Taro Tsujimoto (Japanese katakana: ツジモト タロウ; hiragana: つじもと たろう) was a fictitious ice hockey player who was "selected" by the National Hockey League's Buffalo Sabres 183rd overall in the 11th round of the 1974 NHL Amateur Draft.
The Pride of Tokyo
The Sabres' general manager at the time, Punch Imlach, was reportedly fed up with the slow drafting process via the telephone, a process intended to keep draft picks secret from the rival World Hockey Association. Imlach, who had already drafted several players that would go on to great success with the team (Derek Smith in the previous round and All-Stars Lee Fogolin and Danny Gare in the first two rounds) earlier in the draft, decided to have some fun at the expense of the league and Clarence Campbell, the NHL president for the last 28 years. He enlisted PR Director Paul Wieland to create a fictional player.
Wieland wanted the player to be of Asian descent and he knew instantly what the last name would be. As a college student driving Route 16 from Buffalo to St. Bonaventure, Wieland would regularly pass the Tsujimoto store and that name just stuck in his head. In 2013, hockey blogger Ben Tsujimoto revealed that Imlach eventually called his grandfather – Joshua Tsujimoto, a local Japanese truck farmer and Asian food store owner – and a Sabres staffer asked for permission to use his family name without revealing the club's true intent, as well as asking what were "popular" first names in Japanese. Imlach chose to select star center Taro Tsujimoto of the Japan Ice Hockey League's Tokyo Katanas, with "Katanas" being an approximation for "Sabres" in the Japanese language, both referring to types of swords. (The JIHL, although it was a real entity, had no team representing Tokyo at the time; Kokudo would not relocate to the city until 1984 (becoming the Seibu Prince Rabbits); the league was replaced by the current Asia League Ice Hockey in 2004). Incidentally, 32 years later in 2006, Kokudo would provide the first real Japanese player to play in the NHL, Yutaka Fukufuji.) The NHL made the pick official, and so it was reported by media outlets including The Hockey News.
Tsujimoto's pick came at a time when the NHL was only beginning to expand its reach for players outside Canada and the United States; Scandinavian players were beginning to be drafted into, and enter, the league at around the same time. Although the players of the Soviet Union, at the time an international powerhouse, were effectively off-limits, it would have not been out of the ordinary to be scouting for new hockey talent in unusual places, which is part of the reason there were no major objections to the legitimacy of Imlach's draft pick.
Imlach did not acknowledge the fake draft pick until just before the start of training camp that year; the team listed even set up a stall for him and listed him on their training camp roster. The NHL would eventually change the pick to an "invalid claim" for its official record-keeping purposes. Campbell did not find the hoax draft pick nearly as funny as Imlach, but this was after Tsujimoto's name had appeared in several NHL publications. Tsujimoto is still listed as a fictitious entry among Sabres' draft picks in the Sabres media guide. Hockey-Reference.com lists the Sabres as having no 11th-round pick in 1974 on their list of Sabres draft picks, and skips right over the 183rd pick on their lists of 1974 selections.
Among the players selected after Tsujimoto were Dave Lumley, who played nine years in the NHL and won two Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers, and Stefan Persson, who was selected in the 14th round by the New York Islanders and played for all four of their Cup-winning teams. (Lumley and Persson even faced each other in the 1983 Stanley Cup Finals.) It was not until 1992 that an actual Japanese player would be drafted in the NHL, when the Montreal Canadiens selected Hiroyuki Miura. However, unlike the aforementioned Fukufuji, Miura would never play a game in the NHL.
Tsujimoto quickly became an inside joke for Sabres' fans and staffers. For years after the pick, fans would chant "We Want Taro" when games at the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium became one-sided. In addition, for many years, banners would be hung from the balcony rail stating "Taro Says..." followed by a witty comment against an opponent or player for the opponent.
In the summer of 2011, trading card company Panini America added Tsujimoto to its 2010–11 Score Rookies & Traded box set. The card used a picture of an unidentified Asian man playing hockey for a team wearing similar blue-and-gold colors to the Sabres.
The Franchise Hockey Manager series contains Taro in its database, and thus he exists as a real player in the game.
In 2019, Weiland released the book Taro Lives about Tsujimoto's creation.
Fans can purchase Sabres team jerseys with the name Tsujimoto and the number 74.
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