The Legend of Taro Tsujimoto

It’s been almost 50 years, and in Paul Wieland’s head the details are sometimes a bit blurry. But he remembers very well a phrase his manager uttered at the end of the table: “And if we tried something crazy? »

Posted at 5:00 am

Richard Labbe

Richard Labbe
The press

The year is 1974 and the scene is set in the middle of the National Hockey League (NHL) draft. Do you think it drags on a little these days, an NHL draft? Well, 1974 is going to be a long stretch because overall, for the most part, clubs will pick prospects for a total of 12 rounds…including the Washington Capitals who will go to 25 alonee spin to choose a final player!

In all, it spanned three very long days, and in that atmosphere of slowness, heaviness, and weariness, the general manager in question, George “Punch” Imlach, decided to act with his assistants in the small office of the Saber in Buffalo. The Sabers wanted to do something crazy and they weren’t disappointed with their selection of 11e Tower, the 183e Overall, they designed Taro Tsujimoto.

A supposedly talented player…whose biggest mistake was never having existed.

***

In late May 1974, the NHL Draft looked very different. There are no cameras, no live TV, and the world of pundits and speculators doesn’t exist because the internet doesn’t exist either.

This draft comes under high tension as the NHL grows increasingly suspicious of the rival league World Hockey Association (WHA), born two years earlier. The two districts in particular do not want to lose the slightest hope of leaving the junior ranks. For that reason, and perhaps a little paranoia, NHL President Clarence Campbell mandates that the draft be drafted over the phone rather than in person. That way, the draft lists stay secret and the NHL can harvest the best young talent available without making too much noise.

In this regard, Wieland, director of public relations for the Sabers, is found in the club office in the old Buffalo Auditorium along with Imlach, ex-Coach The Toronto Maple Leafs legend became Buffalo’s general manager. Along with them, a couple of Boy Scouts crowd around the table and the rotary phone.

“Our repechage went well,” Wieland remembers at the end of the phone. We got our hands on some excellent players when we left including Danny Gare. But it was long. My god that was long! »

No one knew who called who, so at each rank Campbell called the next team and named all the previously selected players; When he came to us in the ninth round I think he called 150 guys before we could talk! It was like watching paint dry.

Paul Wieland, former Public Relations Director of the Buffalo Sabers

Here Imlach, a comedian in his spare time, decides to try something against boredom. Wieland, a big fan of the April Fool’s Day traditionah April was done.

“I said: why not design a Japanese player? And the only thing one of the assistants in the room could say to me was yes, ok, but we have to find a name for him! »

The family name came up fairly quickly; As a student, Wieland remembered a store called Tsujimoto’s on the way to college. The first name was found after a call to a language institute in the area, where a translator argued that taro was a very popular first name in Japan at the time.

Thus was born the Japanese hope.

“The funny thing is, adds Wieland, that Campbell then had to kill himself by spelling that name in front of the other teams to end the repechage! Then the official NHL guide said: Taro Tsujimoto, Buffalo Sabers. »

***

For most teams, the joke might have lasted a few days before someone finally decided to tell the truth.

But the 1974 Sabers decided to make the fun last.

“Punch didn’t want it to stop,” recalled Floyd Smith, the Sabers’ head coach at the time. As training camp drew near, all sorts of excuses were invented to explain Taro’s absence. One of the things I remember is that he had problems with his visa. Then he got lost somewhere in Belgium [rires] ! »

When the Sabers camp opened in St. Catharine’s, Ontario that season, Smith even went so far as to ask club employees to prepare a locker on behalf of the Japanese player. Just in case… “He had his name on a sign like everyone else,” he recalls. We had prepared gloves, skates, pants, his sweater with number 13…”


PHOTO ROBERT SKINNER, LA PRESSE ARCHIVE

Larry Carrière, ex-Buffalo Sabers defenseman when he was general manager of the Laval Rocket

Larry Carrière remembers it very well. The former Montreal defender was then entering his third season with the Sabers and, like everyone else, was eager to see this mysterious Japanese player.

Because the players thought it really existed…

We all thought it would happen eventually. They had put his locker right between the attacker and the defender. We wondered when he would be there. His sweater was there, but there was nobody in it…

Larry Carrière, former defenseman for the Buffalo Sabers

Career also recalls that nobody could say anything about this Mr. Tsujimoto. What was his caliber? What kind of player was he? The club’s management had simply announced that katanas would come from Tokyo (another invention), but nothing more. Between the branches, some players had already indicated that it would not be a Japanese player who would take their place…

The 1974–75 season began, and according to Wieland, the Sabers continued to play the game, and given the magnitude of our improbable stories about him, some journalists have realized it was a show. After a few years, the league cleared its name. »

But Taro’s legend never stopped growing. Banners with his name periodically appeared in the stands of the Buffalo Auditorium over time until the arena closed in 1996. To this day, fans at the KeyBank Center, the current home of the Sabers, sport jerseys with his name on them.

So Taro Tsujimoto was never born but is still alive.

“It’s funny because Punch Imlach was a Coach who was there for his players, says Carrière. But his best story is that of a player who was never there for him! »

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