With the annual NHL Entry Draft set to take place later this month, this writer was reminded of one of the funniest stories in NHL draft history, which happened to involved the Buffalo Sabres: the Legend of Taro Tsujimoto.
The Tsujimoto Story
If you have not hear the story, man is it a good one. The year was 1974 and the Buffalo Sabres were on the clock in the 11th round of the NHL Entry Draft. Now, the draft was not as highly covered by media as it is today. In fact, teams wanted to keep the event secretive, for the most part, to prevent the upstart, rival World Hockey Association from snatching their picks. So there were pretty much two options. The first, was to hold the draft in a single location that all teams could attend. However, this was not the option taken in 1974. Instead, option two, the draft was held via teleconference. At the time, the Buffalo Sabres General Manager was Punch Imlach and well, Imlach was not know for his patience. To him players who were being selected in the later rounds had little to no chance of making the NHL.
So, Imlach thought he would pull a little practical joke on the league and it’s commissioner, Clarence Campbell. With the 183rd pick in the 11th round of the draft, Imlach selected Taro Tsujimoto, a skilled playmaker and the star of the Tokyo Katanas of the Japanese Hockey League.
Now red flags should have raised immediately, yet this was a time in the NHL where scouts were starting to find talent in places like Europe, so a player like Tsujimoto, while even more exotic, was not out of the realm of possibility. None of the other teams had heard of Tsujimoto or the Tokyo Katanas, yet the NHL did not want to disagree with the Sabres General Manager and so they officially registered it.
The best part of this “pick” and, the skepticism it received, was that the player and even the team didn’t exist Not only was the player completely made up by Imlach but so was the team, as Tokyo would not receive a team until 1984. The Japanese Hockey League however, did exist as Japan has one of the oldest professional leagues dating back to 1920.
The story goes that Imlach sent one of the team’s secretaries to look in a Buffalo phone book for a common Japanese last name and the result was Tsujimoto. As for the first name, one report is that Taro is roughly translated into Sabre. The team, following along similar lines, Katana is a Japanese sword so you compare that to Sabre and you have your team name. Imlach deserves a ton of credit for this hoax as it was very well thought through.
Leading up to training camp many in the media were very curious about the “Pride of Tokyo” but every time Imlach was questioned about him he simply stated that the player would be at training camp.
Eventually, Imlach had to come clean and announce that the player did not exist and would not be coming to the Buffalo Sabres. This didn’t make Campbell too happy and the pick was later switched to invalid.
As a result of Imlach’s joke, many NHL publications have Tsujimoto’s name listed. But even though he never existed, his legend lives on. For starters, in 2011, NHL trading card company Panini created a trading card of Tsujimoto. Both the league and NHL were on board for this idea and the card was fabricated. Yet it goes farther than that. Not only is the legend an inside joke among Sabres fans and people who work with the team, but Tsujimoto can be found on Twitter, with 358 followers, on Facebook, with 91 likes, on Tumblr and he even has a profile on Elite Prospects. It is fair to say that many have not forgotten the legend of Tsujimoto.
Could It Happen Today?
What needs to be understood about the Tsujimoto hoax is that it happened at a different time. Now a days, the NHL draft is so well scouted that every player taken, and even many passed over, have been scouted in depth.
In addition, social media plays a huge role in today’s draft. The second a prospect is selected, fans of a team are quick to tweet or post or YouTube the player.
So while the idea of a current general manager playing a similar joke would be equally hilarious, it is very unlikely. However, with the draft nearing, it does bring a great opportunity to think about the joke that Imlach played in 1974 that will forever be remembered as the Legend of Taro Tsujimoto.