SAPPORO - At 33 Yutaka Fukufuji is one of the senior members of the Japan national team. He is a historical figure in his country's ice hockey lore as the only Japanese-trained player ever to play in the NHL.
Fukufuji was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in 2004 and ultimately played four games for the club during the 2006/07 season. Despite this epic achievement, he says he still has one hockey dream remaining - to play in the Olympic Games.
“The top athletes dream about playing in the Olympics,” Fukufuji said following his team's practice on an off day in the Men's Olympic Qualification Preliminary Round 2 Group J on Friday at Tsukisamu Arena. “I don't think about my age but this could be my last chance to make it and I really want to do it.”
With Fukufuji in goal, Japan defeated Croatia 3-0 on Thursday in their opening game of the round-robin event. The hosts will take on Romania on Saturday when play resumes.
A native of Kushiro, Hokkaido, the affable Fukufuji began playing hockey at the age of 9.
“My hometown is a real hockey town,” stated Fukufuji. “My two older brothers did not play, but I took up the sport and really enjoyed it. I played forward my first year and then switched to goalkeeper. I have been there ever since.”
Growing up in Japan the 185-cm, 84-kg Fukufuji said he was influenced strongly by the play of goalkeeping legends Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy.
Fukufuji played a total of six seasons in the United States, including stints in the ECHL and AHL with Cincinnati, Bakersfield, Manchester and Reading. He also spent a year playing in the Netherlands for the Tilburg Trappers and another in Denmark with Esbjerg Energy.
Fukufuji, who debuted with Japan's U18 team during the 1999/2000 season, is back home now playing in the Asia League for the Nikko Ice Bucks.
With his long tenure in the game, Fukufuji is sometimes called upon to give advice to his younger teammates.
“I use my experience to talk to the young players on our teams at times,” Fukuji commented. “If I have a chance to say something useful, I will.”
It seems only natural that such a prominent figure in the sport in Japan would one day consider becoming a coach.
“I would like to coach eventually,” Fukufuji said. “Why not use my experience to help others? I have played in many countries and learned about different systems of the game.”
The star cited Columbus Blue Jackets goaltending coach Ian Clark as his biggest influence in the sport.
“He really helped me a lot during my first year (2002/03) in the States with Cincinnati,” Fukufuji recalled. “He gave me confidence that I could play there.”
Fukufuji is married with two children (daughter - age 4, son - age 1) and his wife is expecting their third child soon.
He hopes that by Japan making the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, the sport will get a boost in popularity in Japan.
“Kids have a lot of choices these days - football, baseball and other sports,” he pointed out. “If we can make the Olympics, we can get more support going forward.”
Fukufuji recalled watching Japan play on TV in the 1998 Nagano Games when he was 15.
“It was pretty exciting. Japan won their last game (4-3 in a shootout over Austria),” he remembered. “When I saw that I felt that I wanted to play there, too.”