Fifty years ago, the Sabres drafted a player who didn’t exist: The legend of Taro Tsujimoto


Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story stated all members of the Sabres front office at the time are deceased. Former coach Floyd Smith is still alive. We regret the error.

Josh Tsujimoto usually wears a No. 74 Sabres jersey sporting his last name if he attends a Buffalo home game at KeyBank Center.

It was a gift from his father, Paul, a few years ago and meant to serve as a tangible souvenir of a family legend that spans five decades. But there are nights when Josh isn’t the only one wearing a No. 74 sweater at a Sabres game. From time to time, you’ll see the odd Tsujimoto jersey sprinkled amongst the crowd in Buffalo.

“You go to a Sabres game and you’re bound to see a couple of Taro jerseys,” says John Boutet, chairman of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. “Some people have the correct number, which is 13. He was given 13. Some people have 74 because that’s the year it was.”

The jersey is a cult classic because the legend of Taro Tsujimoto isn’t just a family story shared by the father and son.

Instead, it’s an inside joke that has been kept alive by Sabres fans for 50 years.

“Some people recognize it,” Josh says when asked about his jersey. “A lot of out-of-town people will come to a game and they don’t know the backstory. So I’ll tell them, ‘He’s not real. But he’s got a Wikipedia page.’”

Taro Tsujimoto was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the 11th round of the 1974 draft.

The team’s official media guide still lists Tsujimoto alongside the other draft picks from 1974. He’s noted as the 183rd overall selection in the draft, a centerman taken from the Tokyo Katanas.

But the NHL’s official guide and record book does not recognize Tsujimoto. His name has been stricken from historical draft records for a very simple reason: Taro Tsujimoto never existed.

The 1974 NHL draft was unlike any other in league history.

The NHL was in the midst of trying to fend off the rival World Hockey Association, which had already poached several of their notable stars. NHL officials were wary that WHA teams would use the results of their draft to try to lure players to their league. So the NHL hatched a unique plan: They would hold the 1974 draft completely veiled in secrecy.

Over a three-day window — starting on May 28, 1974 — teams would select players via a private telephone call, with the 18 general managers phoning in to NHL president Clarence Campbell at the league headquarters in Montreal to record their pick.

Each team had no clue what other clubs were doing, forcing Campbell to re-read the selections each time a team was drafting a player. The first day alone took eight hours, and the draft was scheduled to go as many rounds as general managers chose to draft.

The process became so meticulous and tedious that several teams started skipping picks altogether.

The Kansas City Scouts — despite being a brand new expansion team — opted to skip their eighth-round selection.

The California Golden Seals punted on their ninth-round pick.

Josh Tsujimoto wears his No. 74 Tsujimoto jersey whenever he attends Sabres home games at KeyBank Center. (Photo courtesy of Josh Tsujimoto)

Both Vancouver and Detroit passed on choosing a player in the 10th round.

But the Buffalo Sabres didn’t want to just skip their pick in the 11th round. Instead, they wanted to send a message to league officials that the draft process was needlessly drawn out and exhausting.

The Sabres had four people handling the draft: General manager Punch Imlach, coach Floyd Smith, scouting director John Andersen and public relations director Paul Wieland. Wieland explained in his 2019 book, “Taro Lives! Confessions of the Sabres Hoaxer” that he was there to gather information on the players drafted but he also had eyes on getting into hockey management. Imlach wanted to help him get there.

Imlach walked into the Sabres’ draft suite on the second day of the draft already fed up with the process. As Wieland recalled in his book, Imlach said, “What the hell can we do to piss off Campbell?”

Andersen suggested drafting a player nobody knew about so teams had to comb through their lists to find him. Then Wieland jumped in and said, “We should draft someone who doesn’t even exist … just make up a name from some place that no one would expect. Like Japan for example.”

Imlach thought about it and said, “Japanese? What the hell. Why not?”

In the spring of 1974, Paul Tsujimoto was a 21-year-old college student back in his family home in Elma, N.Y.

He distinctly recalls being called downstairs from his bedroom for dinner one night when his father relayed the story of a mysterious phone call he had received earlier in the day.

“He said someone with the Buffalo Sabres called him on the phone and asked him a couple of questions,” says Paul. “They wanted to know a common name for a boy in Japan. And they wanted to know what the Japanese word for a sabre was.”

Paul’s father — Joshua Tsujimoto — answered the questions.

He told the caller that Taro was a common name for a boy in Japan. And that the Japanese equivalent of a sabre was called a katana.

The idea to phone the Tsujimoto household was the brainchild of Wieland. When traveling back and forth as a college student, Wieland would drive by Tsujimoto Garden and Gifts, the family’s general store. That’s how he came up with the fictitious last name for the draft pick.

Wieland used the answers from Joshua to help fill out an elaborate backstory that included fake stats in a press release. According to the Sabres, Tsujimoto had a modest 15 goals and 10 assists for the Tokyo Katanas in his draft year.

The Tsujimotos and the four people in the Sabres’ draft room were the only ones aware of the gag.

“We had no idea what they were doing until we found out about the draft a couple of days later,” says Paul. “Then we said, ‘Ahhh. That’s why they called.’”

Wieland and Imlach decided to see how far they could take it. When the team went to training camp in St. Catherines, Wieland roped in team trainer Rip Simonick, who built a locker stall complete with equipment and a Tsujimoto jersey with No. 13 on the back.

