Hitoshi “Mel” Wakabayashi, 80
by Andrew PODNIEKS|14 JUL 2023
photo: © Japan Ice Hockey Federation
Hitoshi “Mel” Wakabayashi, who played for many seasons in Japan before coaching the nation’s Olympic team in 1980, died in his sleep last Sunday at the age of 80. He was predeceased by his brother Herb, a three-time Olympian, who passed away in 2015.
"He's like a superstar in Japan," Yuki Miura told NHL.com last year. Miura, a native of Tokyo, plays in the ECHL and is representative of Wakabayashi’s legacy. "He proved that Japanese hockey players can do anything. He showed that there is a way for Japanese players to show their skills in North America."
Mel’s success in life couldn’t have had a more improbable beginning. He was born in an internment camp in Slocan City, British Columbia, in 1943, and spent his early years at another internment camp in Northern Ontario, where Herb was born. In 1950, the family settled in Chatham, Ontario, where Mel became not only a good hockey player but also a fine baseball player as well.
He was recruited by coach Al Renfrew to play at the University of Michigan in 1964. He fit in quickly, playing for three years and became one of the best players in NCAA hockey. The Wolverines won the national championship in his first season, and Wakabayashi contributed two goals in the team’s 6-3 win in the final game over the University of Denver. A year later, he led the league in scoring, and a year after that he was named WCHA MVP.
Wakabayashi also played baseball for the university and was given a tryout by the Detroit Tigers, but hockey was where his heart was. He signed a contract with the Detroit Red Wings and played briefly in the team’s farm system, but because of his size (5’6”, 150 lbs.) he wasn’t likely going to be a top NHL prospect. As a result, when the chance to play in Japan presented itself in 1968, Wakabayashi took it. The rest is history.
He played in the six-team Japanese league for eleven seasons, primarily with the Kokudo Bunnies, becoming the team’s coach as well in 1972, a year after Herb joined him. During this time, he changed his name from Mel to Hitoshi, and Herb adopted the name Osamu. Their lives and careers culminated at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid where Mel coached the team and Herb played and captained Japan, his third Olympics with his adopted homeland. Herb was also Japan’s flagbearer at the Opening Ceremonies that year.
"That walk into the Olympic stadium, opening ceremony, had to be the finest moment of my life," Mel later recalled. "My parents were there, and you're on world television."
Wakabayashi coached in the Japanese league from 1984 to 1994 and remained involved in the country’s international program as well, working to develop and improve the level of skill among Japanese players. As well, he was a strong supporter of women’s hockey, especially in the lead-up to the Sochi Olympics in 2014. In addition to the 1980 Olympics, Wakabayashi also coached the national senior team at the World Championships four times--in 1978, 1979, 1992, and 1993—when Japan played in B Pool.
In 2006, Wakabayashi was inducted into Michigan’s Hall of Honor for his outstanding college career and was named one of the WCHA’s top 50 players as part of the league’s 50th anniversary celebrations.
The day before his death, Wakabayashi received a Special Achievement Award at a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Japanese federation. His son, Chris, received the award on his behalf.