By Don Stewart
READING, Pa. – Yutaka Fukufuji’s first name couldn’t be more appropriate. If you happen to get into a conversation with the Japanese-born goalie, you’ll be doing most of the talking.
Naturally soft-spoken, Fukufuji is still wrestling with English, which he’s only been studying for a year. He’s learning quickly, but it’s easier for him to listen to the language at this point than to speak it.
“I study it every day, reading the dictionary and watching TV,” he said. “I hope it’s much better my English now.”
Like his English, Fukufuji has quickly developed his skills between the pipes. With Cody Rudkowsky called up to Bridgeport of the AHL, the Hokkaido native is the only option at goalie for the Reading Royals.
He’s responded to the added burden by going 4-2 with a 3.00 goals-against average and an 0.924 save percentage in his last six games. In most of those starts, he kept a weary, short-handed Royals team in the game.
“He’s been incredible back there for us,” captain Chris Bala said. “He’s quieted us down in the room. His play really speaks volumes about his commitment. That really inspires us and gets us going. As players, we want to perform for him.”
Fukufuji was a surprise eighth-round pick by the Kings in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. As it happened, he’d played for the Japanese National Team, which was coached by Los Angeles scout Glen Williamson.
While playing with Team Japan, Fukufuji actually made an appearance in Reading back in December 2003. He stopped 16 of 17 shots in a period and a half of work during a 3-2 loss to the Royals in an exhibition game at the Sovereign Center.
“That was a blast,” Fukufuji recalled. “I wouldn’t know a couple years ago that I play here again. That was great.”
After drafting Fukufuji, the Kings assigned him to Bakersfield of the ECHL last season. He got plenty of opportunities to develop there, going 27-9-5 with a 2.48 goals-against average and a 0.919 save percentage in 44 appearances.
This season, Los Angeles has him alternating with Barry Brust between Reading and Manchester of the AHL. While in Manchester last month, Fukufuji became the first Japanese-born goalie to win an AHL game.
He spent most of his time watching starter Adam Hauser, however.
“I’m proud of it,” he said of the win. “But I didn’t play very much. Three games. I wanted to play more.”
He got his wish. With Rudkowsky in Bridgeport, the only sitting Fukufuji has been doing in Reading lately has been after split saves.
“I think being the lead guy right now and knowing that, he’s relishing that role,” Royals coach Karl Taylor said. “Last year, he carried the load for Bakersfield and did a great job for them. He’s definitely played more consistent (of late).”
Taylor said the biggest area Fukufuji needs to work on is rebound control. That control has been decent for the ECHL level. But in the AHL, where the shots come faster, he has to be better at smothering and clearing those loose pucks.
Like his English, Fukufuji is working hard at that aspect of his game. He might be soft-spoken, but Fukufuji is among the most competitive players on the roster, according to Taylor.
“He’s shown us why they drafted him,” Taylor said. “He’s a great young prospect. I think he’s right on schedule. He’s doing everything everybody wants.
“He’s played very solid for us.”