There are some hockey players whose fame has reached beyond the usual fan base… Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, and Gordie Howe are examples. Dozens of others are justly famous within their franchises or to fans of the sport. Among those, Taro Tsujimoto deserves to be recognized as one of hockey’s greatest… even though he never played a single minute of a regulation game.
In 1974, Tsujimoto was picked eleventh in the draft for the Buffalo Sabres. He was selected from the Tokyo Katanas of the Japan Ice Hockey League by Sabres’ General Manager George “Punch” Imlach, at the tail end of what had been a very good draft. The Sabres had selected a handful of players who would go on to become stars of the organization, and were willing to burn a late pick on a player from a foreign country. This was not unusual; at the time, very few US hockey teams were drafting from outside the US and Canada and when it did happen, foreign players were typically selected low in the draft.
There was a hitch to the draft at that time, though; because of competition from the World Hockey League, rules had been set in place to require the draft to be secretive. In 1974, that meant the draft was going through by phone. Also, the rules allowed the draft to continue beyond the original nine rounds if General Managers wanted to continue selecting players. The bonus nature of the pick was why Imlach was willing to reach into his bag of tricks and choose the unknown Tsujimoto in the eleventh round.
The Buffalo press caught wind of the unusual pick and set up a watch for his arrival. Imlach was repeatedly questioned about his rationale for the unusual choice. Even though it was recognized that he’d have very little chance of making the final roster (with the comparatively small size of hockey teams, it’s rare to see deep picks make the squad) there was considerable buzz over the Japanese Center.
Shortly before training camp officially began, Taro Tsujimoto was shown to be one of hockey’s greatest… hoaxes. Imlach confessed that he had simply grown tired of the repeated delays caused by the phone draft, and what he viewed as wasted time from the additional rounds had inspired him to create Tsujimoto out of whole cloth. He’d conferred with a staffer to come up with a plausible Japanese name, assigned him to the “Katanas” because it was a close analog for “Sabres”, created a capsule history for the player, and submitted the information to the league.
Taro’s name was eventually wiped from the official records, changed to “invalid claim”… but not before he’d been included in all of the league reports, scouting rosters and news outlets. He even managed to get his own hockey card in 2010, as part of the Score Rookies & Traded set (only one Tsujimoto card included in every 20 boxes). A little late, certainly… but showing a longevity far beyond most 11th round picks.
Question of the night: If not hockey cards, did you have any collections as a youth?