By Mike Griffith
Californian Staff Writer
Copyright © The Bakersfield Californian
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. – He’s found a new favorite food — buffalo wings. He has a favorite television show — “Seinfeld.” And has learned enough English to vent his on-ice frustrations with unprintable language.
Indeed, rookie goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji is beginning to feel right at home in Bakersfield — a world away from the island of Hokkaido, Japan, where he honed his hockey skills to a sharp enough level to draw the attention of the Los Angeles Kings.
Fukufuji became only the second Japanese player to be drafted into the National Hockey League when the Kings selected him in the eighth round (238th overall) of the 2004 entry draft June 26. When the Kings made the selection, NHL senior vice-president of hockey operations Jim Gregory, who announced the pick from the podium, paused and said: “Wow.”
Gregory struggled a bit with the pronunciation (yoo-TAH-kah FOO-koo-FOO-jee) before adding: “Thank you, Los Angeles. Great pick.”
Gregory and the rest of the NHL hierarchy weren’t the only ones surprised by the pick.
Fukufuji, through interpreter Akiko Oshawa, flashed a huge smile and said he was “very surprised” to be an NHL draftee. “It is very rare that a Japanese player is drafted.”
The only other Japanese player drafted was forward Hiroyuki Miura, taken 260th by Montreal in 1992. Miura’s North American hockey career consisted of six games with the old Wheeling (W. Va.) Thunder (ECHL) during the 1992-93 season.
The Condors do not have any official ties to the Kings, but with a gaggle of goaltenders under contract and an NHL lockout creating a logjam, the Kings and Condors struck a deal.
“We were looking for a goaltender and also looking to build a relationship with the Kings, and they had a goaltender they wanted to place,” said Bob Bartlett, director of hockey operations for the Condors. “It was perfect for us.”
Although pleased to have Fukufuji, the Condors also acquired six-year pro Randy Petruk, who helped stake the Condors to a 4-0 record before Fukufuji saw his first action. Fukufuji responded by stopping all but one shot in a 4-1 victory over San Diego on Nov. 6. Twelve days later, Fukufuji became the go-to goalie when Petruk went down with a high ankle sprain.
After taking over for Petruk seven minutes into a Nov. 18 game, Fukufuji started eight straight games.
“Right now we’ve probably got him in too many games in a row,” Bartlett said five games into the streak. “On the other hand, when it ends it will be a good experience because he’ll have a good block of games to judge himself by.”
As one might expect, there have been flashes of brilliance during that time mixed with average days and subpar outings.
But Fukufuji doesn’t have to prove himself in the next game or next month. At just 21 years of age, the Kings organization wants to give him a long, hard look to see if he might just have what it takes to climb up two rungs on the ladder to the NHL.
“He’s a superb athlete, and the No. 1 quality every goaltender should have is athleticism,” said Andy Norwicki, the Kings’ goaltending coach, who has been working with Fukufuji. “To master the craft of goaltending, it takes time, and he’s got time on his side.
“If you came up with a top-10 list of goaltenders in the NHL, all of them would probably be over 30 years of age. There are very few top goalies (in the NHL) under 25.”
What the Kings want to see is development — on and off the ice.
“I mandated to him in August that he watch as much English video (back in Japan) as he could so he could become more communicative in English,” Norwicki said.
Fukufuji has been following that command in Bakersfield as well.
Though he shies away from speaking in English, coaches and players say he understands most of what is being said.
Condors coach Marty Raymond put Fukufuji in the same apartment as veteran Kevin St. Jacques, who just happens to be the most talkative guy on the team.
“He talks a lot,” Fukufuji said. “I try to read things, and when I don’t know the words I ask him. That is a good lesson for me.”
St. Jacques has been instrumental in immersing Fukufuji in the English language.
“He pretends like he doesn’t know English, but he knows. He knows,” St. Jacques said. “If people speak fast, he has a hard time picking up on it right now, but if you slow it down, he’s OK. If you go too fast, he’s not going to understand what the heck is going on.”
