Fukufuji likely to land on Kings' farm team
TOKYO -- Yutaka Fukufuji is ready to ride the buses in hockey's backwaters a few more years if that's what it takes to make the NHL.
The Japanese goaltender signed a two-year contract with the Los Angeles Kings this month and will attend a rookie camp next month. If he doesn't stay with the Kings, he most likely will be assigned to their AHL farm team, the Manchester Monarchs.
"My goal is to play in the NHL," Fukufuji said at a news conference Thursday. "I know it will be tough, but I'm ready for rookie camp and I'm looking forward to taking on my rivals."
While some have likened Fukufuji to baseball's Hideo Nomo, the soft-spoken goalie has other things on his mind than being a pioneer.
"I'm not thinking about becoming the first Japanese player in the NHL," Fukufuji said. "Sure, if it happens, I'll be happy but right now I've got a lot of work ahead of me."
The 22-year-old Fukufuji was selected 238th in the 2004 NHL entry draft and played for the Bakersfield Condors in 2004-05. He recorded 27 wins, three shutouts and a 2.48 goals-against average while helping the team to the ECHL playoffs.
Fukufuji made his pro debut in North America on Feb. 7, 2003, with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL. He won four games, lost three and had a 3.13 GAA.
He was the ECHL rookie of the month in January when he won seven straight games and posted his first pro shutout. Fukufuji said the hardest part of playing in places like Bakersfield and Cincinnati is the travel.
"The bus rides are tough," he said.
Fukufuji was unaware of the NHL while growing up on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido, the one place in Japan where hockey competes with baseball and soccer. He began playing hockey at 9, a skater at first. By the time he was 11 he was asked by his coach if he could strap on goalie pads.
He played for the Kokudo Bunnies of the Japanese league in 2001 and became interested in playing overseas when he represented Japan at the world championships.
Now, he says his favorite goalie is Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils. Other than the prospect of stopping a Mario Lemieux slap shot, Fukufuji says his biggest challenge will be mastering a new language, and watching "Seinfeld" reruns helps.
"I can't speak English very well," he said. "But I'm working on it."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press