Born Nov. 16, 1954 in Osaka, Japan, Taro Tsujimoto was a pint-sized forward at 5-foot-8, 180 pounds. His diminutive size didn’t stop him from putting up 15 goals and 25 points in his draft year. And though his stats won’t lead him to the Hockey Hall of Fame, he is truly a legend.
The 1974 Entry Draft
With the annual NHL Entry Draft set to take place later in June, it’s a great opportunity to reminisce about one of the funniest stories in NHL draft history. It happened back in 1974 when the Buffalo Sabres drafted Tsujimoto.
Back in 1974, the NHL Entry Draft was very different than the spectacle it has grown into today. For starters, it lasted a full 11 rounds, compared to the seven rounds today. There was no social media. There wasn’t even an internet. For that matter, the draft wasn’t a big media event like it is these days. In fact, teams wanted to keep the event secretive, for the most part, to prevent the upstart, rival World Hockey Associationfrom snatching their picks.
Instead of every team attending the draft in a single arena, the 1974 event was held via teleconference. It was a painstakingly slow, laborious process that tested the patience of every NHL club. And since the Sabres general manager Punch Imlach only cared about players selected in the first half of the draft, believing that players selected in the later rounds had little-to-no chance of making the NHL, it annoyed him to no end.
Imlach, a four-time Stanley Cup-winning coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs, selected 10 players through the first 10 rounds. He bolstered his team with Lee Fogolin with the Sabres’ first pick, Danny Gare with his second-round pick and even found Derek Smith with his 10th-round pick. He had no need for an 11th-round pick – to him, it was a waste of time. He had reached his boiling point. So with the assistance of Sabres’ Public Relations Director Paul Wieland, Imlach decided to make the most of the selection, pulling off a practical joke on the League and its commissioner, Clarence Campbell.
Hatching a Plan to Draft Tsujimoto
In the mid 1970s, NHL scouts were just starting to find talent in countries in Europe. Knowledge of players outside of North America was just starting to grow. So, with the 183rd pick in the 11th round of the draft, Imlach selected Tsujimoto, a skilled, right-shot playmaker and the star of the Tokyo Katanas of the Japanese Hockey League.
While it sounded like a slightly exotic pick, it was not out of the realm of possibility. And though none of the other teams had heard of Tsujimoto or the Tokyo Katanas, no red flags were raised. Campbell did not want to question Imlach’s choice or call his bluff, so the NHL officially registered it, the media dutifully reported it and the draft carried on.
The Legend of Tsujimoto
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. Another states that Wieland came up with the name based on the name of a store he regularly passed by while in college. As for the first name, one report is that Taro is roughly translated into Sabre. The team name, Katana, following along similar lines, is a Japanese sword. Imlach deserves a lot of credit for his well-thought out hoax.
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. He even kept the ruse going, cooking up a fictional bio for the Tokyo forward to include on the 1974-75 training camp roster. “Some writers bought it completely,” said Wieland.
“They’d say this guy’s training in the Himalayan Mountains,” said Sabres Equipment Manager, Rip Simonick. “He’s the fastest skater to ever live. I said they may even forget about the French Connection.”
Related Link: The French Connection
Nobody knew it was a joke until training camp several months later, when eventually, Imlach had to come clean and announce that the player did not exist and would not be coming to the Sabres. This infuriated Campbell who later switched the pick to “invalid.”
Side note: A few players selected after Tsujimoto actually made the NHL and played several seasons. Dave Lumley went to the Montreal Canadiens with the 199th pick and won two Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers, the New York Islanders drafted Stefan Persson at 214th overall and went on to be a part of four Stanley Cups with the organization, and the New York Rangers took Warren Miller with the 241st pick.
An Inside Joke
As a result of Imlach’s joke, many NHL publications have Tsujimoto’s name listed in their draft coverage. But even though he never existed, his legend continues to live on.
Back when the Sabres played at the Memorial Auditorium, it was common to see banners hung that started with “Taro says…” and every once in a while there’d be a “we want Taro!” chant. And before the advent of mass-retailing jerseys and online stores, fans would make their own Tsujimoto jersey.
In 2011, the NHL trading card company Panini created a Tsujimoto trading card. Both the league and NHL were on board for this idea and the card was fabricated. There’s been memorabilia: baseball caps, bumper stickers, even a fictional biography. Tsujimoto can be found on Twitter, Facebook and even has a profile on Elite Prospects. To this day, fans can be spotted all around the league wearing jerseys with “Tsujimoto” on the back. The prank…the legend of Tsujimoto continues to gain momentum and will not be forgotten.
Could ‘Tsujimoto’ Happen Today?
Today, the NHL draft is so well scouted that every player taken, and even many passed over, have been scouted in depth. Many publications have a draft guide, with profiles of the top 150 or 200 players. Mock drafts are a dime a dozen.
The event is televised and streamed online, so when selections are made, reaction on social media is immediate. In the seconds after a prospect is selected, fans of a team are quick to tweet or post or YouTube the player.
While the idea of a current general manager playing a similar joke would be equally hilarious today, it is highly unlikely. However, with the draft nearing, it does present a great opportunity to think about the joke that Imlach played in 1974 that will forever be remembered as the Legend of Taro Tsujimoto. He is still listed among Sabres’ draft picks in the team’s media guide.
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”