Despite cancer battle, DYHA coach Wakabayashi staying motivated
As the director of goalie instructions for the DYHA Jr. Sun Devils, Hiroki Wakabayashi works with all of the program’s netminders to improve their skills in the crease and how to help their team fight to win a hockey game.
Truth be told, Wakabayashi is in a fight much bigger than one fending off a puck as his battle with multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer, continues.
After experiencing back pain last July, Wakabayashi kept his daily routine, but during a private goalie session in Arizona, one of the players’ dad, who is a physician, asked him to come to his office for an X-ray.
“He called me a few days later with a very nervous voice to inform me my spine was broken in many places,” said Wakabayashi. “After many lab draws, scans and a biopsy, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and started chemotherapy in November. It was very tough for the first few months for my wife (Jun) and I as my back was killing me with broken bones and spasms. I lost four inches in my height and dealt with side effects from the chemo.
“I kept going on the ice despite that, walking like a penguin and coaching goalies with the help from my assistant goalie coaches. Thanks to the chemo, my condition got better around January. The pain is minimal, and I can skate slowly now.”
Wakabayashi is finishing up the final cycle of the six-month chemo treatment plan. He plans to undergo a stem cell transplant in May even though he has been told the cancer is incurable.
“I really hope this COVID-19 situation slows down by then as my immune system will go down close to zero during the transplant,” Wakabayashi said. “This infection could be fatal for me.
“For hockey people, it’s like killing a penalty. Cancer somehow developed from within me even though I don’t like it. Instead of feeling sorry for myself and trying to beat it like a nemesis, I just have to accept it as a part of life like killing penalties in hockey. I just have to focus on playing smart and solid penalty killing one shift at a time to save my life.”
A GoFundMe has been set up for Wakabayashi: https://www.gofundme.com/f/friends-of-hiroki
“I’ve been so blessed to have so many people around the world, especially from the hockey community, supporting me to go through this situation,” he said.
Originally from Osaka, Japan, where he started playing hockey as a forward, Wakabayashi has also worked as a goalie instructor in junior and college hockey, as well as with the Jr. Coyotes and San Jose Jr. Sharks.
He joined DYHA prior to the 2018-19 season.
“(DYHA hockey director) Brad McCaughey gave me an offer to come here and the first thing he said to me in the job interview was he was looking for someone to take initiative to structure the comprehensive goaltending development program for the club,” said Wakabayashi. “This approach is totally different from ‘bringing a goalie guy in and giving him five minutes of warmup time in front of the net,’ so I loved his idea. It didn’t take much time for me to take the offer.”
Last month, Wakabayashi was appointed by USA Hockey as a Rocky Mountain District goaltending development leader, where he will help out with various USA Hockey events, such as goalie clinics in Arizona.
“It’s a great strategy of USA Hockey to include the local freelance goalie coaches like myself so they can reach more goalies, coaches and parents to deliver their programs and philosophies,” said Wakabayashi. “I love what I’m doing with DYHA now and Arizona is where my wife and I want to live so I plan to stay with DYHA for a long time. I’m also excited to start working with USA Hockey.”
— Matt Mackinder
(May 6, 2020)