TORONTO - Mark Owuya’s journey to pro hockey is already quite the tale, no matter where the road takes him in the Maple Leafs’ goaltending plan.
Safe to say he’ll be the first Ugandan-Russian black with a Stockholm birth certificate and a gift for rap music to ever don a mask.
“I actually started playing because of a hockey card,” the affable 6-foot-2 Owuya told curious media Monday at the MasterCard Centre.
“One of my friends, who also didn’t play hockey at the time, had a card of Dominik Hasek and told me ‘this is one of the best goalies of the world’. I thought ‘wow’.
“I realized pretty early that I couldn’t play like him (Hasek’s unorthodox method), it’s really not my style. But I like the way he competes and keeps competing. At the end, he does everything he has to do to stop the puck.”
Owuya was nine years old before he first tried on the pads in Sweden. His mother attempted to dissuade him from hockey because of the expense, but eventually registered him and another brother. She was born in Russia, where she met Oduya’s father, who had emigrated from Uganda to study.
“My father moved there for several reasons ... his parents didn’t want him to live in Uganda,” Owuya said of the often troubled African nation. “He got to study in Russia, but I have no idea how my parents ended up in Sweden.
“I speak Swedish, English and I understand Russian. My mom speaks Russian to me, but I always respond in Swedish.”
Owuya is not too familiar with Swahili or any of Ugandas principal languages, but is often asked if he’s related to Stockholm-born defenceman Johnny Oduya. The latter is actually part Kenyan.
“It was funny that we have similar names, we’re both from Sweden and we’re both black,” Owuya said. “People might think that it’s a Swedish name. Sweden has a lot more diversity than other countries in Europe, but having lived in Toronto for a month, you can’t compare it to here at all.”
Owuya signed a two-year entry level contract as a free agent in the spring. He follows Finn Jusi Rynnas to the Leaf stable from the previous spring, both undrafted Scandinavians who attended Toronto coach Francois Allaire’s Stockholm clinics. They wanted to stay close to the teacher. With the perfect dimensions for the butterfly style that Allaire espouses, Owuya had a league-best .927 save percentage for Djurgardens last year.
“Francois made me play the way I do today,” said Owuya, who attended six or seven of the pricey Allaire camps through his club team’s sponsorship. “After this contract, at least I know I will be a better goalie.”
Owuya already moved up a notch on Toronto’s depth chart when Jean-Sebastien Giguere signed with the Colorado Avalanche on the weekend and the Leafs said they didn’t have plans to add a veteran. With James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson projected to start for the Leafs, Ben Scrivens and Rynnas will be the Marlies’ tandem and Owuya will be in the ECHL with Reading.
Jim Hughes, the Leafs’ director of player development, said Owuya impressed the team right away by moving to Toronto on June 1 for five weeks of training at the MCC to prepare for this camp.
“He’s quite a character kid,” Hughes said. “We have four new goalies here (at the prospects camp), but when you think about it, Reimer was one of those guys four years ago. I used to go to the rookie and prospect camps in Kitchener and London and Reims would be there. Who would have thought (he’d be the No. 1 now). That’s where the story begins. Some kids just mature and fly.”
Owuya has a following in Sweden from an appearance on that country’s version of American Idol. Billing himself as Mark From Da Park, he was a brief web sensation in the country.
“Music is more of a hobby now,” Owuya said. “Some people go fishing, I like music. I did a lot of music and theatre arts at our school. I went on and did my thing and they let me on for a couple of shows.”
Asked how much money his recordings have netted, Owuya joked “if I make any, that’s a bonus. But it was very fun.”