By David Karp
Canwest News Service
VANCOUVER, British Columbia – France, Italy and Slovenia aren’t considered hockey hotbeds, but they competed at this year’s IIHF world championship. If Japan has its way, it could soon be there, too.
The Japanese hockey program is gaining momentum, and Yutaka Fukufuji is a prime example. He made history on Jan. 13, 2007, when he became the first Japanese-born player to play in the NHL, relieving Los Angeles Kings goaltender Barry Brust for the third period against the St. Louis Blues.
“We played against Doug Weight and Keith Tkachuk, and I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ ” Fukufuji recalled. “I was so nervous and shaking, but it was a good time.”
Fukufuji allowed one goal in the 6-5 loss. He went on to play in three more games for the Kings, who were short on goaltenders due to injuries to Mathieu Garon and Dan Cloutier.
The road to the NHL was an unlikely one for the 25-year-old Fukufuji. He hails from Koshiro, a city of fewer than 200,000 people on Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s major islands. Although baseball and soccer are the most popular sports in Japan, hockey thrives in Koshiro.
“My hometown is a pretty big hockey town,” said Fukufji, who grew up idolizing Martin Brodeur. “It’s kind of like a small Canada – every kid plays hockey.”