Friday, May 31, 2024

The legend of Taro Tsujimoto

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Virginia Whitehead
Virginia Whitehead
"Pop culture maven. Unapologetic student. Avid introvert. Gamer. Problem solver. Tv fanatic."

It’s been nearly 50 years, so in Paul Welland’s head, the details are sometimes a bit blurry. But he remembers well a sentence his general manager said at the end of the table: “And if we try something crazy?”

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Richard Lab

Richard Lab

1974, and the scene takes place in the midst of the National Hockey League (NHL) Draft. Do you think she’s pulling a little bit, these days, the NHL draft? Well, in 1974 it was much later, because in general, clubs, for the most part, would choose prospects for a total of 12 rounds …e Scroll to choose another player!

Altogether, it stretched over three very long days, and in such an atmosphere of slow, heavy, and tired, the general manager in question, George “Bunch” Emlach, decided to take action with his lieutenants, in the little office of the Swordsmen in Buffalo. The Sabers wanted to do something crazy, and they didn’t disappoint: their choice of 11e Tower 183e In total, they drafted Taro Tsujimoto.

A supposedly talented player… his biggest flaw wasn’t there.


At the end of May 1974, the NHL draft was much different. No cameras, no live TV, the world of experts and speculators does not exist, because the Internet also does not exist.

This draft is taking place under high tension, as the NHL has become more skeptical of its rival league, the World Hockey League (WHA), which was born two years earlier. The two circles in particular did not want to leave the slightest hope of leaving the junior ranks. For this reason, and perhaps also a bit of paranoia, NHL president Clarence Campbell decides that the draft will not take place in person, but over the phone. This way, the draft rosters will remain confidential, and the NHL will be able to monetize the best young talent available without making too much noise.

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In this context, Welland, director of public relations for Sabers, finds himself in the club’s office in the old Buffalo Auditorium, along with Imlach, the formerFitness Trainer The Toronto Maple Leafs legend turned out to be the general manager of Buffalo. Besides them, a few Scouts gather around the table and the rotary telephone.

“Our comeback was going well, Welland recalls at the end of the phone. We got our hands on some excellent players when we left, including Danny Jarre. But it was a long one. Oh my God what long!”

Nobody knows who drafted who, so at each rank, Campbell called the next team, naming all the players previously selected; When he came to us in the ninth round, I think he named 150 guys before we could even talk! It was like watching paint dry.

Paul Welland, former director of public relations at Buffalo Sabers

This is where Emlash, a comedian in his spare time, decides to try something to break the boredom. Welland is a big fan of April Fools’ Day traditionsVerse April, it was ready.

“I said: Why don’t you recruit a Japanese player? The only thing an assistant in the room can tell me is yes, well, but we’ll have to find a name for him!”

The family name came up very quickly; Welland, a student, remembers a store named Tsujimoto on the road when he went to college. The first name was found after a phone call with a language institute in the area, where one of the translators said that Taro was then a very popular name in Japan.

Thus the Japanese hope was born.

“The funny thing, adds Welland, is that Campbell then had to kill himself spelling that name for the rest of the teams to finish the replay! Then, in the official NHL guide, it was spelled out: Taro Tsujimoto, Buffalo Sabers.”


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

But Cypress 1974 chose to finally make the fun.

“Bunch didn’t want him to stop,” recalls Floyd Smith, Cypress’ technical director at the time. As training camp approaches, all kinds of excuses are invented to explain Taro’s absence. Among other things, I remember he had problems with his visa. Then it got lost somewhere in Belgium [rires] ! »

When the Sabers camp opened that season in St. Catherine, Ontario, Smith went so far as to ask club staff to set up a locker in the Japanese player’s name. Just in case… “His name was on a plate like all the others,” he recalls. We prepared the gloves, the skis, the pants, and his jacket number 13…”

Photo by Robert Skinner, Press Archives

Larry Carrier, former Buffalo Sabers defender, when he was general manager of Laval Rocket

Larry Carrier remembers it well. The former Montreal defender was then starting his third season with the Saber, and like everyone else, he was eager to see this enigmatic Japanese player.

Because the players thought it already existed…

Career also recalls that no one was able to say anything about Mr. Tsujimoto. What is its caliber? What kind of player was he? The club management simply let you know that Katanas from Tokyo is coming (another invention), but no more than that. Between the branches, some players have already hinted that it is not a Japanese player who will replace them…

The 1974-1975 season began, and according to Welland, the saber continued to play, and with time, and with the improbable enormity of our stories about him, some journalists realized it was a show. A few years later, the League cleared its name. »

But the legend of Tarot did not stop growing. Over time, and regularly, banners bearing his name appeared in the stands of Buffalo Auditorium, until the arena closed in 1996. To this day, supporters appear at KeyBank Center, the current home of the Sabers, with T-shirts stamped with his name.

So Taro Tsujimoto was never born, but he is still alive.

“It’s funny, because Punch Imlach was Fitness Trainer Who was there for his players, says Carrier. But his best story is that of a player he wasn’t there for! »

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