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Friday, June 24, 2016

NHL Team Drafted Japanese Hockey Player In 1974 - Sorta

In honor of my Toronto Maple Leafs selecting first in the 2016 NHL Amateur Hockey Draft later this evening of June 24, 2016… an honor bestowed upon it by not only being the worst team of 30 this past hockey season, but then also having to win a lottery to get said pick… let me tell you about the time the Buffalo Sabres drafted a Japanese hockey player back in 1974.

Or did they?

George “Punch” Imlach was known as a lot of things by players who played for him back in the 1960s through 1970s - most of them not very flattering… but the man knew how to win.... a sense of humor... not so much.

As the General Manager of the Buffalo Sabres National Hockey League ice hockey team in 1974, Imlach decided to have some fun with the media… and actually declared that the Buffalo Sabres were drafting in the 11th round of the 1974 Amateur Draft with the 183rd pick: star centerman Taro Tsujimoto of the Japanese Hockey League’s Tokyo Katanas.

This was the real-deal draft choice of the Buffalo Sabres.

Media in Buffalo and everywhere else that cared (probably just Toronto and Montreal) went scrambling to make phone calls to see if they could find out just who the heck this Tsujimoto kid was and if he was going to be the next Gilbert Perreault (Forward), Bobby Orr (Defenseman) or the reincarnation of Terry Sawchuk (Goaltender).

Anyhow… Punch had his fun.

There was no Taro Tsujimoto on the Tokyo Katanas because there was no Tokyo Katanas hockey team. Neither was there a real Taro Tsujimoto... at least not in this context.

Imlach was fed up with this year’s slow selection process done via telephone… as a way to keep picks secret from the rival WHA (World Hockey association), so they couldn't try and steal their players for their league. As well, NHL president Clarence Campbell phoned each team, then read and spelled out the names of the round's previous picks. Ugh.

Imlach came up with the plan, and had Sabres PR Director Paul Wieland create the fictional player.

To make it astounding, Wieland wanted to create a player of Asian background - and knew pretty quickly what he wanted the name to be.

Apparently, when Wieland was a college student driving down Route 16 from Buffalo to St. Bonaventure, he would pass the Tsujimoto Oriental Arts and Gifts in Elmira, New York.

Imlach actually contacted Joshua Tsujimoto who owned the store and asked him if he could use his family’s name… needless to say, Imlach did not say why.

Because even I don’t know what the answer would be, Imlach asked Joshua what might be some popular first names for boys. Taro ended up being the Sabres' choice, of course.

To me… the best part of the joke was Imlach NOT letting anyone in on the joke until just before the start of the Buffalo Sabres training camp in September of that year - some two months later.

Tsujimoto even made it into the Buffalo Sabres 1974-75 Media Guide:

Name: Taro Tsujimoto
Born: November 18, 1954, Osaka, Japan
Height: 5’-9” (1.75 meters)
Weight: 165 lbs (75 kilograms)
Position: Center
Shoots: Left
NHL Team (P): Buffalo Sabres
Cur. team: Tokyo Katanas (JIHL)
National Team: Japan
NHL Draft: 183rd overall, 1974 Buffalo Sabres
Playing career: 1974 - present

Official Sabres 1974-75 roster - look at the Forwards, listing. (Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame)
Brilliant! I love that they included statistics from his imaginary 1973-74 hockey season, where he compiled 15 goals, 10 assists for 25 total points. Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!

Why did this work?

At this time, very few hockey players were from outside of North America, but things were beginning to open up with Swedes… so why not someplace as far out as Japan?

Also… with no Internet or home computers, any interested media would actually have to contact Japan to get more information on Tsujimoto… and if any did try, they would have had either language barriers or the fact that Japanese professional hockey isn’t really that popular and it would have been highly likely that no one knew who he was anyway.

As for the Tokyo Katanas hockey team in the JIHL. The JIHL existed, but not so the Tokyo Katanas. Think about it… KatanasSabres… a pointy joke!

Fun fact: The Kokudo Keikaku Ice Hockey Club in Karuizawa, Nagano (formed in 1972) relocated to Tokyo in 1984… eventually producing Japanese hockey talent Yutaka Fukufuji (surname’s last all through article) who would be drafted 238th overall in the 2004 NHL Amateur Draft by the Los Angeles Kings… playing nine years professionally mostly in the minor leagues as a goaltender…

He did play a total of 96 minutes over four NHL games letting in seven goals for a 4.37 Goals Against Average. He had 36 saves over those games but ended up with a horrible 0.837 Save Percentage and a 0-3-0 (won-lost-tie) NHL record…

But he was the first Japanese player… real one, anyway.

As for Tsujimoto? He still shows up from time to time!

Along with the Buffalo Sabres 1974-75 Media Guide, he also appeared in several publications, such as The Hockey News (a publication I subscribe to - a magazine now, it was a newspaper then).

For kicks, the Buffalo Sabres still list Taro Tsujimoto in their annual media guide.

Not-So-Fun fact: NHL President Clarence Campbell wasn’t very happy with Punch Imlach and the Buffalo Sabres.

The pick was eventually stricken from the NHL’s record books.

When Sabres fans found out about the trick, they began to chant “We want Taro” at games. Or banners would be hung by knowledgeable fans saying: “Taro says:…" with a disparaging remark against an opponent.

Lastly… Panini America via the Score brand issued an official unofficial professional hockey card for Taro Tsujimoto as part of its 2010-11 Score Rookie & Traded box set.

That’s it at the very top and just above.

Needless to say, the card depicts an unidentified Asian man wearing hockey colors similar to the Buffalo Sabres blue and gold uniform.

The description on the reverse of the card is even more fantastic, as nowhere does it let on that the player is fictitious. It reads (in case you can see it properly):

In Buffalo, it's not Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?, it's Where Have You Been, Taro Tsujimoto? The first Japanese player ever selected in the NHL draft, the Sabres tabbed the mysterious prospect in the 11th round back in 1974. The Canadiens (Montreal), who had hoped to steal him later in the draft, were rumored to have worked out a deal for the diminutive center that would have sent Jacques Lemaire to Buffalo. Instead, the Sabres held on to his rights and continue to anticipate his arrival. To this day, whispers of his exploits with the Tokyo Katanas stir up the fans at the HSBC Arena, where the faithful often are heard to chant "We Want Taro!"

I love it... the Sabres "continue to anticipate his arrival." This was a 2010-11 card... 35 years after he was drafted.

By the way... this card was a tough one to find in the 99-card set... as it was a special 100th Mystery Card that was kept hidden until the time of the set's release, and was available as a 1:20 ratio of all the cards.

Taro Tsujimoto... if you are still out there, a lonely city turns its eyes to you. He will be 63 years old later this year.

As for Montreal Canadiens player Jacques Lemaire... perhaps he was spurred on by the trade rumors surrounding him for the mysterious Japanese player.

In 1974-75, Lemaire had a fantastic season: playing in all 80 games, scoring 36 times, assisting on 56 others for 92 points. Lemaire ended up winning eight Stanley Cups as a player and as a coach. He currently works as a Special Assignments Coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Let’s go Taro!
Andrew Joseph
I love how it all bookends nicely back to the Toronto Maple Leafs... not only did I not know about the Taro for Lemaire stuff, but I was unaware (or forgot) that Lemaire was working for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Apparently I couldn't have planned the article better myself.

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