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
"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