. . . Summer 2002
U N A S
S U M I N G , S K I L L F U L , S W I F T , S M A R T , G E N
T L E M A N L Y :
Mel Wakabayashi '66 is perhaps the most unlikely star in the long history of Michigan sports, and surely one of the most inspirational. Despite standing just 5 feet 5 inches, Little Mel, as he was known, led all Michigan scorers his last two years, and was named the hockey team MVP, the league MVP and an All-American his senior year. But there's a lot more to tell than that.
Wakabayashi's story began during World War II. Shortly after the US relocated more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans into squalid internment camps, the Canadian government followed suit. In 1942, relocation administrators removed Wakabayashi's Japanese-born parents, Hatsuye and Tokuzo, and their three children from their modest Vancouver home, taking their few possessions from them in the process. A year later, Hatsuye gave birth to her fourth child, Mel, in the barren camp.
The government kept the Wakabayashis and the other Japanese-Canadians in the camp until the war ended. In spite of the obviously unwarranted cruelty of the move, Wakabayashi's parents rarely talked about it.
"And when they did," Wakabayashi recalls, "they gave it to us as a positive thing, not a negative. They'd say, 'If we were in Japan, your father would probably have to go to war and we probably wouldn't be able to eat, and we would have no shelter.'" Wakabayashi inherited his parents' remarkable ability to turn injustice into opportunity without bitterness, a trait that has served him well throughout his life.
After the war the Wakabayashi family, now with eight children, moved to Chatham, a small town of 30,000 surrounded by Ontario farmland. To support his family, Wakabayashi's father worked long hours in a local cosmetics factory. "It was very loud and smelly," Wakabayashi says. "I didn't go there very often." Although the Wakabayashis had to contend with a tight budget and a "few little [racial] incidents, it was a good life," Mel insists.
When Al Renfrew '49, U-M's coach back then, first came into contact with the family, he was struck by the depth of their community spirit. "The Wakabayashis had eight kids, and not a lot of money, I think," he says, "but they had a big New Year's party every year. Seemed like the whole town of Chatham was there."
Mel and his younger brother Herb spent whatever free time they had playing baseball, street hockey and pond hockey with a Black guy down the street named Eddie Wright. The trio formed what the white guys called the "international line" on the Chatham Junior Maroons. Mel's reputation soon preceded him. Wilf Martin '65, a future pro who played for the Regina Pats before coming to Michigan, remembers a diminutive Japanese player from Chatham "making a fool of the All-Star team in Regina." Word spread.
"Of course I dreamed of playing in the NHL one day," Wakabayashi says, "but knowing my size, I didn't think it would ever be a reality. I really didn't expect to sign any contracts, or even go to the U of M."
But other Chatham natives like Larry Babcock '63, Al Hinnegan '62 and Ron Coristine '64 had gone to Michigan and done very well, with Babcock captaining the 1962-63 team. Wakabayashi suspects one of them-he's still not sure who-sent word to Renfrew that there was another player back home he might want to take a chance on.
In the fall of 1963, when Wakabayashi entered Canada's grade 13 to take "all these courses I didn't want to take," Renfrew came up to see one of his games. Wakabayashi had no idea the coach was in the stands-or even who he was-but he performed well enough for Renfrew to approach the young center after the game and initiate a conversation Wakabayashi remembers well.
"He asked me if I had any interest in going to Michigan. I said, 'I can't afford to go, no way, and if it is difficult to get in, that could be another problem,'" Wakabayashi recounts. "My grades were only so-so, because I concentrated on sports in high school. Well, he brought me down to Ann Arbor to see the campus and take the SAT, and I did okay."
In January 1963, Wakabayashi settled in Ann Arbor as a college student. "It was not a dream come true, because I didn't even let myself dream of it," he says. "It was just unbelievable! Obviously, it changed my whole life."
Due to freshman ineligibility, Wakabayashi could not join the team until January 1964. "The year off was really good for me because I was worried that I couldn't make the team," he says. "But seeing the players from Chatham do so well gave me a little confidence." The wide-open style of college hockey in those days suited his breakaway speed; nevertheless, he says he was surprised to make the team.
"The college game was made for him," asserts former teammate
Dean Lucier '67. "He's the best player I've ever stepped on the ice
with, for or against, and that includes [NHL stars] Tony
Esposito and Keith
Magnuson. He had tremendous team sense."