St. Jacques said the two have a very workable situation in the two-bedroom apartment — “I cook and clean and he takes out the trash,” he said with a laugh.
But the cooking no longer comes without a price.
“Before I just cooked, now I ask him what he wants for supper,” St. Jacques said. “I don’t cook unless he tells me.”
“He’s a good cook,” Fukufuji said of his roommate.
Fukufuji said his main hobby is watching English-language movies. “Seinfeld” is his favorite television show.
“We’ve got a ritual now,” St. Jacques said. “Every night from 6-7 we watch ‘Seinfeld.’ He laughs a lot. He loves Kramer. I catch him every now and then watching cartoons. He’s trying to explore more and more. He’s a pretty smart kid.
“He always asks me about words he doesn’t understand. The other night we were watching ‘Seinfeld’ and he asked me what ‘bleak’ meant. When you’re learning a new language, you don’t want to speak it because you’re afraid you’ll sound stupid. But he’ll be fine.”
The language barrier does keep Fukufuji from the brunt of some jokes.
“We haven’t (pulled any practical jokes) because he wouldn’t get it,” St. Jacques said. “He would laugh, but he wouldn’t understand what it was for.”
That doesn’t mean Fukufuji is immune from the locker-room banter.
“There is a lot of (teasing). It’s a very good atmosphere in the locker room,” Fukufuji said.
As well as away from the locker room.
“Every now and then we catch him with a couple of funnies,” St. Jacques said. “When he gets a couple of sodas in him, he gets a little loose.”
If there is such a thing as a “hockey hotbed” in Japan, it is Kushiro, Hokkaido, where Fukufuji was born and raised.
Fukufuji said hockey is a minor sport in Japan, trailing way behind soccer and baseball. On the northern island of Hokkaido, however, hockey is popular enough to be offered as a sport even at the grade-school level.
“I started playing about third grade,” Fukufuji said. “I was taller than the other kids, so naturally they made me a goaltender.”
By junior high, Fukufuji had Japanese scouts watching him.
Fukufuji could have played hockey at a high school in Hokkaido, but chose a school to the south in Sendai, Mayagi — a school never known for its hockey prowess.
Fukufuji led his high school to its first national championship, all the while attracting the attention of more and more scouts.
He played for the Kokudo team in the Japanese International Hockey League after graduating from high school in 2001-02. As part of an effort to raise the level of the Japanese Olympic team, Fukufuji was loaned to the Cincinnati Cyclones for part of the 2002-03 season, playing in nine games and going 4-3.
Last season he played in both the Japan and Asian leagues (catching the eye of a Los Angles Kings scout) as well as for Team Japan in the IIHF World Championships in the Czech Republic.
Fukufuji said the two biggest adjustments he’s had to make are the increased number of games and the smaller rinks in North America.
“There are a lot more games here (72),” Fukufuji said.
“In Japan last year it was 30 games; this year it’s 40. In Japan the size of the rink is a lot larger because they use the international size. Here it is so small, so the passes come faster and (the game) moves so quick.”
Condors coach Marty Raymond, forced into using Fukufuji more than he would have liked due to the injury to Petruk, said the fatigue has shown at times.
“He’s always very good technically, but at times he gets tired,” Raymond said. “He’s really improved his stick handling and probably has the best attitude I’ve seen in a while.”
No matter where Fukufuji goes from here, Bakersfield fans have made a lasting impressing on him.
“In Bakersfield, hockey is a big thing. Lots of people go to see the games,” he said.
Fukufuji’s eyes lit up when he spoke of the Teddy Bear Toss night at Centennial Garden Nov. 23, where fans toss stuffed animals on the ice after the first Condors goal.
“That’s the first time I played with that many people (8,204), and then all the Teddy Bears …,” he said. “After that, all the children came on to the ice and collected the bears.
“That’s not a common experience. The kids came up and said ‘Hi.’ It was great.”