By Mel Tsuji JANUARY 25, 2013 http://jccabulletin-geppo.ca
John Onizuka admitted he was very surprised to be honoured at the 50th anniversary celebration last year of the Canadian Japanese Hockey League.
At 85, the retired pharmacist was a long way from his hockey-playing days in Greenwood, BC. He was 14 years of age at the time when he and his family were among the 1,200 Japanese Canadians uprooted from their homes in Vancouver and interned at the then ghost-town of Greenwood.
Yes, you read right. John, or Yuki as he was known then, learned to play hockey in that isolated community. \
“There was already an indoor rink there, but with natural ice,” he said. “The mayor of Greenwood fixed it up for us young kids because he was so happy about getting 1,200 JCs to his town.”
John recounted those days after he was contacted to be part of the Toronto-based league’s 50th anniversary, because the special night was also to be a “Celebration of Hockey” in the JC community.
He wasn’t able to reach any of his Greenwood team-mates at the time¸ but they soon found about the event and though they’re now well into their eighties several of his hockey-playing buddies showed up for an unexpected mini-reunion.
“I hadn’t seen them since those days, so it was nice to get together,” he said.
The anniversary gathering brought together many of Toronto’s hockey oldtimers, who started playing the game in the 1946-47 period in Toronto, after being released from internment camps and arriving with their families in Ontario.
Over 200 former players and their families came to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Canadian Japanese Hockey League, a four-team league that is still going strong today in Toronto.
But as things turned out, the CJHL, as it’s known today, wasn’t the first for JC players. Newly-arrived Nisei teenagers found the colder, winter temperatures in Toronto better suited than BC for outdoor shinny games. And those informal get-togethers led to the formation of their NHL, the Nisei Hockey League that played on the outdoor rinks of Alexandra and Riverdale Parks in the mid-1940s.
The players who started JC hockey in Toronto were the same skaters from Greenwood, including John Onizuka, who went on to play a year in the newly-formed Nisei League then had to give it up to concentrate on his pharmacy studies at the University of Toronto.
John credits his hockey career to the mayor of Greenwood, W.E. McArthur Sr. who, he said, enthusiastically rebuilt the town’s hotels, stores, businesses and especially the hockey rink.
“He was happy because the town had died in the 1930s, when the copper boom went bust,” he said. “So the JCs brought money, business and new prosperity to the town. It also brought jobs to JCs, who worked in the sawmills, which happened to be owned by the mayor.”
Just before the JCs were bussed to Greenwood, the town only had about 200 residents, down drastically from about 10,000 to 20,000 at the turn of the 20th century.
After the Mayor refurbished the local rink, John joined many other JC teens to take up the game of hockey. “It was surprising how fast the fellows picked up skating,” he said. “I wasn’t a very good skater and because of this I tried goal.”
He said he can’t remember how he got goalie equipment, but thinks because he played goal in lacrosse, he must have used the same equipment for hockey.
He said after the Nisei players learned how to play the game and wanted to get more involved, they decided to make up two teams and join the local “hakujin” (white Greenwood players) league. “There was enough equipment to go around and they really enjoyed playing with us,” he says.
Eventually, John remembers the Nisei playing local teams from nearby towns. There are very few accounts of JCs playing hockey during the internment years, but John’s memories coincide with the scenes in the CBC movie, The War Between Us, that showed a Nisei team from an internment camp playing a local Caucasian team.
John said he played about three years in the Greenwood league, then left with his family in 1945 to move to Ontario.
On February 4, 2015, John Onizuka peacefully passed away at the age of 87 surrounded by his loving family at Mackenzie Health Hospital in Toronto, Ontario.