Brian Swane, Special to Canada West
In 1989, Stacey Wakabayashi was at the pinnacle of amateur hockey.
His resume already included a WHL championship, a Spengler Cup title, and a University Cup gold medal, and now he was capping his career at the University of Alberta by leading the country in scoring while being named the most outstanding university hockey player in Canada.
Pro hockey would surely seem the high-scoring centre’s next step. The big league was, after all, the dream of every player, and Wakabayashi had shown better than most of them.
Except the education student thought differently than pretty much all of them.
“There were opportunities to try and play in the minor systems on the farm teams and to play over in Europe,” says the native of 100 Mile House, B.C.
“But that experience (at the U of A) was so positive, and I thought I had done as much as any amateur player could do … by the end of my fifth year I was ready to enter into my teaching career and without any regrets.”
Not a moment has been spent looking back at what might have been since Wakabayashi stepped off the ice and into the teaching profession, returning from Edmonton to British Columbia, nearly 30 years ago. For the past decade he has served as senior teacher consultant for the Provincial Outreach Program for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (POPFASD).
“It’s tremendous having the opportunity to travel the province and share effective teaching practices with any educator in B.C. who wants to listen to us,” says Wakabayashi, who previously worked as a special education and elementary school teacher.
“It’s been such an amazing experience to take what I learned from teaching regular classrooms in a challenging setting and sharing that knowledge, skills and experience with other teachers around teaching kids with that particular disability.”
Wakabayashi’s hockey career was as a short as it was spectacular. In his one full season of major junior hockey, with Kamloops, he piled up 32 goals and 70 points in the regular season and helped the Junior Oilers win their first President’s Cup. He then made the jump to university, where Alberta competed at the national championship in four of his five seasons, winning it all in 1986. A three-time Canada West First Team All-Star, Wakabayashi set the conference career records for goals (107), assists (143), and points (250), the latter of which still stands today.
His 1988-89 campaign ranks alongside any other in the annals of Canadians university men’s hockey. Wakabayashi was tops in the nation with 111 total points, including 79 in the regular season, which remains the second highest such total in Canada West history. Awards came aplenty from near and far: Senator Joseph A. Sullivan Trophy (outstanding university hockey player in Canada); The Hockey News Canadian University Player of the year; Wilson Challenge Trophy (U of A’s most outstanding male athlete); and UBC Hockey Alumni Trophy (recognizing sportsmanship and ability in Canada West).
“I was reluctant to receive those recognitions, because to me that was just my role on the team,” Wakabayashi says. “My role on the team was to produce offensively, and my contribution was no more than the guys that were penalty killers or hard-working checkers, and our goaltenders. My role just happened to be the one where you typically get some of that recognition.
“For me, all of those individual recognitions and accomplishments are simply a reflection of people around me, and that’s how we’re all taught.”
For that, he credits legendary Golden Bears coach Clare Drake. The two met at a hockey camp when Wakabayashi was just 14, and stayed in touch, with Drake sending a card to the player every year, even after Wakabayashi had reached the WHL.
While he loved being part of the Oilers and had junior eligibility remaining when he won the championship as an 18-year-old with Kamloops in 1984, Wakabayashi was already a year removed from graduating Grade 12 and didn’t want to be out of school for long.
The decision of whether to enter university took some thought. The decision of where to enroll did not.
“Because of that connection with coach Drake, there wasn’t a question, Alberta is where I wanted to go” says Wakabayashi, who found that not only did the future Hall-of-Famer live up to his huge reputation – he exceeded it.
“I’d only met him at a two-week camp, and even then as a kid, I remember hearing other adults talking about this guy as a hockey genius, so that was kind of my impression of him, and I knew he was a good human being because here I was, this kid from 100 Mile House, and he just continually checked in with me, so those little things really stood out for me,” Wakabayashi says.
“When I got (to the U of A) it was a very different world from the junior hockey world and what strikes you the most was the culture he creates there, and it’s the reason why that program was so successful and continues to be, because that culture was there.”
In 1987, Wakabayashi joined Drake on Team Canada at the Spengler Cup in Davos, Switzerland. Canada defeated Krylya Sovetov Moscow 4-3 in overtime on New Year’s Eve to capture the title.
“That for me was the closest I’ll get to the Olympics,” he says. “It was a tremendous opportunity to represent Canada at such a prestigious tournament over there, and everything about it was such an amazing experience.”
It’s perhaps fitting that when Wakabayashi effectively hung up his skates in 1989, Drake retired from coaching.
“He asked me about carrying on (as a player) because there was a part of him that felt that I should,” recalls Wakabayashi, who graduated with a Bachelor of Education.
“(But) through my time at the U of A volunteering with kids with special needs, I had made my decision that this was where I needed to go and what I needed to do and was something that was very important to me.”
“I feel very lucky that my hockey experience was nothing but positive,” Wakabayashi says. “It’s so much about timing and luck and I truly feel like I was one of the very fortunate players who had a positive experience every single year from the time I left minor hockey to the time I chose to give up the hockey and enter a very different world.”
About the CW Alumni Spotlight
Each year a new crop of Canada West student-athletes graduate and begin to make an impact in their communities as professionals. The CW Alumni Spotlight series looks to highlight the positive impact former CW student-athletes are making in communities across Western Canada and beyond.
Canada West – training leaders, building champions.