Hitoshi "Mel" Wakabayashi, a former top NCAA player who coached Japan's ice hockey team at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, has died at the age of 80 ©University of Michigan

Hitoshi "Mel" Wakabayashi, an influential figure in the development of ice hockey in Japan, has died at the age of 80.

Wakabayashi coached Japan's team at the Lake Placid 1980 Winter Olympic Games, where his younger brother Herb captained the team.

Both were the sons of Japanese-born parents who lived in Vancouver in British Columbia, and who, during World War Two, were placed in a Japanese Canadian internment camp at Slocan City.

Mel was born in the camp in 1943 and Herb followed in 1944 in a camp in Ontario after the family had been moved.

After settling in Chatham in Ontario, both Mel and Herb excelled at ice hockey.

In 1964, Mel was recruited to play at the University of Michigan and established himself among the best National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) players.

In his first season, the University’s Wolverines won the NCAA National Championship with Wakabayashi scoring two goals in their 6-3 victory in the final over the University of Denver.

A year later, he led the league in scoring, and was awarded the Hall Downes Award as the team's Most Valuable Player (MVP) and named a first-team All-American.

Wakabayashi also played baseball at the University of Michigan and was named to the All-Big Ten Conference team as a second baseman.

Mel Wakabayashi was a major figure in Japanese ice hockey, as a player, coach and administrator ©Japan Ice Hockey Federation
Mel Wakabayashi was a major figure in Japanese ice hockey, as a player, coach and administrator ©Japan Ice Hockey Federation

In January 1967, Wakabayashi signed with the National Hockey League (NHL) club Detroit Red Wings and was assigned to play with the Red Wings' farm club in Memphis.

He played in 1967 for the Memphis Wings and the Johnstown Jets but his relatively small size meant he was never given an opportunity in the NHL.

In 1968, Wakabayashi began to play in the Japan Ice Hockey League, mostly for the Kokudo Bunnies.

He won the MVP award and helped the Seibu Tetsudo team remain unbeaten in the 1971-1972 season.

For 11 years, he was regularly among the league's leading scorers.

While still playing, Wakabayashi also became the Bunnies head coach in 1978.

Wakabayashi coached the Japan men's national ice hockey team at several international events, including the 1980 Winter Olympics, having obtained citizenship in 1972.

Brother Herb, appearing in his third consecutive Olympics for Japan, captained the team in a tournament that will always be remembered for the United States' gold medal in a victory dubbed "Miracle on Ice".

Playing in the Red Division, Japan drew one of their matches 3-3 against The Netherlands but lost the other four, including a 16-0 defeat to the Soviet Union.

Before the tournament started, Herb Wakabayashi had carried Japan's flag in the Opening Ceremony with Mel following behind.

"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 continued to coach in the Japanese Hockey League until 1994

He also served as vice-president of the Japan Ice Hockey Federation (JIHF).

Wakabayashi was a strong supporter of women’s hockey, especially in the lead-up to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics when Japan qualified for the first time since the country had hosted the Games at Nagano in 1998.

In addition to Lake Placid 1980, Wakabayashi also coached Japan’s senior team at the World Championships four times - in 1978, 1979, 1992, and 1993.

In 2006, Wakabayashi was inducted into Michigan’s Hall of Honor for his outstanding college career and was named one of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s top 50 players as part of the league’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

The day before his death peacefully in his sleep on July 9, Wakabayashi received a special achievement award at a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the JIHF.

His son Chris had received the award on his behalf.

Herb Wakabayashi died in 2015.