Japan’s Nana Fujimoto signs with NY Riveters of NWHL (Puck Daddy Interview)

At 5-foot-4, Nana Fujimoto is considered small by most goaltending standards. But as Mark Twain once said, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”

On Monday, the goaltender for the Japanese national team signed a contract to become the netminder for the New York Riveters of the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL).

From the press release:

By age eleven, Fujimoto took on the position of goaltender and was named to Japan’s national women’s team at the age of 16. Fujimoto currently serves as the starting goaltender for Japan’s national women’s hockey team and she played in the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia for Team Japan where she recorded a .885 save percentage.

During the 2015 IIHF World Championship Qualification Series, Fujimoto recorded 13 saves to help Japan secure a spot at the 2015 World Championship in Malmo, Sweden. The Japanese goaltender had an outstanding World Championship tournament as she was selected as the Best Goaltender of the tournament by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). Fujimoto concluded the tournament with 128 saves and a .937 save percentage.

Riveters general manager and league commissioner, Dani Rylan, added, “It’s impossible not to fall in love with Nana Fujimoto. She is one of the best goaltenders in the world and her sheer joy while playing is contagious to teammates and fans alike. She literally traveled across the globe to earn a spot in the NWHL and we are both honored and ecstatic to welcome a member of Smile Japan to the League.”

I chatted prior to the announcement of her contract. Enjoy!

PUCK DADDY: How were you introduced to the sport of hockey?

NANA FUJIMOTO: My father brought me to the skate-rinks one day and that’s how I got into hockey.

What age was that at?

That was age six.

Why did you decide to play goal?

[Laughs] I started out as a player playing forward and defense and I wasn’t really good at it at first. One time my team needed a goalie and at my parents recommendation I started playing in goal. That was around when I was age 11.

And you just stayed on it from there and liked it?

Yes. From age 11 I’ve been a goalie the whole time.

What do you consider your best skill as a goaltender?

I think it’s my ability to focus on the puck, on each shot, and also, to be consistent each game. Not be too flashy, but be consistent.

Who are the biggest influences in your life?

Two people had the most influence on me on the ice. My coach from the Sochi Olympics, the women’s national team coach. I was out of the [national team] roster for a couple years. [Head Coach Yuji Iizuka] brought me back to the Olympic level playing for the national team. He’s one of them. Also, the Canadian goaltender I saw at the Sochi Olympics, Shannon Szabados. I saw her play, and performance wise, she was the other person that had the biggest influence on me.

Did you have a chance to talk to her while in Sochi?

I wasn’t able to speak with her, but I was able to see the finals between the US and Canada in Sochi. That was a very positive impact for me.

You talked about your dad taking you to the rink as a kid. Is he a big influence off the ice?

He definitely had a very big impact on my life. In regards to hockey, he’s very passionate about the sport. He not only did transportation for me to the rinks every day, but also built a small practice facility at my home where I could practice. He’s the one that taught me the fundamentals of the goaltender [position] when I started to become a goalie.

Wow! That’s so cool. Where did you grow up in Japan?

In Sapporo. That’s the northern part of Japan in Hokkaido.

There have been some Japan-born players in the NHL like goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji. Did you follow his career at all?

I know about Fukufuji. I’ve been on the ice with him a couple of times. He has a very good personality, but his goaltender skills are phenomenal. All those factors bring a positive influence to the Japanese ice hockey community.

What was your experience like this past weekend at the NWHL International Camp?

It was an honor to play in such a high level competition. On each team, there was a player equivalent to the level of, or better, of players in Japan. I was very surprised about how competitive the level was and the overall performance by each player.

Why did you pick to sign with the New York Riveters?

That was the first team to make me an offer. Dani, the commissioner of the NWHL, she is also the GM of the New York Riveters, was very passionate about getting me on to her team. Also, the team itself is going to be international. [Lyudmila Belyakova of Russia] signed with the team. I’m really looking forward to the international style of things as well.

Are you excited to move to New York City?

[Laughs] I’ve never been to New York, so I’m very excited to see what it’s like.

OH WOW. That’ll be really fun! A couple more questions. How do you think your signing with the NWHL will help hockey in Japan?

Ice hockey is still a minor sport in Japan. To sign with a professional league in North America will have a huge impact. It will bring a bright future to the Japanese children playing hockey back there and [help] them to know more about the sport of hockey.

How does it feel to be a role model for young girls?

It’s an honor to become a role model, but I understand I need to work hard and keep on winning, keep on improving as a player to become an actual role model for the children.

(s/t Tak Mihara of LeadOff Sports Marketing for translating during interview.)