Sunday, October 23, 2011
Written by Dave Sottile
Mark Owuya developed a strategy and stuck to it.
“I wanted to be part of a TV show, and it was something I always thought I could do,” Owuya said. “I knew if I got to the audition and did something funny, they’d pick me to be on the show. So I succeeded in that.”
The Reading Royals rookie goalie was only 16 when his alter ego – Mark in Da Park – rapped on the Swedish version of “American Idol” (known simply as “Idol”) in 2006.
“It’s just a hobby,” said Owuya, whose name is pronounced oh-WUH-yuh. “Hockey is my life. People might not recognize me on the streets back home for being a hockey player. It’s more likely they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s the Idol guy.’
“I don’t mind how other people know me, but I know I want to be as good a hockey player as possible.”
Mark in Da Park lasted seven episodes on “Idol,” and each night he performed something different. So where did the moniker come from?
“When I was growing up, me and my friends would just rhyme our names,” Owuya said. “Something like ‘Mark in Da Park.’ My friend would say, ‘Nils is Da Brills,’ brills being short for brillors, which is sunglasses in Swedish. So we make a ‘Swinglish’ word of it, brills.
“Another one was ‘Hank Da Bänk.’ Bänk means bench in Swedish. We just rhymed names and had fun with it.”
Evolution and psychology
Owuya’s background isn’t typical for a minor-league hockey player.
The 22-year-old netminder was born in Stockholm to a father of Ugandan heritage and a Russian mother. He grew up dreaming of a career as a pro hockey player, but he had other interests, too.
“It’s not just the music,” he said. “It’s all kind of stage stuff, the performing. I’ve always probably been the kind of guy who wants to perform.”
Owuya has a website – markindapark.com – where his songs can be downloaded. And YouTube contains plenty of videos showing Mark in Da Park performing on “Idol.”
So does he still consider himself a rapper?
“It’s just a hobby, but I’ve got tons of hobbies,” Owuya said. “I’m a big European football fan. I like anime. And reading about evolution and psychology.”
Larry Courville, Reading’s head coach and director of hockey operations, said the team was well aware of Owuya’s musical background before his arrival.
“What he does off the ice – as long as it’s healthy – I don’t have a problem with it,” Courville said. “We knew he liked to sing away from hockey. We understood he tried to get on the Swedish ‘Idol’ show, but I don’t think he wants to be known as that guy.
“He wants to be known as a goalie here. If he wants to sing on his free time, I have no problem with it.”
The 6-foot-2, 207-pound Owuya wasn’t selected in the National Hockey League Entry Draft, but a stellar 2010-11 season in Sweden caught the eye of Toronto scouts.
North American debut
The Maple Leafs signed the free agent to a two-year contract in late April after he led the Swedish Elite League with a .927 save percentage while playing for Djurgarden.
He went to NHL training camp with Toronto, but was sent down to the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies, where he was their third goalie. The Maple Leafs eventually re-assigned him to Reading on Oct. 13, a day before the Royals opened their season in North Charleston, S.C., against the Stingrays.
“I went straight from the plane to the hotel in South Carolina,” Owuya said of his late arrival. “It’s weird waking up and introducing yourself to another guy you’re sharing the room with the next morning. But everybody’s been great to me.”
Courville gave Owuya high marks for his North American debut. The goalie made 41 saves, but the Stingrays beat the Royals, 4-3, on a goal with 1.2 seconds left in overtime.
“He’s a goalie who stepped up into a really good league last year, adjusted very well and did very well,” Courville said. “That’s what I expect from him this year, to get better as the season goes along.”
Owuya acquitted himself well in his second start, Saturday's home opener against Cincinnati. He stopped 36 shots in a 3-2 victory.
Whether he sings for his teammates remains to be seen, but Reading center Rob Shearer said Owuya’s TV star exploits are common knowledge in the Royals’ dressing room.
“Oh, we definitely heard about it,” Shearer said. “The hockey world is small, so everything gets around. Personally, I think it’s great. More power to him if he has a hobby he likes on the side that keeps him entertained.
“But I haven’t seen any of the videos yet to know if he’s any good at it or not.”
Work in progress
When it comes to on-ice performance, Owuya is just like any other first-year ECHL player, feeling his way along.
Jean-Ian Filiatrault, who works alongside Toronto Maple Leafs goalie consultant Francois Allaire, likens Owuya’s demeanor to former Royals netminder Ben Scrivens.
“He’s similar to Ben in that he’ll ask a lot of questions and wants answers,” Filiatrault said. “If the answers don’t make sense to him, he’ll ask the question a different way.
“You can say (Owuya) is raw, and we’re going to have to polish his game a little bit, sort of a work in progress. But Mark is a pretty talented guy, a big guy with strong legs. We’ll see where they take him.”
So far, they carried him a long way from home, but he has no doubt he’s in the right place. After all, his younger brother, Sebastian, is playing in the ECHL, too, as a defenseman for the Stockton Thunder. The siblings talk on the phone all the time, but their teams won’t play during the regular season.
“I love it,” Owuya said. “Some guys tell me they get homesick, but for me, I can’t imagine getting that way. I just love it. I’m finally getting to do what I always wanted to do.”