The Legend of Taro Tsujimoto and the 1974 NHL Draft

Drafts have been going on now in professional sports leagues for decades and occasionally, there are some memorable moments.

Some of those drafts are interesting for many different reasons. They may be suspenseful, like when we had to wait to find out whether Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf would be picked first in the 1998 National Football League draft. Many are confounding to fans who simply cannot understand why their team took a player that they did not like. And some other drafts can turn out to be downright humorous.

Team scouts aren’t always right about the players they select in drafts and pundits and fans alike can spend a lot of time in the immediate aftermath of a draft analyzing and dissecting the worth of a particular athlete that they may have seen for only an infinitesimal amount of time, if at all. There can be wonderful surprises that come out of a draft selection and there can be surprises that turn out to be miserable for teams and fans alike.

In 1984, the Los Angeles Kings selected Luc Robitaille of the Hull Olympiques 171st overall in the National Hockey League draft.

Robitaille went on to play nineteen years in the league and fourteen of those seasons with the Kings. He scored 668 NHL goals, had 726 assists, and amassed 1394 points in 1431 games. His career was worthy of a Hall of Fame selection in 2009.

In 1994, the Ottawa Senators picked up Daniel Alfredsson in the sixth round, 133rd overall out of his native country of Sweden. Alfredsson played eighteen years in the league, seventeen of them with the Senators.

He scored 444 goals in the league and added 713 helpers for a total of 1157 points in 1246 games.

Those are a couple of examples in which the scouts got it right. They have known to be wrong too. Back in 1980, the NHL draft was in Montreal and the hometown Canadiens had the first overall selection. The Habs had acquired this pick in a 1976 trade with the Colorado Rockies that sent the Canadiens’ first-round pick in 1980, Ron Andruff, and Sean Shanahan to the team in Denver.

This 1980 selection was the first draft in which the age of eligibility of the players had been lowered from 19 to 18.

There was a lot of pressure on the Habs to take a young Quebecois centreman who starred with the Montreal Juniors in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. His name was Denis Savard. But Montreal’s general manager, Irving Grundman wanted a center in the mold of Jean Beliveau. He wanted a big, tall player who was also a prolific scorer.

Grundman, with his team’s first pick in that 1980 draft took Doug Wickenheiser from the Regina Pats of the junior Western Hockey League. Wickenheiser never panned out in la Sainte Flannelle and in December of 1983, he was packaged with Gilbert Delorme and Greg Paslawski and traded to the St. Louis Blues for Perry Turnbull.

Meanwhile, Denis Savard played seventeen years in the league and became renowned everywhere for his spectacular playing style.

He spent thirteen seasons playing for the team that drafted him, the Chicago Black Hawks. He scored 473 career goals and picked up 1096 total points in 1196 NHL games. The Canadiens did eventually acquire Savard and he managed to win a Stanley Cup with the Habs in 1993. In 2000, he was elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame and in 2017, he was named one of the top 100 players of all time by

One of the biggest draft busts in NHL history was chosen at the 1974 draft. The Washington Capitals had the first pick overall and took Greg Joly from the Regina Pats of the Western League. (Honestly, this is not meant to take shots at the Regina Pats, it’s just a bad coincidence.)

Over nine years in the league, Joly played 365 games and scored just 21 goals and 97 points. In a draft that produced Bryan Trottier, Clark Gillies, Pierre Larouche, Mark Howe, Danny Gare, Charlie Simmer, and Bob Bourne, one can suggest that the Caps’ scouts could certainly have done better.

If the Capitals’ scouts and front office can be proud of one thing, at least they drafted a living human being. In 1995, there was a dispersal draft to allow Canadian Football League teams to have access to players from the defunct Las Vegas Posse. One of the players, Derrell Robertson, was selected by the Ottawa Rough Riders. The only problem was that Robertson had passed away in a car accident in December of 1994 and the team was not aware of it.

The following year, in the CFL’s 1996 Canadian college draft, the Montreal Alouettes picked defensive end James Eggink out of Northern Illinois. A few hours after the draft had concluded, the Alouettes were notified by one of Eggink’s former college coaches that the player had died of cancer in December of 1995.

The team’s owner, Jim Speros, formally apologized to Eggink’s family for the error after being notified of his selection.

But in all of these strange draft stories, there is only one that comes to my mind about a team that picked a player that never existed…..and that the team knew about it as they were choosing him!
In that same 1974 NHL draft in which the Caps drafted Greg Joly…and in which the Sabres picked up Danny Gare…those pesky Buffalonians played a little joke on everybody.

Punch's Joke On The League

It can be said that boredom and mischief can produce a heap of trouble. But in this case, it may have also produced one of the most amazing tales that people around The Queen City still talk about all these decades later.

By the spring of 1974, the NHL had been pestered by the rival World Hockey Association for a couple of years. The WHA had been raiding NHL rosters and paying inflated player salaries that were causing NHL owners’ to either match the offers or lose their players. The NHL teams’ profits, and by extension, the owners’ bottom lines began to shrink and their frustrations increasingly grew over that period of time.

