Exclusive Interview with Chris Wakabayashi, Director of Hockey Operations/Head Coach of the Tohoku Free Blades
The following is from an email interview conducted on August 9, 2015.
Wakabayashi, the name is a legend in hockey on both sides of the Pacific from the college level to the Olympics. From Mel and Herb to Chris, the family continues to influence all facets of hockey.
Where did you grow up and where did you play hockey?
I played minor hockey in many different places. Started in 1st grade when our family moved to Toronto. We lived there for a year and moved back to Japan. Then we moved to Anchorage, Alaska when I was in grade 3 to 6. My family moved back to Japan, but I went to Chatham, Ontario where my father grew up and stayed with relatives and went to junior high school. After graduating I attended Salisbury School in Connecticut for high school.
When I attended the University of Michigan, I knew I would not be good enough to play for them so I played Junior C in Canada with my cousin my freshman year, tried out for the Michigan team my sophomore year and did not make it. In my junior year and senior year I played for fun and started coaching the local high school team and also the Dearborn Heights Nationals in the North American Junior Hockey League. After graduating I joined Kokudo in Japan. After one season I was told by the company that I had to go to the Federation to work and be the interpreter for Dave King and the mens Olympic team for Nagano.
How did you get into coaching?
Well watching my father coach for many years, that is how I got interested in the profession. Working with the national team was a big step towards becoming a coach, but in those days to coach at the highest level, you needed to be a star player which I was not. I was very fortunate to be given the opportunity 13 years ago to be a coach for Kokudo and I have been continuing ever since.
How has the Asia League changed since you started?
Asia League has grown to a certain extent in terms of the product as teams individually try and promote the game. I think the coaching has improved for the domestic coaches because for many years teams had an experienced foreign coach for many years.
What did you think of Sakhalin?
Big, individually skilled, have different skill sets than a typical Japanese player. I thought it was great for the league.
What is the state of hockey in Japan?
Hockey in Japan has been on the decline except for women`s hockey. Schools no longer have enough players to have a team so they merge with other schools in the same situation. This is at the elementary, junior high and high school levels. Also there is a little shift in where kids are starting to play hockey. More kids in the Tokyo area are now playing hockey because the game has become an expensive sport to play.
What players in the Asia League have the best shot at the NHL?
I think there is still a way to go, but the closest Japanese player would be Yushiroh Hirano. He has the size and the best shot in Japan. His passion for the game is great and he is a student of the game, always wanting to learn and get better.
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