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Mel Wakabayashi the University of Michigan's hockey team to a national championship in 1964. After a brief North American hockey career, he was recruited for the fledgling Japan Ice Hockey League in 1967.Handout

Mel Wakabayashi, who has died at 80, was an athletic star from Ontario who became Japan’s top hockey player before coaching the country’s Olympic team.

Born in a wartime internment camp in the British Columbia Interior, Mr. Wakabayashi grew up in Chatham, Ont., where he was a star on the rink, at the baseball diamond and on the football gridiron.

He attended a spring-training camp with the Detroit Tigers and played professional hockey for a Detroit Red Wings farm team. But at 5-foot-6, 155 pounds, he was small even by the standards of his era. His stature likely denied him an opportunity to enjoy a professional sporting career in his Canadian homeland.

“What a great athlete he was,” said Ferguson Jenkins, the first Canadian to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. The two played on the same baseball and hockey teams as teenagers.

“If he had been six-foot tall, he would have been in the NHL. He could stickhandle, he could skate, he was quick. He really knew the game, too.”

A remarkable career in American college hockey included leading his University of Michigan team to a national championship in 1964. In four seasons with the Wolverines, Mr. Wakabayashi was assessed a single minor penalty, showing uncommon sportsmanship in an often brutal game.

Melvin Hitoshi Wakabayashi was born in an internment camp at Slocan City, B.C., on April 23, 1943. His parents, Hatsuye (née Nichizaki) and Tokuzo Wakabayashi, a mill worker, and their three children had been forced from their home in the Vancouver neighbourhood of Kitsilano a year earlier. The family later was transferred to Neys Camp 100, a prisoner-of-war camp in Ontario, where another son, Herb, was born.

Barred from returning to the West Coast at the end of the war, the Wakabayashis lived in Fort William before the family of eight children (three boys, five girls) moved to Chatham, where the father got a job in a rendering plant.

Mel shone as an athlete even at a young age. The Bantam All-Stars, sponsored by Branch 431 of the Canadian Legion, won a provincial baseball title for Chatham in 1956 with the 13-year-old Mel at shortstop and Fergie Jenkins in the outfield.

On the ice, young Mel showed great scoring talent. In one 1961 junior B game, the centre scored six goals and added four assists as his Chatham Junior Maroons defeated the Leamington Flyers, 14-0.

Word of the slick, razzle-dazzle centre caught the attention of Toronto-born coach Al Renfrew, who recruited Mr. Wakabayashi to the University of Michigan on a scholarship. The Wolverines won the National Collegiate Athletic Association championship in 1964 when Mr. Wakabayashi scored two goals to help Michigan defeat the University of Denver 6-3.

His style depended on speed and the legerdemain of stickhandling, and he found much open ice in the freewheeling college hockey of the era. In his junior year, he led the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in scoring and was named an All-American. In his senior year, he was named the association’s most valuable player.

At Michigan, he also lettered in baseball, earning an invitation from the Tigers to attend spring training in Florida.

Mr. Wakabayashi’s brief professional hockey career in North America included two games with the Memphis Red Wings in Tennessee and 21 games with the Johnstown Jets in Pennsylvania, where he scored an impressive eight goals and 18 assists.

In 1967, he was lured to Japan as the first foreigner recruited for the fledgling Japan Ice Hockey League.

“I spoke no Japanese,” he once told the sportswriter John U. Bacon. “It was not as easy to adapt then as it is now for the foreign players. It was especially tough for me, because I had a Japanese face but not a Japanese mouth. And I didn’t have an interpreter, either, so I had to learn fast.”

As well, he had to adjust to a coaching style in which individual flair was less well regarded than team effort. Even the fans took getting used to: Some games were played on outdoor rinks and disgruntled supporters were known to toss empty sake bottles at players.

Mr. Wakabayashi spent 12 seasons with Seibu Tetsudo Tokyo and the Kokudo Bunnies, for whom he was a playing coach. He led the league in scoring in three seasons and was named the league’s MVP in 1972.

In 1969, he was a star attraction as Seibu embarked on a gruelling, month-long, transcontinental tour of Canada, playing 17 exhibition games in eight provinces.

Mr. Wakabayashi coached the Olympic team at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. His brother Herb was a star player and carried the Japanese flag during the opening ceremonies. Their parents were also in attendance.

It was a tough tournament for Japan, which lost 16-0 to the Soviet Union, 6-3 to Finland, 6-0 to Canada and 5-1 to Poland. A 3-3 tie with the Netherlands was a lone bright spot.

Mr. Wakabayashi was inducted into the Chatham Sports Hall of Fame in 2005. He joined Mr. Ferguson and other bantam baseball teammates when their team was honoured by the same sports Hall in 2007. As well, he was named one of the 50 all-time greatest players in his collegiate association’s 50-year history in 2002. He was inducted into the athletic department’s wall of honour in 2006 at the University of Michigan.

After retiring as a player, he became president of Seibu Canada, managing hotels in Toronto and Anchorage, Alaska, before returning to Japan. He was also an executive of the Japan Ice Hockey Federation.

Mr. Wakabayashi died of colorectal cancer in Tokyo on July 9. He leaves his wife, Suzuko Wakabayashi; a son, Chris Wakabayashi; a daughter, Lisa Murakami; and four grandchildren. His hockey-playing brother, Herb, died in Sapporo, Japan, in 2015.

Mr. Wakabayashi remembered the circumstance of his lone collegiate penalty even decades later. He had bumped with an opposition skater, who lost his balance and fell to the ice, resulting in a tripping penalty for the pacifist player.

“Since I started playing hockey in peewee,” he told Mr. Bacon in 2002, “my coaches really banged it into my head that I was supposed to score goals, not try to knock the big guys around and end up getting hurt, or getting a penalty. I remember very clearly the feeling of sitting in that penalty box – and how much I realized I didn’t like sitting in that box.”

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