The following is an expanded version of a story I wrote for the English section of the Rafu Shimpo (Los Angeles Japanese Daily News), which was originally published on February 21, 2007. It is reprinted here with permission.
LOS ANGELES — No one in their right mind, not even Japanese goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji himself, thought he would be wearing a National Hockey League uniform this season, not after just two full seasons in North American minor leagues after coming over from Japan in the summer of 2004.
But that is exactly what the 6-1, 180-pound native of Kushiro, Japan did when he became the first player born in Japan to play in an NHL game on January 13, 2007, when he came on in relief of Los Angeles Kings goalie Barry Brust in a 6-5 loss at St. Louis.
“I was so nervous,” said Fukufuji, 24. “But when the coach came to me during the second intermission, he said, ‘Have fun. Don’t be nervous.’ That helped.”
“This was my first time playing in the NHL,” added Fukufuji, who was selected by the Kings in the eighth round (238th overall) of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. “I was so nervous but I was pretty excited, too. It was fun. And I did my job.”
And his first NHL save was quite spectacular.
A little over five minutes after Fukufuji entered the game, a pass went across the front of his net. St. Louis Blues defenseman Eric Brewer had snuck in the back door, behind the Kings defense, and had a wide-open chance from the right side of the net—he had an open side of the net to shoot at, and it looked like he would score an easy goal.
But Fukufuji got all the way back across to the right goal post, moving quickly to his left. He flashed out his left leg and made the save with his skate.
“When the Japanese kid went into the net and he made that great save, I thought we are really going to have something happen,” said Kings head coach Marc Crawford. “I’ve seen a lot of players who suddenly got a chance to turn into pretty good NHL players. Sometimes you never know.”
Fukufuji made history again on January 16 in Atlanta when he became the first player born in Japan to start in an NHL game against the Atlanta Thrashers.
But Fukufuji got off to a shaky start, allowing three goals on just nine shots, and was replaced by Brust shortly after the second period began.
“It was pretty bad,” Fukufuji said about his first NHL start. “I can play better.”
The Kings wound up losing the game, 6-2, and it was becoming clear that the Yutaka Fukufuji Story was not going to see him becoming an NHL star just yet.
Indeed, Fukufuji has played sparingly for the Kings, and has shown that he is clearly not ready for the NHL.
In four appearances, his numbers could not be much worse. As of January 29, Fukufuji has an 0-3-0 record with a whopping 4.38 goals-against average, and a very poor .837 save percentage.
A goalie playing that badly would normally find himself shipped off to the minors in the blink of an eye, or worse. But the Kings are caught in a goalie crunch, forcing them to rely on young, unprepared netminders.
That crunch started when veteran goalies Dan Cloutier and Mathieu Garon went down with injuries. To make matters worse, their number three goalie, Jason LaBarbera, is stuck with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League (Kings’ primary minor league affiliate) this season because of the NHL’s re-entry waiver rules—he would undoubtedly be claimed by another NHL team and the Kings would lose him if they tried to call him up to the big club.
That left the Kings between a rock and a hard place, with no choice but to call up Brust and Fukufuji from Manchester. And although many were hoping for a feel-good story with at least one of the young netminders playing well, both have been disappointing.
“You look at our team and it has not just been the performance in [goal],” said Crawford. “[But] it is an area that has to improve.”
That said, the Kings did not expect the young goalies to come in and light up the league.
“Let’s face it, in fairness to the kids that are playing for us right now, they’re just not NHL goalies,” Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi told the Canadian Press. “It’s not fair to Brust or Fukufuji, they’re not ready for this. It’s not their fault.”
As a result, the Kings claimed veteran goaltender Sean Burke from the Tampa Bay Lightning off of re-entry waivers on January 18.
Burke, 40, whose best days in the NHL were in 1999 – 2003 with the Phoenix Coyotes, was pressed into service immediately, getting the start for the Kings against the Coyotes on January 20 at Staples Center.
