Behind the Mask with Mariah Fujimagari of the Buffalo Beauts
From Maine to Slovakia to Worcester, MA to Buffalo, Fujimagari’s backstopped all over the world
The Buffalo Beauts have had some great goaltenders of the course of the franchise’s history and they are hoping they found another one in Mariah Fujimagari who signed with the team this past off-season. After concluding four years at the University of Maine the 25-year-old netminder played one season in Slovakia and one season in the CWHL with Worcester.
It was in Slovakia where she not only played some of the best hockey of her career, but she was teammates and became close friends with two current Beauts - Iveta Klimášová and Lenka Čurmová - and word is that she had a big hand in helping to recruit the two Euro stars to come to play in the NWHL for Buffalo. Despite having only three wins in 13 appearances this season Fujimagari has shown she can play at an elite level as evidenced by her 42-save performance in a 4-3 come-from-behind win against Minnesota in November.
We caught up with the Beauts netminder following a recent game in New Jersey to find out the answers to questions like - how does it feel to be the fastest goalie in the NWHL? How was her All-Star Game experience? And how can Buffalo make the Isobel Cup Final in a fifth straight year? Plus more!
The Ice Garden: How much relief is there after this win that snaps a long winless skid?
Mariah Fujimagari: I would say the number one emotion is togetherness. We’re such a family through and through, and riding the wave is really what a hockey season is about. We battled so hard, stuck to the game plan, and stuck together. Togetherness is the one word that would describe this game, this battle, and this journey with this team.
TIG: Last weekend you were representing the Beauts at the NWHL All-Star Game, and you played phenomenal stopping 17 of the 18 shots that you faced. What were your impressions of the weekend?
MF: It was incredible. Just to have such a professional experience at the All-Star Weekend was amazing. It was cool getting to know the girls on the other teams, usually, they are your adversaries, so it was wonderful to get to know them a little with their masks off. To be able to give the fans something a little different to watch with our Skills Competition - that was a lot of fun for all of us.
Jumping into that 4-on-4 game was fun, there were a lot of outnumbered rushes back and forth. It was just an incredible experience for my first All-Star Game in a professional league. I was honored (to be there) and represent the Buffalo Beauts. The NWHL put on such a great event in a great venue. Whether it was the recovery station with our sponsor NORMATEC, or just the support we had the whole weekend from everyone, I enjoyed it all so much.
TIG: And you can now say that you are the fastest goalie in the NWHL! Did you ever think that’s something you’d be able to say?
MF: Hmmm, I definitely didn’t anticipate skating around in a contest in all of my goalie equipment when I was growing up and watching the NHL Fastest Skater event (laughs)! But it was fun and I am glad that we can entertain our fans with things like that. (As goalies) we’re like Transformers and Bionic Women skating around the ice (smiles). I was proud to win it, I just put my head down and tried to skate as fast as I could.
People underestimate how much goaltenders are really good skaters. We have such a small portion of the ice to manage but we have to manage it efficiently to make saves; we conserve energy so we can give it our all out there. I spend a lot of time doing edgework, doing player drills and things like that throughout my career. I grew up being a figure skater.
TIG: At the All-Star Game you had a bunch (3) of collegiate teammates there, how unique and/or special was that for you?
MF: It was fantastic to have four of us (Audra Richards, Cailey Hutchison, Brooke Stacey) there, including myself, representing the University of Maine. The bonds that you develop when you’re in college athletics is something that shapes you for the rest of your life. To go through those things as teammates and then be on a professional stage with them is an amazing thing. To come back together and share memories and laughs all weekend was pretty awesome.
TIG: I bet you’re glad you didn’t let any of them score on you either, right?
MF: Exactly! I had to shut the door on them (laughs)! They were poking fun at me when I would cover the puck up and stuff like that. It was a fun experience and you give it to each other a little harder because you were teammates in the past.
TIG: Previously in your career, you played overseas, what was it like playing in a country so far away?
MF: It was phenomenal and I learned so much about life, hockey, and connections. Being able to go into a foreign country and be fully immersed…only five teammates there spoke English. Being able to jump on the ice and realize that we’re all so passionate about hockey and that’s what unites us. That was so humbling to learn and gave me so much gratitude for the sport, understanding that it’s a sport that is so passionate by people worldwide.
It didn’t matter what language we spoke, what background we came from - when we jumped on the ice we all wanted to play hockey and were all passionate about that. I learned so much from the girls there and I’m so happy that two of them are here from Slovakia playing on this team with me. Those are sisterhood bonds that I’ll always have for life.
We ended up winning the championship that year and it was so incredible to be a part of. Hockey is such an endurance sport and we play it over a number of months. You have to face adversity, you have to overcome it. You have to earn those successes and earn them humbly. It taught me a lot about life, about character, and brought so much happiness to my life.
TIG: You’re a true pro because you just set me up for the next question I had! The Beauts have been to the Isobel Cup Final in each of the first four seasons in the NWHL, how can you get this team back to a position where you are playing for the Cup?
MF: That has been our ultimate goal all season. We are focusing on the process, what we each can contribute, and leveraging each one of our strengths. If we stick to our game plan, sticking to what we know how to do, and work together as a unit while executing to the best of our abilities is the focus for the last few games in the regular season. We’re really hungry for that Cup and I’m so excited for these final games.
TIG: You recorded an assist this season, do you remember the last time you picked up an assist?
MF: I actually had a few when I played overseas in Europe. I was able to play the puck a lot, and with the ice surface being bigger I was able to utilize my puck-moving skills there. This year against a team like Minnesota, they have an incredible forecheck and they’re really fast. So I knew if they dump the puck in I could play it up to my teammates. I was just pumped to be a part of the action (grins) I felt like a third defender out there! It’s fun, I was pretty excited to pick one up.
TIG: Let’s say next year at the NWHL All-Star Game there is a competition for goalies where you shoot to score a goal into an empty net, is that something you’d be into participating in?
MF: Absolutely (smiles), I would love that! I would absolutely love that and it would be really fun. You should absolutely put in a suggestion to the league for us to do that!
TIG: I’ll put in a word!
MF: I think we’d all love that. Goalies always secretly want to be a part of the play so that would be super fun to have a little goalies’ skills competition where we can showcase our stick handling skills.
TIG: Finally I noticed you had some new silver pads on today and they look so damn cool, what can you tell me about them?
MF: I usually just go with a white base, the only time I went away from that was at Maine when I ventured out. Blue is my favorite color so I went with all baby blue, with a little bit of navy blue. Those are the best colors in all of hockey as far as I’m concerned: baby blue + navy blue + white. It’s an incredible combination. Runner up is our colors here with the Beauts. I always envisioned wearing something like Marc-Andre Fleury’s all-gold pads for the Vegas Golden Knights, so I was excited to be able to rock the all-silver pads and be a little unique, but also keep it simple and clean