ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Most North American hockey players have never visited Australia and probably only have a notion of what the weather or terrain is like in the Southern hemisphere continent.
But Zach Okabe's background and family are unique. Okabe is a 19-year-old on the St. Cloud State men's hockey team. While he was born in Japan, Okabe lived about eight years in Blaxland, Australia, and his mother, Maree, is from Ararat, Australia. Ararat is about 130 miles away from Melbourne.
Blaxland is about 40 miles west of Sydney in the Blue Mountains of southeast Australia, and both of Okabe's sisters were born in Australia. So news of more than 38,000 square miles being burned in wildfires on that continent has Okabe keeping up with the weather patterns there.
"The majority of my family is in Australia and only my grandma and my auntie live in Japan on my dad's side, but all of my cousins are in Australia," Okabe said. The Australian wildfire news "has been trending a bit more lately and it's being talked about more the last couple days. Obviously, it's really scary. Australia has been known for its wildlife.
"In my time living there, we only had to evacuate one time. But it's super scary there right now."
It is currently summer in Australia and Okabe said wildfires in the summer are pretty common. But with recent temperatures topping 100 degrees and with high winds, the fires have ravaged Australia, destroying close to 2,000 homes and killing at least 25 people, according to Weather.com.
"When it's super dry for weeks straight there, it's super hot and there's no humidity and that kind of gets the bush fires going, along with human activity," he said. "It's so dry and so hot that it spreads quicker."
Okabe is thankful that his friends and family in Australia have been able to stay out of the most dangerous areas of the fires. That should help keep him focused this weekend when the Huskies return to NCHC play with a series at fifth-ranked Denver (8:07 p.m. Friday and Saturday, NCHC.tv).
"My grandparents are not as close to the big fires, but they can notice the difference in the sky," he said. "No one we're really close to is being affected, but we have some friends that are pretty close to it.
"It rained (Monday) and that's what we needed ... You just want to them to get it under control as soon as possible."
Okabe said that his parents met on a cruise ship. His father, Nobuaki, is Japanese and played club hockey for St. Cloud State. Nobuaki and his two daughters were in Minnesota and saw Okabe play in the Mariucci Classic, which was held Dec. 28-29 in Minneapolis.
Okabe scored his first four goals in a win over second-ranked Minnesota State University-Mankato on Dec. 28 at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
"A cool rink because there's so much history at that rink and just to see me play there was one of my dad's dreams and me playing for St. Cloud was another one of his dreams," said of Nobuaki, who is a plastics engineer and is a North American representative for a Japanese company. "Me playing against the Gophers was something he never thought would be. It was so surreal and I had a pretty good tournament, which I could show my dad and sisters."
The goals ended a season-long streak without a point for Okabe, who was named NCHC Rookie of the Week for his performance. While his family now lives in Okotoks, Alberta, Okabe said that his love for hockey began in Australia.
"My dad taught me how to play hockey, we had the shooting (tarp) set up in the garage and ever since then, I loved the game," he said. "Hockey is growing super fast there (in Australia). It's not to a great level yet, but the great thing is that it's growing and developing."
Okabe's game is also developing as he adapts more to the college game after playing two seasons of junior hockey for the Grande Prairie Storm of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. Okabe, who is listed at 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds, had 53 goals and 115 points in 118 regular season games for the Storm.
"He's been playing better and better and better every weekend," said Huskies coach Brett Larson, who missed the Mariucci Classic while he was on the Team USA staff for the IIHF World Junior Championships. "It was fun to see him finally get rewarded.
"I liked that he's stuck with it. He's a natural goal scorer, who didn't have a point at Christmas. A lot of kids would have been down and maybe even getting negative and causing problems on the team. But he stayed positive and kept working to be a better all-around player. He didn't let the lack of goals totally get him down and I think that really helped him.
"What I told him was that first, I want to trust you on the ice and then the goals will come. I think he took that to heart and has been rounding out his game."
Krannila receives NCHC honor
Jami Krannila, a freshman from Nokia, Finland and the center on Okabe's line the last seven games, was named the NCHC Rookie of the Month for December. Krannila had two goals and four assists in six games to earn the honor. Krannila has seven assists and 10 points in 18 games this season.