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The NHL Draft Pick Who Never Existed
By Max Toth
The NHL draft is coming up on October 6th and is always one of the most important dates on any franchise's calendar. One good pick can take a team from bottom feeder to Stanley Cup champion, which is why every front office takes the draft so seriously.
Except, that is, for the Buffalo Sabres of 1974, when a Hockey Hall-of-Fame general manager selected one of the most famous, albeit fictional, players in NHL history.
The 1974 NHL draft was very different than the one we obsess over today. Smack in the middle of the World Hockey Association’s existence, the NHL was worried that the rising league would receive leaked information via agents, the media and front office ‘spies’ and poach players that NHL teams intended to draft. To combat this, the NHL implemented a ‘secret’ draft. Instead of gathering in one place and giving the names of drafted players to NHL Commissioner Clarence Campbell personally, teams remained at their head offices and phoned into the commissioner with the name of the player they wished to draft. It was a slow and meticulous process and one of the many people irritated by the boredom was the legendary Punch Imlach, who was serving as GM of the Buffalo Sabres. As the draft crept into the eleventh of 25 rounds, Imlach felt he had already chosen all the players he wanted, which included future all-stars Lee Fogolin and Danny Gare. Noticing Imlach's frustration with the draft, Sabres PR director Paul Wieland came up with a prank to lighten the mood and poke fun at the complicated drafting process.
Paul's wacky and fiendish plan, which he shared with Punch?
The Sabres would draft a player who didn't even exist.
Wieland and Imlach knew that creating a fictional Canadian or American player wouldn’t work. North American players were too heavily scouted for at least one team not to notice that a phony skater had been selected. But scouting for talent across the pond was still in its infancy and NHL and WHA teams were scrambling to find out which nations were and weren’t hockey hotbeds. So while it wasn’t unheard of for a team to be sending scouts to east Asia, for example, the chance of other teams having great knowledge about those potential players was pretty small. Of course, the mid-70's were also pre-Google and before the internet existed, (In other words, my dad was in the prime of his life back then) so it would be almost impossible for the average hockey fan to track a player from abroad. So, with all that in mind, Wieland and Imlach decided on Japan as the official homeland of the Sabres fictitious hot prospect. Now, they needed to come up with a name for their pretend puckster. Suddenly, Wieland remembered a grocery store that he sometimes drove by in Buffalo, which carried the name "Tsujimoto". Imlach phoned the owner of the store, Joshua Tsujimoto, and asked permission to use his name for their draft hijinks. Tsujimoto obliged and also mentioned to Punch that Taro (which means "eldest son" in English) was a popular name amongst Japanese boys. With the "name game" complete, Wieland went to work creating a junior team for Taro Tsujimoto, coming up with the Tokyo Katanas - not a huge stretch as a Katana is a Japanese sword - sword, Sabre, Katana…..got it? A few fictional stats, a phony height and weight and, just like that, the Sabres had their man. Finally, Imlach called the pick into NHL headquarters and it was a done deal…..Taro Tsujimoto was the 183rd pick of the 1974 NHL draft.
For the four months leading up to Sabres training camp, Wieland and Imlach let almost nobody in on the hoax. Even the Sabres ownership group was eagerly awaiting the arrival of a player who Imlach called “the fastest skater to ever live.’’ As the first Japanese player to ever be drafted into the NHL, Tsujimoto received a ton of buzz from media and fans alike. He was listed in the Sabres official media guide and was reported on in respected publications such as "The Hockey News". Once the opening of training camp rolled around, Taro’s stall in the Sabres dressing room was ready to go, complete with his own #74 jersey. But, as it turned out, the “Pride of Tokyo” never showed up and Imlach and Wieland finally let everyone in on the joke.
Nowadays, Tsujimoto is somewhat of a legend amongst Sabres fans. When the Sabres are losing big at home (which unfortunately has been a pretty regular occurrence over the years), fans chant “We want Taro!” It’s also not unusual to see Sabres fans sporting Taro’s jersey or hanging a banner stating "Taro Says….." accompanied by a funny comment about an opposing player or team. In 2011, Panini’s hockey card company included a Taro trading card in their rookies set, featuring an Asian hockey player sporting the blue and gold colours of the Sabres. Although he was drafted before future Stanley Cup champions Dave Lumley and Stefan Perrson, almost no player, real or fake, could ever replace Taro Tsujimoto in the hearts of Sabres fans.
So, when this year's draft rolls around in a few weeks, the Sabres will definitely be looking to land the next Jack Eichel.
But let's face it.
There will always be a little piece of Taro in every Sabres fan worth their salt…...or Sake.