Danny Gare, the Sabres’ second-round pick in the 1974 draft, remembers being at rookie camp and everyone wondering who Tsujimoto was and when he might show up. The closer the Sabres got to main camp, the more the intrigue intensified.

“They were making cuts and getting ready for main camp and we hadn’t seen him,” Gare says. “There were a lot of discussion like, ‘Where is this guy?’ There were rumors he had trouble getting his immigration papers and all of that. It was a good prank, man. It was quite a thing.”

Even the owners, Seymour and Northrup Knox, weren’t in on the joke. They were asking Imlach and Wieland every day at training camp if Tsujimoto had arrived. Wieland explained in his book that Imlach would just say he “wasn’t sure if the kid would make it this year, but remember we have his rights in case he decides to turn pro in the future.”

“You had to think this guy was real,” Boutet says. “Who would go through that length to play a practical joke? Well, I guess Paul would.”

It probably helped that the Sabres had a strong draft that year. Gare and Lee Fogolin, the team’s top two picks, played more than 800 NHL games. Gare once led the NHL in goals. Even Derek Smith, taken one round before the Sabres drafted Tsujimoto, ended up playing 335 games and collecting 194 points.

“I remember later playing on a line with Derek Smith and Tony McKegney,” Gare says. “We had a great line. I scored 56 the one year and we were going out afterward to celebrate the season. Derek Smith said to me, ‘Yeah, Tickets, you’ll be remembered for leading the league in goals. I’ll be remembered for being the draft pick before Taro Tsujimoto.’”

The whole Sabres organization ended up becoming quite fond of Wieland’s pranks. Each April 1, Wieland would come up with a fake story to send out in a press release. One year, he typed an entire release to announce that the Sabres would be switching to plastic ice in their arena. A local television news reporter fell for the story and ran it on air. He didn’t talk to Wieland for years after the fact.

Gare still laughs at that one, because he’s now a partner at Can-Ice, a synthetic ice company in Canada. Wieland was ahead of his time without even realizing it.

“He had a likable spirit about him,” Gare says. “He always had a comedic side talking to him.”

“Paul Wieland was such a character. I got to know him a bit over the years. A completely creative, zany guy who was so colorful,” adds Paul. “And he always had some out-of-the-box ideas.”

Wieland’s pranks were only part of his charm. He was innovative on the team’s broadcast, came up with the team’s mascot, Sabretooth, who is still around today and is the reason the Sabres sing the Canadian and United States National anthems before games. His impact on the franchise was enough for Boutet to push for Wieland’s induction into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame this fall.

The NHL wasn’t as enamored with Wieland’s jokes. Then-NHL president Clarence Campbell fell for the plastic ice joke when, according to Wieland’s book, he was quoted by the Canadian Press supporting the Sabres’ attempt to keep the league on the cutting edge of technology. So it’s no surprise Campbell didn’t have a lot of patience for the Taro Tsujimoto joke once the league caught wind of it. The Tsujimoto pick was eventually removed from the official record and the pick entry is now just invalid.

But that didn’t stop the legend from living on in Buffalo. There were bumper stickers and trading cards. Some fans would show up to The Buffalo Memorial Auditorium with big signs that said, “Taro says …” with different endings for each game.

“I used to read them all the time because they were clever,” Gare says.

Wieland used to say that his quirky jokes were a way to put a small market team on the map and show off the city and franchise’s sense of humor. In a bigger market like Toronto, New York or Montreal, Boutet doesn’t think something like the Tsujimoto prank would have taken off in the same way.

“Buffalo people are different,” Boutet says. “We get it. We’re OK to laugh at each other. This was the perfect town to do it in.”

Paul Tsujimoto says he first told his son Josh — who is named after his grandfather — about the legend of Taro when he was about 8 years old.

“It was an inside joke with the family for as long as I can remember,” says Josh. “I remember my dad bringing it up when I was little. I didn’t realize how many people knew about this until I got older.”

Paul owns one Taro Tsujimoto rookie card that was gifted to him by a former employer who was able to track one down.

The legend of Taro Tsujimoto isn’t just a family story shared by the Tsujimoto family. It’s an inside joke that has been kept alive by Sabres fans for 50 years. (Photo courtesy of Josh Tsujimoto)

In 2011, the Panini trading card company decided to print a small run of Taro Tsujimoto rookie cards as part of their 2010-11 rookie set. The card lists Tsujimoto’s alleged birthdate — March 15, 1953 — and posts his height (5 feet 9) and weight (165 pounds).

The back of the card featured a short biography that leaned into Tsujimoto’s curious backstory:

“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, 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!’”

Panini received the approval of both the NHL and NHL Players’ Association to produce that Tsujimoto card. An NHLPA staffer even assisted Panini in tracking down an era-appropriate photo to use on the front of the card. But as for the identity of the man posing as Taro Tsujimoto on that trading card, nobody seems to know exactly who it is.

“I have no idea who that guy is on the card,” says Paul with a laugh.

One Tsujimoto card was placed in every 20 boxes of that run, making it an elusive card to obtain. The rarity of that card is the perfect reflection of the mystery around Taro Tsujimoto that has endured for 50 years. And it was all courtesy of the creative mind of Wieland.

“He created a folk hero is what he did,” says Gare. “It’s crazy that it still has legs 50 years later.”

“It’s pretty neat. As time goes on, the younger fans don’t know about it, but the story persists,” adds Josh. “And I like that the story continues on. It’s a fun way to remember my grandpa and Mr. Wieland.”

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic. Photo: Derek Cain / Getty Images)

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