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Nana Fujimoto Joins NWHL, Signs With Riveters

Nana Fujimoto was the top goaltender at the 2015 IIHF Women’s World Championships, but most North American hockey fans don’t know her name — not yet, at least.

The 26 year old Japanese goaltender has reportedly inked a contract with the New York Riveters of the NWHL, the first true professional women’s hockey league in North America. Unlike the CWHL, the Riveters and the three teams they’ll compete against — the Buffalo Beauts, the Boston Pride, and the Connecticut Whale — are all signing their athletes to professional contracts. In other words, that means they’ll get paid.

At the Women’s Worlds, Fujimoto caught the attention of women’s ice hockey fans worldwide when she posted a .938 SV% throughout the tournament as a part of Team Japan, allowing only eight goals against over five games and recording a shutout. She most recently attended the NWHL skills camp, which served as the only international tryout for female skaters in the United States, and apparently played well enough to earn herself a spot in New York’s lineup.

In an earlier profile by NWHL writer Kate Cimini, Fujimoto was cited as drawing influence in her game from North American netminders she admired — including, she was clear to add, Canadian netminder Charline Labonte, who caught her attention at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

As a high-calibre athlete coming from a nation that hasn’t quite picked up steam for the sport she excels at, it makes sense for Fujimoto to be signing with the NWHL. She’s going to get paid, and the quality of competition she’ll receive at the NWHL level is almost certainly going to be above that which she’d receive back in Japan. A vast majority of the women who will be playing in the league, after all, are coming off illustrious careers in the NCAA — which, up until now, has widely been considered one of the highest levels of competition for female hockey players in North America.

What makes Fujimoto an interesting netminder is her size — she’s listed at 5 foot 4 and just 119 lbs, despite clearly being one of the most agile and effective women’s netminders worldwide. This puts her at a direct contrast with the style of goaltending that, at the very least, the NHL has been moving towards — where size has become the predominant factor when first considering what can and can’t hold a netminder back. It’s even bled over into women’s hockey, to an extent. To put it in perspective, Labonte — the netminder Fujimoto herself has claimed influences her game — stands at 5 foot 9 and 159 lbs. That’s five inches and 40 lbs difference — for perspective, that’s roughly the size difference between Mitch Marner and Lawson Crouse.

A significant part of what many have attributed to the success of the Japanese women’s hockey team — dubbed ‘Smile Japan’ — has been Fujimoto herself. She’s got a consistent game, failing to allow the opposition to get a good enough read on her style to break past the small netminder — something that’s not as common as one might think. There’s also plenty of reference to the sheer joy the Japanese national team got when they appeared at the Sochi Olympics, though — Hooked on Hockey Magazine suggests that the team played like a group of women truly happy to be where they were — and that’s likely going to be an attribute Fujimoto brings with her in net for the Riveters.

Per NWHL writer Hannah Bevis, the Riveters held their first camps under head coach Alana Blahoski. Although the head coaching position is still vacant, keep an eye out for team GM and league founder Dani Rylan to look at national team coaches again.

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