Burke had been with the Springfield Falcons of the AHL (Lightning’s primary minor league affiliate) prior to joining the Kings, and he played a very solid game until he began to suffer the effects of dehydration caused by a grueling cross-country travel schedule, not to mention the fact that he had not played in at least six weeks.
Enter Fukufuji, who gave up two bad goals and wound up losing the game, 3-2.
“It was a tough game, a tough situation, but it’s frustrating,” a very dejected Fukufuji said while slumped in his dressing room stall. “I should’ve stopped both shots.”
“The first one knuckled on me and on the second one, I couldn’t find the puck [players were in front of him, obstructing his view] before the shot,” Fukufuji added. “Tonight, if I don’t give up that third goal, it’s a tight game. “Maybe we have a chance to win. But it was quick.”
“It’s been tough. The last game [at Atlanta on January 16] was tough. I gave up an easy goal. I should’ve stopped it. That first one knuckled on me, but I should have stopped it.”
After the game, Fukufuji was surrounded by ten journalists representing Japanese media outlets, garnering more media attention than even the Kings’ best players. Indeed, despite his rough outing, it was quite clear that Fukufuji’s ascent to the NHL is a big story back home in Japan, where he could inspire more Japanese athletes to lace up the skates and pick up a hockey stick.
“A lot of my friends called me last night to congratulate me,” said Fukufuji. “I’m not thinking about being the first Japanese player. Hopefully, more Japanese players will come over in the next two or three years.”
“It’s my dream,” added Fukufuji about playing in the NHL. “I’ve watched on TV since I was nine or ten years old and I’m here now. I just want to step up every day, get better every day.”
Even the Kings understand that Fukufuji could be a role model back home.
“We’ve seen so much global growth in hockey and in some countries you might not normally associate with hockey,” said Crawford. “Maybe there will be other Japanese players now, because of what Yutaka has done.”
Fukufuji’s current stint with the Kings is not the first time he has been with the big club this season.
Back in December, he was called up briefly from Manchester to fill in for Cloutier, who had suffered a shoulder injury, and became the first player born in Japan to dress for an NHL game on December 16, when the Kings hosted the Dallas Stars.
The young Japanese goalie was surprised by the move.
“I got a call from [Monarchs Director of Hockey Operations] Hubie McDonough saying that I was going to LA,” Fukufuji said after the game against the Stars. “I was really surprised. I got on a flight last night at 5:15 PM from Manchester to Chicago to Los Angeles, and I arrived in Los Angeles around 11:00 PM.”
“It’s really awesome, it’s great,” added Fukufuji, who was visibly excited after the game. “I can’t believe it. I wasn’t expecting this. “It’s nice. I hope I get a chance to play, but I’m just here to work hard.”
Fukufuji also said that he was so nervous before the game that he was shaking as he put on his protective gear.
At the time, Fukufuji likely knew that he would not get a chance to play for the Kings before he was sent back to Manchester on December 19, but he kept the proper perspective for a young NHL prospect.
“This is still a good chance for me, so I’m going to do my best,” he said.
And it was that attitude, along with his dedication and his work ethic that helped keep Fukufuji with the Kings during his current stint with the big club after Burke was acquired.
Instead, the Kings sent Brust, who was the Kings’ number four goalie on their depth chart, back to Manchester on January 19.
Although Brust’s numbers with the Kings are slightly better than Fukufuji’s, Brust played himself out of favor with Crawford, and bought himself a plane ticket out of Los Angeles.
“We’re keeping two goalies, and I will keep Fukufuji,” Crawford said after Fukufuji put in a solid relief performance in a 3-1 loss to St. Louis at Staples Center on January 18. “Brust will be heading down.”
Sources close to the Kings reported that Crawford was very angry with Brust following the game.
“Fukufuji has deserved to be here more than the other guy has,” said Crawford. “He’s a real good kid, a hard-working kid. It’s a great break for Yutaka. I thought he came in tonight, and didn’t get a lot of work [early], and they ended up getting a great chance on him for his first save.”
