No matter who the Buffalo Sabres select with the No. 13 pick in tonight’s NHL draft, he should be so lucky to achieve the level of notoriety that 1974 Buffalo pick Taro Tsujimoto enjoys.
It’s been 49 years since the Sabres drafted the Japanese player Tsujimoto in the 11th round, 183rd overall. He has earned legendary status in both NHL draft history and Buffalo folklore. He has an impressive record, especially considering the man doesn’t exist.
Tsujimoto was a fictional character created by Buffalo general manager Punch Imlach and Paul Wieland who was an original member of the Sabres public relations staff. Wieland died just over four months ago.
“They showed the organization understood it was in the entertainment business and it was all about having fun and bringing people together,” said former Sabres public relations director Gerry Helper.
Helper was in high school in the Buffalo area when Wieland and Imlach pulled off the Tsujimoto con job. He learned all of the details from Wieland after joining the Sabres organization in 1979. After Imlach and Wieland hatched the scheme, Wieland penned a fake Tsujimoto bio, complete with made-up statistics. Tsujimoto’s team was the Tokyo Katanas. That means Sabres in Japanese.
“People didn’t realize how brilliant someone like Paul Wieland was in being so creative, sometimes in a funny way, but always to build the connection between the team and community. You see the fruits of that still today. They have as loyal of a fan base as any market in the NHL today. I think part of it goes back to the early days (with Taro).”
It was actually easy to pull off the joke. Today, the league immediately verifies the eligibility of drafted players, but back then the ability to check every player wasn’t available.
Before the 1974-75 season, Wieland and Imlach kept telling the media they had been in contact with Tsujimoto. “It was, ‘We reached out. We are hopeful and we are expecting him to come to training camp,”
“They let it go the entire summer, so much so that they had a locker ready for him,” Helper said.
Imlach and Wieland took their joke to the extreme, choosing not to inform the team’s owners (Seymour and Northrup Knox) that Tsujimoto was a bogus prospect. They only informed them after having one last bit of tomfoolery.
Wieland told Helper that everyone arrived at the training camp in St. Catharines (Ontario) still expecting Tsujimoto to show up. Everyone stayed at the same hotel so when a Japanese man coincidentally walked through the breakfast room, heads turned.
“So Paul went up to the desk and had Taro paged and then watched as the Knoxes started looking for him,” Helper said. “He saw the Knoxes get up and go looking for the guy. That’s when he had to come clean that it was a joke. ”
The owners appreciated the thoroughness of the prank. “They loved Paul’s sense of humor,” said Helper who recently retired after 40 years working for NHL teams. He ended his career with the Nashville Predators.
The Tsujimoto legend had momentum. It didn’t hurt that the following season the Sabres reached the Stanley Cup Final. “The town was consumed with Sabres fever so the Taro thing became part of it,” Helper said
A group of long-time season-ticket holders, calling themselves the “phantom sign makers” began hanging signs from Memorial Auditorium’s orange balcony that started with the phrase: Taro Sez.
“They usually were plays on words…,” Helper said. “Is Lindy Ruff? Does Larry Playfair? They would do them often about the oppposing team. That went on for several years and Paul created a bumper sticker in 1974-75 that read: Taro Sez: Win the Stanley Cup. But it was in Japanese.”
The Sabres were involved in helping the local zoo and adopted a baby Buffalo. What did they name it? Taro. Of course.
Through the years, the story legacy continued to have legs. Taro isn’t real and yet he has a real hockey trading card in the 2010-11 Score set.
Next year it will be the 50th anniversary of his selection in the NHL draft . The league, by the way, has officially removed him from the draft record. He was a voided pick. But Buffalo fans still count him. He’s too memorable to forget.
Maybe the Sabres will celebrate the anniversary next season.
“I suspect someone will make a big deal about it,” Helper said.