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Goalie Becomes First Japanese Player in NHL (February 28, 2007)

Fukufuji Yutaka, the first Japanese to play in an official NHL game (Jiji)
The National Hockey League now has its first-ever Japanese player. Goalie Fukufuji Yutaka, 24, who was promoted to the flagship team by the Los Angeles Kings organization, made his debut during a game against the St. Louis Blues. In the process, he became the first Japanese player to take part in North America's premier professional hockey league, which has a storied history of 90 years. Japanese athletes have now cracked three of the four major professional sports in the United States: first, Major League Baseball, then the National Basketball Association, and now the NHL. Fukufuji made his way to Kings' top team in just his third year since being drafted by them.

Overcoming Adversity
It was the third period of the game against the St. Louis Blues. With the starting goalie for the Kings having been pulled after allowing too many goals, Head Coach Marc Crawford decided to put Fukufuji into the game. While there was not much of a stir in the arena, something historic had just taken place, as Fukufuji became the first Japanese player to get onto the ice in an NHL game. Fukufuji explains: "I wasn't as nervous as I imagined I'd be." Fukufuji stopped four of the five shots that came his way, allowing one goal. And while his team lost, Coach Crawford was pleased with Fukufuji's performance, saying, "We had a Japanese goalie making some great saves."

Fukufuji was born in September 1982. While growing up in the Tohoku region's Miyagi Prefecture, he became the first high school student to earn a spot on Japan's national hockey team. After joining the team Kokudo (now Seibu Prince Rabbits), he went to study in the United States in 2002, and he was Japan's starting goalie in the 2004 world championships. That June, he became the second Japanese player to be taken in the NHL draft. He was promoted to the top league last December, but he had few chances to get onto the ice.

ice hockey
Fukufuji is also known for his good looks. (Jiji)

After going to the United States, Fukufuji, like many other goalies, was plagued by injuries. What was even harder for him, though, was when the entire season of the NHL last year was cancelled due to a dispute between the owners and the players' union over the introduction of a salary cap. While Fukufuji at the time had a contract with a team in the American Hockey League, which is the hockey equivalent of AAA baseball, NHL players who had nowhere else to go flooded into the AHL, giving Fukufuji no choice but to play for a team in the even-lower East Coast Hockey League. As the ECHL is a fairly rough league, Fukufuji suffered cuts to his face and broken teeth. He did, however, develop a new mental toughness.

It is a shame that Fukufuji has to wear a mask when he is on the ice, because he is quite a handsome man. When he was serving as a technical consultant for an ice hockey TV drama starring the hugely popular SMAP member Kimura Takuya (known affectionately as "Kimutaku"), many people said that he looked even better than the program's star.

In addition to his performance in the NHL, Fukufuji is expected to serve as a leader for Japan's national team in the future. Fukufuji is winning over male fans with his solid play and capturing the hearts of female fans with his good looks.

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Copyright (c) 2007 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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