“In the third period, he did some good things,” added Crawford. “He made some saves and looked like a goalie. That’s all we’ve asked of our guys—to keep doing the right things and keep trying to progress.”
Fukufuji is thrilled to be up with the big club, even though he knows that it is just a temporary move.
“It’s really good, I’m having fun,” he said. “This is my dream. I’m here now. It’s awesome.”
But it obviously has not been an easy adjustment.
“The game is so fast up here, so much more speed,” Fukufuji explained. “Passing, shooting, skating—everything is so much faster than in the AHL or ECHL. And I didn’t get to practice much here, just two or three times.”
Fukufuji did not learn that he would be staying with the Kings instead of Brust until well after the game on January 18 had ended. But he was clearly excited when he learned the news, giving a thumbs-up to the throng of Japanese journalists who were on hand to cover the game.
Fukufuji even pumped his fist once upon hearing the news.
“I’m still here, so I’m going to try to do my best,” he said. “I just want to step up every day, get better every day. I want to be here. It’s more professional here, it’s a higher level. If I can play here, I’ll get better.”
But the reality is that with Garon on the verge of returning from his injury, Fukufuji will soon be headed back to Manchester or to the Reading Royals of the ECHL, where he started the 2006-07 season as their starting goaltender.
Playing at Reading would be the better option for Fukufuji’s development.
“If I stayed at Manchester, I’d only be able to play a couple of games [as the backup goaltender], so being at Reading is a better situation for me because I can play in most of the games,” he said.
Looking back, even though Fukufuji has made NHL history, his stock with the Kings dropped a bit even before the 2006-07 season began.
Last June, the Kings selected goaltender Jonathan Bernier in the first round (11th overall pick) in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. And soon after, he was being hailed as the future in goal for the Kings.
“We felt Jonathan was so much better than anyone else who was still on the board at the time that he was clearly the guy we wanted to select,” said Al Murray, who was the Kings’ Director of Amateur Scouting when Bernier was selected.
The Kings believe that Bernier has the potential to be an elite netminder.
“We took Jonathan because we thought he was an elite talent,” Murray said in a January 9 interview. “Because of that, he is better and farther along than some of our other young goalies. He came into our Development Camp in the summer and really impressed our people, and then came back for training camp and continued to impress.”
But with Bernier being called the future of the Kings in goal and an elite talent, where does that leave the other young goalies in their system, including Fukufuji?
“We’ve got a stable of about eight or nine young goalies who we think all still have the potential to be number one NHL goalies, and we’ll let them work it out for us,” Murray explained. “[The situation with young goalies is] always something that’s in constant flux, it’s always a give and take.”
Fukufuji’s career with the Kings is clearly in flux. Despite being up with the big club at the moment, he is not yet ready for the NHL. Add to that the addition of the highly-touted Bernier and the fact that Fukufuji’s contract is up in June, he could very well find himself looking for a job with a new team in July, or even out of North American hockey altogether.
But it is just as likely that Fukufuji will be signed to another contract with the Kings, because Bernier will not be ready to jump from junior hockey in Canada to the NHL. The Kings will continue to need young goalies to fill roster spots in the minors and provide depth in case of injury to goalies with the big club.
And Fukufuji does have a couple of things working in his favor as well.
“I think he’s doing very well,” said Kings goaltending coach Bill Ranford, who twice won the Stanley Cup with the Edmonton Oilers. “The scouts have been saying that he’s playing very well. He moves very well, he’s technically sound, which is a big part of it. So it’s just working on the little aspects of his game.”
“I’ve been very impressed with [Fukufuji’s] maturity,” said Burke after the game on January 20 against St. Louis. “I had lunch with him today, I hung out with him today. He’s a good kid.”
Good kid or not, technically sound or not, whether or not Fukufuji can make it to the NHL to stay is still a very big question mark.
© 2007 Rafu Shimpo/Los Angeles News Publishing Company. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.