In the informal play that is the end of practice the Toronto Marlies resort to kids’ games.
Sometimes they cluster in a tight group. Then one player tosses a puck into the air. They squish tighter and wait to see whose helmeted head the puck will find.
Other times one player flicks a puck waist-high toward a teammate who tries to hit it with a baseball-style swing.
Usually they cluster around a net and rattle off hundreds of shots at their 23-year-old goalie, Mark Owuya.
That Owuya will not come out of the net until he has faced every shot is one of the countless habits ingrained in the daily existence of this particular hockey team.
“I’ve never seen a goalie take as many pucks and he doesn’t give up on any,” said Marlies captain Ryan Hamilton. “He never wants to leave the net. Off the ice, after practice, he’s got one of the best work ethics I’ve ever seen.”
Owuya has only played six Marlie games this season. His save percentage of 8.60 and goals against average of 3.31 are poor but his body of work is slim. His hunger to get better, on the other hand, is prodigious.
“If I get off the ice and I don’t feel absolutely bagged, I don’t feel good about myself,” Owuya said. “People talk about working hard but to me that’s the best part. “
It is the perfect Canadian hockey story.
Owuya’s father James was a Ugandan immigrant who spent the first half of his life oblivious to hockey and the second half trying to understand his son’s obsession with the game.
He would meet his wife, Olga after leaving the country of his birth. Soon, their son would be enraptured by the sport he saw everywhere in their newly-adopted country: hockey.
“It was about Grade 1,” remembers Owuya. “A kid showed me his Dominik Hasek hockey card. From that moment, I wanted to be a goalie.”
After his parents split his mom found money for equipment, clinics and ice time. Ferrying him to games meant putting thousands of kilometres on the family car. The kid’s love of the game took hold in his younger brother.
The perfect Canadian story but for one detail: Owuya didn’t grow up in Ontario or the prairie but instead a suburb of Stockholm.
The trace elements of Mark Owuya’s story go back to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Between 100,000 and 500,000 Ugandans were murdered by Amin’s police and security forces from 1971 to 1979. Canada and Uganda have roughly the same population, about 34,000,000.
“I knew of one minister, he wasn’t someone the authorities wanted but he was with someone who was,” said James Owuya. “They never found the remains of either man. Not even their bones.”
James’ parents were schoolteachers. They were Catholics and involved politically. Christians and professionals were among the junta’s favorite targets. Purging minorities pleases rival factions and terrifies others. Killing professionals brings the extra benefit of damping any threat of an overthrow from an educated middle or upper middle class. These tactics, of course, gut the country of a generation of leaders capable of succeeding the dictator.
Amin’s ability to buy arms from the Soviet Bloc meant cultural connections between Uganda and Russia. James went to study in Moscow. That’s where he met Olga, Mark’s mother. After eight years in Russia, James and Olga moved to Sweden. Uganda was once again locked in bloody conflict.
“There was really no way to go back to Uganda,” said James. “Sweden was the country that was taking immigrants.”
James had become familiar with hockey living in Russia. He had been a soccer goalkeeper so the concept of his son’s chosen position wasn’t completely foreign. But nothing could prepare him for the depth of Mark’s love of hockey.
“If he played a video game it would always be about hockey,” James remembered. “I would say to him, ‘come, let’s play cards.’ I would reach for a deck. He would say,’ no, let’s play with this one. ‘Of course, it would have a hockey motif.”
Olga bought her son a hockey net. Mark moved it into his bedroom. That left no room for Mark’s brother Sebastian. The net stayed. Sebastian moved into another part of the house. Mark’s love of the game spread to Sebastian, a sixth-round draft choice by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2010.
When he was 14, Mark went to a clinic convened in Stockholm by netminding guru Francois Allaire. The two began working together.
Undrafted by an NHL team, Owuya became hot property after two good seasons in the Swedish Elite League. “Different teams wanted me but the Leafs had Francois Allaire,” he said. “That was the biggest reason I wanted to come here because he had made me a better goalie.”
Owuya’s run in North America has been the usual painstaking apprenticeship. He played in 19 Marlies games last year and amassed excellent numbers, a 1.94 goals against average and .929 save percentage.
He misses his Mom but not his native country. When a young teammate mentions homesickness, Owuya tries to feign sympathy. “You want to be there for your teammates,” he said, “but honestly I can’t relate to it at all. Every day I wake up glad to be going to practice.”
The NHL’s return from the lockout left Owuya as the number two man with the Marlies behind Jussi Rynnas.
“How good a goalie is he? “said Marlies coach Dallas Eakins. “We’re going to find out but he works so hard we’ve had to pull him back from some of his workouts. He’s a new player but one thing we don’t have to worry about is his effort or his professionalism.”