By Brad Schlossman
GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Mas Kawaguchi wasn’t a big storyteller.
So, he rarely brought up his remarkable journey.
Not even his family members heard much about how he was born in British Columbia in 1935, sent to an internment camp for four years in his native country at age 7 because of his ethnicity, moved across the Pacific Ocean to a foreign country at age 12, worked overnight to help support the family as a young teenager, moved back overseas alone at age 17 to the country that once interned him and worked full time, saving money to bring the rest of his family back to Canada — one by one.
It just wasn’t his personality to talk about it.
He was focused on the important things in front of him — namely his four grandchildren.
He wanted to make sure they had everything they needed to succeed. If that meant driving two hours round trip every day just to take them to hockey practice or buying them a piece of equipment they needed, he did it.
He loved watching all of them grow, including his oldest grandchild, Jordan, who is the University of North Dakota hockey team’s leading scorer and one of the best players in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
“He was, obviously, a big influence on my life,” Jordan said. “If me and my brothers needed anything in terms of hockey, he was right on it. If something was a little too expensive, he would make sure we got, at the very least, what we needed.”
Mas died in January after his second battle with cancer.
Jordan found out after UND played St. Cloud State at home on a Friday night.
“That was a tough Saturday,” he said.
The Fighting Hawks upset the top-ranked Huskies the next day, but Jordan’s mind was on Mas, who had a profound impact on his life and whose personal traits have been passed on down the family.
Childhood in British Columbia
Mas was born in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island, but his life was turned upside down as a child after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
The Canadian government began internment camps the following year, removing those of Japanese descent from their homes and bringing them inland.
One November day, authorities arrived at the Kawaguchi home and told the family they had 24-48 hours to pack up to 40 pounds of belongings. They were transported to Hastings Park, which is now downtown Vancouver.
“They didn’t know where they were going or how long they’d be gone for,” Mas’s wife and Jordan’s grandmother Judy said. “It was difficult to pack items. They couldn’t have radios or cameras. They were thought of as suspicious aliens, trying to get in contact with the Japanese. The government was very suspicious of anyone of Japanese descent.”
At Hastings Park, Mas and his younger siblings lived in pig barns until they were transported to Tashme Internment Camp.
Tashme was located just outside of the protected area — a 100-mile stretch inland from the coast where those of Japanese descent were not allowed. The nearest town, Hope, B.C., is about 15 miles west of Tashme.
The living conditions in Tashme were tough.
Residents lived in tar-paper shacks. They had no plumbing, were not insulated and poorly heated. One news report said residents of Tashme often complained that their blankets would freeze to the walls at night.
“The winters were hard,” Judy said.
The war ended in 1945 and Tashme was disbanded in 1946. The protected area remained, though, and those of Japanese descent were told to go east or move to Japan. The Kawaguchis opted to go to Japan.
Working to return to Canada
Mas was becoming a teenager when he arrived in Japan with his parents and five younger siblings — two sisters and three brothers.
Mas’s father, Chonosuke, was a fisherman. Mas worked on his dad’s boat.
“There were so many people in the family, and they had to be fed,” Judy said. “So, Mas would go out in the night and fish with him throughout the night. During the day, he would come back and he would have to go to school. He would be so tired by that time that he would fall asleep in school. The education wasn’t the best.”
But Mas, still a teenager, did what he had to do for his family.
At age 17, Mas decided to return to Canada. A Japanese-owned logging company, Allison Pass Sawmills — located near the grounds of what used to be the Tashme Internment Camp — paid for Mas’s passage and employed him. He was re-patrioted in Canada and immediately began working to save money to bring the rest of his family, one-by-one, back to British Columbia.
He spent most of his time working.
He worked in logging camps. He worked at a gas station.
“Wherever he could find work to support the family, he did,” Judy said. “He even landed a job in Boston Bar and at the mill at Hampton Mills.”
First, he saved enough to bring his mother back.
Then, it was one of his siblings. Then another. One-by-one, he brought all five of his siblings to British Columbia. Mas’s father passed away before he could get him back to Canada, though.
In 1964, Mas married Judy. They lived in an apartment together for the first year, paying $105 a month for rent, which included a television set. The next year, they bought their first house together in Hope. Judy still lives there today, much of the house unchanged.
Becoming a hockey family
Mas and Judy had one child, Todd.
Todd was on skates by the age of 4 and a hockey family was born.
Todd, a goalie, played all the way to the college level at the University of British Columbia. He married his wife, Brandy, a native Californian, and they had four hockey-playing sons. Jordan is the oldest.
Just as he had done all of his life, Mas never stopped supporting the family.
Mas and Judy often drove an hour from Hope to Abbotsford, where Jordan lived, to help bring the boys to hockey practices.
“He always wanted to make sure things were going to be better for his family than what he had,” Todd said.
Jordan’s grandparents on his mother’s side, Al and Ginger, also frequently transported the boys anywhere they needed to go.
When Jordan opted to play junior hockey in nearby Chilliwack, B.C., instead of playing in the Western Hockey League in Spokane, Wash., Mas was able to attend a lot of Jordan’s games. Jordan eventually captained the team and led Chilliwack to nationals.
Jordan’s UND career
Mas was able to experience UND hockey and follow Jordan’s rise to college prominence.
He attended a series on Parents Weekend last season before he was diagnosed with cancer for the second time. During Christmas break last season, Jordan opted to skip the exhibition game against the U.S. Under-18 Team to stay home and be a part of a fundraiser for his grandfather.
Days after Jordan returned to UND, Mas left for Mexico, where a treatment plan was available. But he passed away within three weeks.
The last game Mas watched was UND’s Saturday night game against Omaha. Jordan scored a goal in that game.
“My grandma told me he watched that game,” Jordan said. “Scoring a goal in the last game he watched, that’s pretty cool.”
In Jordan, there are a lot of Mas’s characteristics.
Jordan isn’t the most talkative person, though he has become much more outgoing since his younger days, Todd said. Jordan has a determined work ethic, like Mas, and leadership qualities, evidenced by the fact that his teammates voted him an alternate captain as a junior this season.
Jordan’s hockey career has taken off this season.
He’s been named the NCHC Forward of the Week twice in three weeks. He had six points in a sweep of Miami University last weekend with nearly has entire family watching in Ralph Engelstad Arena — both parents, both grandmothers, his three younger brothers, an aunt and uncle and a cousin.
Jordan enters this weekend’s series as the NCHC’s second-leading scorer with 13 points.
As he chases his future goals — an NCAA national championship at UND and a pro hockey career — Jordan will do so thinking about his grandfather and the incredible life he lived.
“He was so laid back,” Jordan said. “Obviously, hockey is an intense sport and you can’t really be laid back. But when I get older, and when I’m done playing hockey, that’s how I want to be. I want to be laid back, love life and support my family just the way he did.”