Color of hockey: Fukufuji continues to develop the game in Japan
Yutaka Fukufuji was almost late for his date with history.
It was January 12, 2007, and the Los Angeles Kings called goaltender Kushiro, Japan, from Manchester of the American Hockey League to meet the team in St. Louis and get dressed for the game against the Blues.
“I have to get there the day before, but my flight was canceled due to bad weather,” Fukufuji said. “I arrive in St. Louis on game day and get to the rink a few hours before. It’s a busy day.”
He became busier when Fukufuji started the game’s third period on January 13, 2007, and became the first Japanese-born player to play in the NHL. Then Kings coach Marc Crawford told his 24-year-old goaltender on the bench: “We’re making history. You go to third.
“I didn’t have practice, I had a warm-up,” he said. “I was so nervous, but I was excited too.”
The Kings were down 5-4 after two periods when Crawford decided to replace starter Barry Brust, allowing five goals on 20 shots.
The Blues won 6-5. Fukufuji gave Dennis Wideman a power play goal midway through the third period and stopped the other four shots he faced on his NHL debut in 19:17 minutes.
Fukufuji again made history when he became the first Japanese player to start an NHL game when he faced the Atlanta Thrashers on January 16, 2007. He allowed three goals on nine shots in Atlanta’s 6-2 win and was retired after playing 21:53.
Fukufuji’s NHL career was short. He played four games, going 0-3-0 with a 4.37 goals-against average and .837 save percentage.
“I wasn’t ready for the NHL,” he said. “If I had more opportunities to play in the AHL, maybe I would play better, but I didn’t have time. I was not ready for everything, the mind, the skills.
The brief taste of the NHL only fueled Fukufuji’s passion for hockey. The 39-year-old played last season for the Asian League Nikko Ice Bucks where he played 15 games and had a 2.28 goals-against average and .916 save percentage.
He was also a member of the Japan national team at the 2022 IIHF World Championship, Division I, Group B, which ended in Tychy, Poland, last week.
Japan finished second in the tournament, losing to Poland 2-0 in the final.
Fukufuji did not play, but was a former statesman on the Japanese team that featured players with professional hockey ambitions in the NHL and North America, such as forward Yushiroh Hirano.
Hirano, who played 30 games for the Vancouver Canucks AHL affiliate in Abbotsford and 25 games for Cincinnati of the ECHL last season, led the tournament with 10 points (six goals, four assists) in four games.
“Yushiroh Hirano, I talked to him, and he saw when I was playing in the NHL and I think that had a pretty good impact for him,” Fukufuji said. “I was like him when I was his age – I was always looking to play in the NHL.”
Fukufuji said he also wants to help Japan’s men’s national team qualify for the Winter Olympics for the first time since 1998, when Japan hosted Nagano.
“Yeah, it’s still my dream, to play in the Olympics,” he said. “That’s why I keep going. I don’t think I have the chance to play in the Olympics anymore, but I will try.”
Fukufuji started playing hockey as a child in Kushiro on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. He started his professional career in 2001 playing for the Asian League Kokudo Rabbits.
His play caught the eye of Glen Williamson, a former Winnipeg Jets assistant coach who served as an assistant on Japan’s national men’s team and scout for the Kings.
The young goalkeeper already had some North American experience. He played nine games with Cincinnati of the ECHL in 2002-03 and went 4-3-0 with a 3.13 goals-against average and .915 save percentage.
On Williamson’s recommendation, the Kings selected Fukufuji in the eighth round (No. 238) of the 2004 NHL Draft, which surprised the goaltender and his family.
He became the second player from Japan drafted by an NHL team after defenseman Hiroyuki Miura, who was selected by the Montreal Canadiens in the 11th round (No. 260) of the 1992 NHL Draft. never played in the NHL.
“Back in my hometown, it was four in the morning and Glen called me, ‘the Kings drafted you,'” Fukufuji said. “I was like, ‘What?’ A little surprised. Good times, good memories.”
Fukufuji joined Bakersfield from the ECHL in 2004-05 and posted a career-best 27-9-5 with a 2.48 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in 44 games.
Stints at Reading from the ECHL and two games in Manchester followed before the Kings called up in 2006-07. They were forced to deepen their goalkeeping depth chart due to a series of injuries to Dan Cloutier, Mathieu Garon and apparently whoever replaced them. Los Angeles had five goaltenders that season, including Sean Burke.
Fukufuji received his first call-up on December 15, 2006, and dressed for the Kings’ 4-3 shootout loss to the Dallas Stars the following day, but did not play. He was recalled for the St. Louis game in January after Garon was placed on the injured list with a finger injury.
Bill Ranford, who was in his first year as the Kings’ goaltending coach, said the 6-foot-1, 160-pound guard “has some athletic ability in his game,” but not enough to cover the fillet.
“He was just perfect to work with, but sometimes you’re not good enough to play at the NHL level, and that’s just the case,” said Ranford, who won the Stanley Cup twice. with the Edmonton Oilers (1988, 1990), twice coached with the Kings (2012, 2014) and received the Conn Smythe Trophy as the 1990 playoff MVP.”
Fukufuji returned to the minor leagues and bounced between the ECHL and AHL from 2007 to 2009 before playing in the Netherlands in 2009.
He returned to Japan in 2010 and is excited about the progress hockey is making there, excited to still be a part of it.
“Yes, I have a lot of passion,” Fukufuji said. “Physically I’m getting a bit older, but my mind is pretty good, and I want to keep going as much as possible.”