They decided to have their junior selection draft in 1974 in as secret a way as possible to prevent the rival league from being able to poach their chosen prospects. There was no such thing as a conference call back then so they did it in the best way they could.

The league office, and most notably the president of the NHL, Clarence Campbell, called each team singularly and asked them for their pick. Then he would call the next team and tell them who had been picked before their turn – player by player. This went on for TWENTY-FIVE ROUNDS!

The Sabres’ general manager at that time was George ‘Punch’ Imlach and he was never one to really consider players after the tenth round very valuable. His feeling was that none of these later-drafted players really had much of a chance to make the big club, nor did they have much chance of filling out a roster as depth players in the minors either.

That and the fact that he was becoming increasingly irritated with the monotonous and lawyerly drone of the league president as he read name after name on every call to the teams made him want to upset the establishment’s apple cart.

Accompanying Imlach in their little ‘war room’ was Paul Wieland, whose role with the Sabres at that time was defined as Director of Communications for the team. Wieland described how the calls from NHL offices would sound. “You would hear Clarence Campbell then announce ‘Is Buffalo on the line? Who is representing Buffalo?’, you know, that kind of stuff,” he told TSN for the mini-documentary Tsujimoto: The Man Who Never Was

The whole process for this particular draft year encompassed a few days and it was all very excruciating for Imlach.

The act of choosing a player was then accompanied by hours of sitting and waiting for every other team to make their picks before it all came back to the Buffalo group to have their turn again.
Then, they had to listen to Campbell recite name after name after name again and again and again.

After their tenth selection, Imlach and Wieland got to talking about throwing a wrench into the whole thing. “The time came, and the two of us are sitting there and were getting comatose, practically,” Wieland recalled. “And I don’t know what started it …I think Imlach said the first thing. ‘You know, we ought to draft someone that nobody knows about.’ So then we all jumped all over it.”

Wieland continued, quoting some of the people in the room at the time. “Ya, that would be funny. What if we drafted a guy that doesn’t really exist?” People around the Sabres at that time, like Floyd Smith and Danny Gare, suggested that when it came to mischief, Wieland would nudge Imlach towards an idea, and eventually, the general manager would jump into the idea with both feet.

Wieland suggested that they make the fictional player Japanese. At that time, the hockey world outside of Canada was just opening up. The number of American players in the league was very small and the North American pro leagues were just starting to take on European players. It would be a while before they would be accepted and viewed as equal to the Canadian and American players though.

The idea of NHL teams sending scouts out to far-off lands in search of prospective hockey players was still a new idea, but one that minds around the league were opening up to. The notion that the Sabres may have known about a player or a number of players from Japan, while kind of out of the ordinary, was not beyond belief.

Wieland had spent his college years at St. Bonaventure University and he would drive down Route 16 from Buffalo through the town of Elma, New York. On that drive, he would pass a store called Tsujimoto’s.

It was originally a vegetable stand at the front of a family farm but expanded into a grocery store that also sold gifts and some Asian goods as well. The patriarch of that family was Joshua Tsujimoto. Sitting there in that office with Imlach as they pondered their little ruse, Wieland knew immediately what the last name of their ‘make-believe’ draftee would be.

Josh Tsuojimoto in front of Tsujimoto Oriental Arts, Gifts, and Foods sign
Photo Credit is unknown

Ben Tsujimoto is Joshua’s grandson. He was not yet born when the 1974 draft took place, but he has heard all the tales so many times that he can recite every story as if he was right in the room as they were happening. Ben made some time for me as I was writing this piece and he told me what happened next.

Imlach and Wieland now had a last name for their draft prospect but they didn’t really have a first name and they wanted something that would sound realistic and believable. “It was actually Punch who cold-called my grandparents, not his secretary or anything like that,” Ben told me. “My grandparents weren’t clued into why Punch was calling and thought it was strange. They learned about the drafting of Taro when everyone else did. We played a minor role in it.”

“Paul Wieland was the mastermind,” Ben added.

So, Punch called Joshua Tsujimoto at his store in Elma and asked him what a good first name might be. Mr. Tsujimoto suggested ‘Taro’. They then asked him what a good Japanese team nickname might be and Mr. Tsujimoto suggested the word for a type of samurai sword which was a ‘katana’. So they had their player. They were going to draft Taro Tsujimoto from the Tokyo Katanas.

Paul Wieland picks up the story. “We thought, ‘Boy this is really going to be funny because he (Campbell) is going to have to spell ‘Taro Tsujimoto’ back sixteen times’. So it came time and we hear (Campbell say) ‘Is Buffalo ready?’ ‘George Imlach here’, okay. ‘Who does Buffalo select?’ (There is a long pause.) He (Imlach) goes ‘Taro Tsujimoto’, and that was it. And we’re just, like, holding our…covering our faces so we don’t laugh…”

And so, with the 183rd pick of the 1974 NHL draft, Buffalo’s eleventh of the selection process that year, they had chosen their imaginary player. No one questioned it and it was officially registered with the league.

