Sunday, 22 July 2012

Whatever Happened To Tsujimoto?

George "Punch" Imlach was quite a historical figure during his time as an NHL coach and executive. He was stubborn, irascible, and maybe a little crazy, but he sure knew his hockey. If you haven't heard the story of how he drafted a fairly unknown Japanese hockey player from the JHL while he was the general manager of the Buffalo Sabres, get ready for a lark of a tale. Punch Imlach was nothing if not controversial, and he certainly created controversy surrounding Taro Tsujimoto in 1974 NHL Entry Draft. This is the story of how Imlach drafted a player who never existed as a player in the Japan Hockey League, and who played for a team that didn't exist in the Japan Hockey League.

This story, if you're a Buffalo Sabres fan, runs deep, and the Sabres actually have Tsujimoto's name in their media guide as a draft pick in the 1974 NHL Draft. There was much excitement surrounding this new foreigner that the Sabres had drafted, especially since players from Europe were beginning to find jobs in the NHL. A player from Japan, however, was far more exotic in that there wasn't much known about the level of play in Japan at that time. The story that emerged, however, wasn't nearly as interesting as the hype that surrounded the pick made by Imlach as a joke.

Before 1980, the NHL Entry Draft was only open to NHL General Managers and league officials. It certainly didn't have the media hype it had today, and the vast majority of drafts through the 1970s happened via conference call or through a meeting at a designated hotel. In 1974, the league opted for the conference call draft, and that meant there was a lot of waiting between picks as teams scoured their draft lists for another kid they hoped could change their fortunes, especially late in the draft. Telephone drafts in those days would normally run three days long!

Imlach, not being the most patient man to start with, began to grow tired of the long pauses and tedious process of drafting players that, ultimately, had a slim-to-none chance of ever playing in the NHL. In order to appease his boredom, Imlach decided to have a little fun at the expense of the NHL and the other general managers.

From the Sabres' website:
"Sending a secretary to find some common Japanese names, Imlach soon came up with the imaginary Taro Tsujimoto of the Tokyo Katanas - literally translating to the Tokyo Sabres (Katana is a type of Japanese samurai sword).

"When NHL President Clarence Campbell asked Imlach for his selection, he was met with laughter from around the League. International scouting wasn’t as prevalent as it is in the NHL now, and drafting a player from Japan wasn’t exactly a common practice.

"But Imlach carefully spelled the name of his invented centerman, which was printed in every record book and media guide in the League.

"Reporters in the following weeks grilled the Sabres GM about the arrival of Tsujimoto to Buffalo. Imlach would simply respond by saying the prospect would come soon."
So exactly where did Imlach come up with such a convincing Japanese name? According to reports, Imlach, or his secretary, apparently found the name in a Buffalo phone book, and ran with it. When speaking to league officials about his pick (after the laughter had subsided, Imlach described Tsujimoto as "a 5'8", 180-pound playmaker from the Tokyo Katanas."

However, an article in the February 2, 1992 edition of the Reading Eagle in Reading, Pennsylvania states that the idea for Tsujimoto actually came from Buffalo's former publicity director Paul Wieland, former head coach Floyd Smith, and some of the Buffalo scouts. As per the article, the name Tsujimoto was actually the name of a jewelry store in Buffalo, and they chose the Tokyo Katanas because katana means "sword" in Japanese. I also should add that "Taro" is the Japanese word for "sabre".

Some very interesting revelations there, I must say, as someone is actually trying to take credit for the Imlach selection! Imlach is on record as the person who made the selection, though, so there is no debating who said his name on the conference call.

To push matters a little further, Panini decided to create a Taro Tsujimoto hockey card in its 2010-11 Score Rookies & Traded box set! The faux player was actually given a face and number for people to look for in their next pack of hockey cards!

"The creative team was looking to come up with something special, something really unique, for this program," said Al Muir, Panini's Hockey Brand Manager. "The legend of Tsujimoto is one of those great hockey stories that has been perpetuated not just in Buffalo, but around the game. It's one that gets told to this day in dressing rooms and on bar stools, and that's what made him a natural for this project."

What did the NHL and NHLPA think of this idea?

"We got approval from the league in less than 10 minutes," Muir replied. "They loved it immediately. The PA took a little longer, but then they got behind it in a big way. It was actually a PA staffer who helped us acquire the period-appropriate photo used on the card. Without that, we simply couldn’t have executed the concept this well."

Without further adieu, here is the Tsujimoto card you're missing from your Panini card set.
And who is the mystery man in the uniform if Mr. Tsujimoto didn't exist?

"That's a mystery for another day," Muir said.

Indeed, Mr. Muir. But the mystery of why Tsujimoto never played in Buffalo is pretty well-known. The one change that the NHL historians made was that the 183rd pick of the 1974 NHL Entry Draft now shows in the NHL records as "invalid pick". But that hasn't stopped the Buffalo Sabres from claiming that history. And it shouldn't stop your "We Want Taro" chants, Buffalo fans!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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