years, and he wasn’t around much,” he notes. “I remember that when he was home, though, it was like Christmas. Back then they were in a dorm, and would be gone until that tournament or series was finished.”

Bart recalls his Dad as tough. “And Mel was the same. They did not have an easy upbringing. Chris and I were very close to our grandparents, and they were very open about their experiences of where the boys were born and the time in the camp. Dad said that he and Ferguson Jenkins would hang out on Saturdays, go to the movies and walk the streets. It they heard a racial slur, they responded with their fists. 

“Mel and Dad represented Japan, and in all humbleness what they did for the sport of hockey in Japan was amazing,” Bart continues. “Dad was always giving back. He ran a lot of hockey camps all over Asia.” 

Chris Wakabayashi echoes those sentiments. “Dad always said he was grateful for having that opportunity, to travel all around the world with hockey and experience the Olympics,” adds. “He was always looking to give back and make a difference.” 

According to the Japan Ice Hockey Federation, Mel made a significant contribution to the Japan women’s national team that played in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. And just before he passed away, the federation gave Mel its Special Achievement Award, which Chris received on his behalf.

That spirit and legacy may even continue with the newest generation. Chris mentions his son, who’s fourteen. “He’s in a hockey school called the Canadian International Hockey Academy in Rockland, Ontario. And my daughter, who’s in fifth grade, plays hockey here.”

Maybe we’ll be reading about their exploits on the ice someday.