What’s an isolated co-ed boarding school out in the wilds of Western Saskatchewan got to do with hockey in Japan? More than you would believe.
There are various takes on how hockey came to Japan. Some sources say the British pioneered the sport here in the early 1900s. Others say it was the Scarboro Missionary Fathers, a Canadian order of missionaries and educators, who brought the fastest game on ice to Hokkaido in 1905.
Two things, however, are not in dispute: A boarding school in the wilds of Western Saskatchewan, the Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, has had a potent and ongoing influence on Japan’s hockey scene. And along the way, a man who would one day be declared the world’s richest was a pivotal player in the game.
Billionaires, Boarding Schools and Ice
Three-time Canadian hockey Olympian Terry O’Malley begins the tale. “Yoshiaki Tsutsumi had taken over the running of the Seibu/Kokudo conglomerate,” he says, “and he owned a number of recreational properties including rinks, so he wanted to promote ice hockey in the Tokyo area.”
Mega-billionaire Tsutsumi had already recruited Fr. Bob Moran of the Scarboro Order to play after seeing him practice with the Seibu Railway team. After the latter returned home, he asked Moran to find the team more players in Canada. He did, bringing in two outstanding athletes and brothers, Mel and Herb Wakabayashi. As a replacement for himself, he contacted Fr. David Bauer—a towering figure in Canadian hockey—who brought O’Malley along to watch the Japanese team practice at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France, one of the three occasions O’Malley was with the Canadian Olympic squad. Tsutsumi’s representatives were also on hand.
In 1971, O’Malley came to Japan and met Tsutsumi and his people. He became a player-coach for Tsutsumi-sponsored teams for seven seasons in the Japan League and was part of championship squads.
After his professional career ended, O’Malley went on to teach, coach and serve as president at Notre Dame for well over two decades. And that’s when the odd but entirely logical link between the hockey powerhouse on the prairie and Japan was formed. “Shoichi Tomita, the president of the Japan Ice Hockey Federation and who played in the Sapporo Olympics for Japan as a goalie, asked me whether his son, Hiromasa, could come to Notre Dame in the 1979/80 school year,” O’Malley recalls. “He did, and became the first Japanese lad to join the Hounds.”
According to O’Malley, though, the primary go-between for Notre Dame and student-athletes from Japan was his former teammate Herb Wakabayashi, who had left the Seibu squad and started his own business consulting enterprise in Japan.
To date, around forty Japanese students have attended Notre Dame and taken the ice there. They come for the chance to learn English, get a solid education, and go through what is rated as one of Canada’s prime hockey development programs. The school has an Olympic-size ice rink, a state-of-the-art off-ice skills training facility, a high-performance training facility with a certified strength and conditioning coach and an athletic therapist, fully equipped gymnasium and elite coaches with provincial, national and international experience. “It’s a tight-knit community and in a safer setting than is often found in a city,” O’Malley adds..
There’s ample time to bond, forge friendships and focus on studies and hockey at Notre Dame, too, because the school is out in the middle of nowhere, situated fifty kilometers outside of Regina in a village of around two hundred people.
“Shoichi Tomita told me many years later that his wife berated him all the way from Wilcox to Vancouver, crying and lamenting, ‘Where have you sent my first-born son?’ After graduation, though, even his wife seemed to appreciate the adventure.”
Another Japan transplant, Shusaku Izumi, wrote the following about the culture shock of a winter on the prairies for O’Malley’s wife, who taught English as a second language:
Winter in Wilcox
Freezing town in Canada
Not even funny
Two aspects the Japanese students Notre Dame recruited were familiar with, though. One was that students were in charge of keeping the school, dormitories and cafeteria clean. And for a long time the senior students ran life on campus, creating a
The Spartan vibe is strong, and the school is known for developing character and developing leaders. Notre Dame alumni include guys like Rod Brind’Amour, a former NHL All-Star who now coaches the Carolina Hurricanes, and Barry Trotz, most recently coaching the New York Islanders. As another graduate, Jon Cooper, who now coaches the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning team, said: “I joined the college as a boy and graduated a young man.”
On the Japan side, Hiromasa Tomita went on to become an interior design master, joining his father’s firm, Tomita Textiles. Another Japanese grad of Notre Dame, Kojin Nakakita, is the chairman of Hitachi Asia. “Nakakita is also the head coach and general manager of the Japan sledge hockey team that plays in the Paralympics,” O’Malley mentions.
Reviving the Connection
After O’Malley and Barry MacKenzie—another former Japan teammate and teacher, coach and Notre Dame president—left the college, the Japan connection weakened for a spell.
Mike Yoshino, one of the cofounders and owners of the Yokohama Grits pro hockey team, is determined to revive the link. A Notre Dame grad who played at Yale before going pro in Japan for two years as part of the Oji Paper team, Yoshino has a solid hockey pedigree—his father was on the Michigan Tech team that won the NCAA championship in 1965, playing alongside Tony Esposito.
He joined Notre Dame’s Board of Regents in summer 2021 with a particular goal in mind. “We have strong roots in Japan and in Asia generally, and hockey is actually one of the fastest-growing sports in Asia, certainly among females,” he notes, “so we really wanted to revamp those ties and to recruit more students from Asia, particularly Japan.”
Yoshino is working with Takashi Mikoshiba, the general manager of the Grits, to make that happen. “He spent part of his childhood in Vancouver and has strong ties to Japan or so Canada,” Yoshino explains, “and he knows everyone in hockey in Japan and most of the Notre Dame alumni. He’s been super helpful and has taken it upon himself to help Notre Dame expand its reach, even in the midst of this pandemic.”
Fresh Direction and Inspiration
According to Yoshino, women’s ice hockey is incredibly popular in Japan. “And they’re very competitive,” he states. “Interestingly enough, at the recent FISU World University Games in Lake Placid, Japan actually beat the USA 3-1, which is absolutely astounding, and won the silver medal behind Canada. Japan’s head coach is actually a Notre Dame alumnus, a guy named Yujiro Nakajimaya.”
To support that surge in interest and talent, Yoshino, the Grits and Notre Dame decided to sponsor two girls to come to the school’s summer hockey camp last year.
“One of them is on the U18 Japanese national team that’s playing at the World Championships,” Yoshino reports. “She was fourteen then, and according to my daughter this girl was the most dominant player at the camp. The other girl was from Yokohama. We wanted to give them that exposure and create awareness among the ice hockey community in Japan, particularly among the females. I think it was a huge success, and hopefully they’ll come back this summer.”
This is encouraging, because according to Yoshino hockey here has been on a gentle decline since the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano finished, the pro teams funded by corporations began to be a drag on the books, and Seibu’s Tsutsumi was arrested for insider trading. In fact, a recent International Ice Hockey Federation survey pegged the number of registered hockey players in 2019-2020 in Japan at just 18,641.
Despite the ongoing pandemic, Yoshino decided in 2022 that it was time for Notre Dame to pump up its profile in Asia, particularly in Japan. In addition to the two girls who went to hockey camp that summer, he arranged two events in November.
The first was a Notre Dame hockey camp for young Japanese players featuring Grits and alumni coaches. Thirty-two aspiring players ranging in age from 10 to 15 took to the ice at the Grits rink in Yokohama. The second was a gathering that helped twenty-six alumni and friends reconnect and meet future Hound parents and CCCJ members. Plenty of stories were shared before a weekend that brought on-ice action with the Grits playing two games. The first day was declared “Notre Dame Day.”
With that kind of energy applied, hockey in this country may regain some of its allure and its players may reach a higher level. And to a significant degree, it’ll have a school in rural Canada to thank for that.