On January 13th, 2009, Fukufuji relieved Barry Brust to start the third period for the Los Angeles Kings in an eventual 6-5 loss against the St. Louis Blues, becoming the first Japanese national to play in the NHL.
Born in Kushiro on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, Fukufuji spent his formative years with Kokudo, a powerhouse in the Japanese Ice Hockey League (JIHL). He won two JIHL championships in 2002 and 2004 before being selected by the Los Angeles Kings in the 8th round of the 2004 NHL Draft.
The second Japanese-born player to be drafted after Hiroyuki Miura, who had been drafted in 1992 by the Montreal Canadiens, Fukufuji joined the Bakersfield Condors of the ECHL for the 2004-05 season, posting a .919 save percentage in 44 games, and was signed to an entry-level contract by the Kings in 2005. He spent most of the 2005-06 season with the Kings’ ECHL affiliate, the Reading Royals, although he also spent a few games in the AHL with the Manchester Monarchs.
On December 15, 2006, Fukufuji joined the Kings as an emergency recall after a spate of goaltender injuries and made his first NHL appearance in relief on January 13th, allowing 1 goal in his period of hockey. He started his first NHL game three days later against the Atlanta Thrashers, saving 6 of 9 shots before being lifted in the second period of an eventual 6-2 loss.
“It’s my dream…I’ve watched on TV since I was 9 or 10 years old. I’m here now.”Yutaka Fukufuji after first NHL start on Jaunary 16th, 2007
Fukufuji appeared in two more games for the Kings in 2007, finishing his NHL career with 4 appearances and 36 saves on 43 shots. He spent most of the season with the Royals in the ECHL, although he posted a .965 save percentage in 5 AHL games.
Now an unrestricted free agent, Fukufuji spent the next two seasons with the Condors in the ECHL as their starting goaltender, helping the team make the playoffs both seasons. In 2009, he joined the Destil Trappers Tilburg in the Dutch league and in 2010 returned to Japan with the Nikko Icebucks of the JIHL’s successor, the Asian League of Ice Hockey (ALIH). Fukufuji was named the ALIH’s top goaltender for three consecutive seasons, with his .930 and .932 save percentages in 2002 and 2003 leading the ALIH.
Fukufuji spent the 2014-15 season in the Danish league with the Esbjerg Energy, where his team finished second. In 2015, he re-joined the Icebucks, where he currently plays.
After a 5 year absence from the national team due to his career in North America, Fukufuji returned to the crease for the 2010 IIHF World Championships Division 1A and helped Japan win a bronze medal. He was named the tournament’s top goaltender, an honour he would also receive in 2014 (Division 1A), 2017 (Division 1B), and 2018 (Division 1B). Fukufuji has won two bronze medals in Division 1A (2010, 2014) and two silver medals in Division 1B (2017, 2018).
Now 36, Fukufuji remains Japan’s starter in net and will look to help Japan win gold at the 2019 IIHF World Championships Division 1B in April.