The media reported it and it was dutifully noted. Even the New York Times covered the story. The rest of the draft went on as usual and eventually was completed.

The interesting part of it all was that no one did the little bit of homework to see which teams in the Japanese Hockey League actually existed. If they had, they would have seen that there was no JHL team in Tokyo, let alone that there was no team in the league called the ‘Katanas’. As the summer went on, there wasn’t really any digging into much having to do with hockey. We didn’t live in that 24-hour, 7-day-a-week news/sports cycle that we exist in today.

But come September and as training camp neared, the questioning would certainly ramp up. Every time someone would ask Imlach about Tsujimoto, the GM would answer that he hoped he was planning on showing up to camp. The communications office – headed by Wieland – had Taro’s name on the training camp roster.

The Sabres’ equipment manager, Rip Simonick, helped add to the whole frenzy. “They’d say this guy’s training in the Himalayan Mountains. He’s the fastest skater to ever live. I said they may even forget about the French Connection (line).”

It wasn’t until training camp began that Imlach, Wieland, and company would finally have to clear the air about Tsujimoto, the player. Even after a stall had been set aside for him with his nameplate at the top of it, and jerseys were hanging in it with his name emblazoned on the backs of them, the myth still hung in the air until the truth finally came out.

When it did, Clarence Campbell was beside himself with anger. For a while, Tsujimoto’s name still appeared beside the number 183 when it came to the 1974 draft. Eventually, his name was removed and the pick was ruled invalid. I have an old NHL Guide & Record Book that still lists Tsujimoto’s name as a pick from that 1974 draft. But I also have a later Hockey Encyclopedia that has no 183rd selection shown.

1974 NHL draft with Taro Tsujimoto at pick 183
Photo Credit: 1987-88 NHL Guide & Record Book

How The Pick Was Accepted

The one thing that I have often wondered about, that I wasn’t able to find anywhere, was how the Buffalo media reacted after being pranked the same way that Campbell was. Ben Tsujimoto gave me a partial answer. “Just asked my dad about the media reaction in Buffalo. He said he didn’t know,” Ben told me. “It was kind of an inconsequential draft pick, so maybe it was easier for people to appreciate the prank.”

Imlach’s notion that any pick after the tenth round was a redundant one was proven untrue in that draft. Dave Lumley was chosen by the Montreal Canadiens with the 199th pick overall. He ended up winning a couple of Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s. Stefan Persson was chosen by the New York Islanders with the 214th selection. 

He won four Cups with the Islanders. 

The first time I remember learning about the drafting of Taro Tsujimoto was when I read Punch Imlach’s 1982 book Heaven and Hell in the NHL almost forty years ago. 

Imlach treated the story as if it was a footnote in the history of the franchise. But for many Sabres’ fans, it seems to have meant more than that.

fans wearing Taro Tsujmito jerseys at modern game
Photo Credit:

Over the years, Buffalo hockey fans have worn an array of Tsujimoto jerseys with a various set of numbers on the backs of them. People have hung signs both back at the old Auditorium and at the new arena as well that usually start with ‘Taro Says:’. So many different things like license plates, clothing items, books, cards, bumper stickers, pictures, and many other keepsakes have been seen all over Western New York. The people love the tale of Taro Tsujimoto.

 The most interesting and amazing thing about what started out as a mischievous, spur-of-the-moment prank between a general manager and his communications director back in 1974 is that it has developed into a story, a character and a legend that is still recounted, enjoyed and memorialized all these decades later.

In case you’re wondering what became of the family farm and the store, Ben told me that Mr. Tsujimoto sold the farm long ago. 

“I think it closed in the early ‘80’s. 

My grandfather refocused his efforts from farming (and the) gift store to missionary work in Bangladesh and Ethiopia,” Ben said. “It’s now a flower shop called A Snail’s Place.”

 ***This article was first posted on the FiredUp Network.  For more, check out Howie’s work over there.

You can listen to Howie and Shawn Lavigne on The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast, on 181 different platforms or wherever you find your podcasts!

Author - Howie Mooney

When he lived in Ottawa, Canada, Howie was a fixture in sports media. He covered the CFL’s Ottawa Rough Riders, the NHL’s Ottawa Senators, and the OHL’s Ottawa 67s for local television. He also did color commentary for Ottawa Lynx games. The Lynx were the Triple-A affiliates of the Montreal Expos and Baltimore Orioles.

He also spent time as co-host on the morning show for Ottawa Sports Radio. He was co-author of Third & Long – A Proud History of Football in Ottawa and is currently the co-host of The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast.

He is also a feature writer for the FiredUp Network, a sports website out of Toronto.

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