The New York Riveters have certainly made waves this NWHL off-season. They signed superstar Amanda Kessel for the highest salary yet in the young league, but another young player making the league minimum salary has caused an equal stir.
Jaimie Leonoff’s signing with the Riveters was met with surprise from fans and media. Leonoff played phenomenally with the Connecticut Whale in the league’s inaugural season, and it was unclear why she would not return to the team she was so dominant with. Additionally, the Riveters had their own star goalie in Nana Fujimoto. Fujimoto was by far the biggest star to sign with New York in the NWHL’s inaugural year. She quickly became a fan favorite, quickly leading the league in jersey sales. Though injury prevented her from perhaps playing to her full potential, most thought she had more to give should she return to New York for next season.
Now that the Riveters have signed a powerhouse goalie in Leonoff, what do we know about Fujimoto’s future with the team? In short, it doesn’t look good.
Team Japan Obligations
Chad Wiseman, head coach and GM of the Riveters, seemed very unsure about Nana’s availability for the coming season. Her commitments to the Japanese National Team may put her professional career in jeopardy. “This year they made it very clear, Team Japan, that any event they had back in Japan to get ready for the Olympics, Nana had to be there,” Wiseman said in an interview with Along the Boards. Fujimoto, Japan’s starting netminder, rose to superstardom during the 2015 World Championships, when she was named the tournament’s top goaltender.
In the 2016 Women’s World Championship, Team Japan finished in last place of the top division, which means they were relegated to the lower division. This also means that they will need to play in a series of qualification tournament games if they want to appear in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Japan currently sits in seventh in the IIHF rankings. They have a fairly good shot in the qualifying tournament, but it’s going to be a dogfight between six teams fighting for just two remaining spots, with Switzerland, Germany, and the upstart Czech Republic still in the mix. Although Japan’s disappointing finish at the WWC revealed that they need more preparation, it appears that they’re taking this preparation seriously.
“I went over it with her agent a few weeks ago,” Wiseman added, “[Team Japan obligations] would result in [Fujimoto] probably missing a quarter of the seasons in games, and who knows how many practices.”
Responsible Roster Building
Wiseman also cited the change in the roster configuration for next season as a deterrent from signing Fujimoto. Each NWHL team will only have two salaried goalies, with the third goalie being moved to a practice player role. “We don’t have that luxury of having a third goalie,” Wiseman explained. “We can’t afford to have our goalie missing four to five games and seven or eight practices.”
This is a valid concern for Wiseman. If one of your potential starting goalies is already missing four games, that’s four games you have to pay your practice goalie to dress. That’s four games of possible inconsistency in net for your team. If one of your remaining goalies is injured, that’s four games you have to find an emergency backup netminder for.
Optimistic Fujimoto fans can hang on to a sliver of hope. Wiseman did say the practice goalie spot is technically an option, albeit not a realistic one. “I don’t know the regulations on bringing in a practice goalie on a visa,” Wiseman admitted. “It’s something that we’re looking into, but I’d say it’s probably highly unlikely you’ll see it.”
No More Nana?
What would losing Fujimoto mean for the Riveters, and the NWHL as a whole? For starters, they would be losing a star and fan favorite. Fujimoto was arguably the most recognizable name on the Riveter’s roster last season. While they now have Amanda Kessel to get top billing, Fujimoto would still have been an asset in marketing the team and the league as a whole, especially to an international crowd.
This could also have implications for other Japanese players or international players from any country. Other countries may take similar approaches as the 2018 Olympics draw closer depending on whether they’ve qualified for the Games or not. Current players would possibly have to return to their home countries, and drawing in new foreign talent would be difficult.
There is no news yet as to whether Team Japan obligations will affect players in the CWHL. Four Japanese players skated in the CWHL last season, and two more are registered for the CWHL 2016 Entry Draft (to clear up any confusion: the CWHL has confirmed that Nachi Fujimoto, who’s registered for the CWHL draft, is not related to Nana).
Nothing is set in stone yet. Wiseman is still in communication with Fujimoto’s agent. For now though, it looks as though fans of Nana may be disappointed for the NWHL’s second season. Diehard fans may continue to hold out hope, but according to Wiseman, Fujimoto’s return to the Riveters is “probably pretty unlikely.”