He’s the greatest Buffalo Sabre to never play the game: Taro Tsujimoto, a dynamic forward drafted out of the Japan Ice Hockey League who never made the leap to the NHL. But it wasn’t size, talent or conditioning that kept Tsujimoto from cracking the Sabres’ lineup in the 1970s.
It was the fact he didn’t exist.
The most famous made-up hockey player in history turned 60 on Sunday, according to the birthdate provided by his hockey ‘dad,’ the late coach/GM legend Punch Imlach.
General manager Punch Imlach and the Sabres’ PR team cooked up Tsujimoto as a practical joke for the 11th round of the 1974 amateur draft – an attempt to have some fun with a tedious drafting process done entirely over the phone. Imlach used his 183rd overall choice that year to draft Tsujimoto from the Tokyo Katanas – a team that didn’t exist, with a sword-themed name much like the Sabres’. He reportedly lifted the name from a Buffalo-area phone book.
But no one called Imlach’s bluff on the imaginary player, because there was almost no NHL scouting presence in Asia at the time.
Imlach kept the ruse going into the season, and even cooked up a fictional bio for the Tokyo forward to include on the 1974-75 training camp roster. Born Nov. 16, 1954 in Osaka, Tsujimoto was a pint-sized forward at 5-foot-8, 180 pounds. But that didn’t stop him from putting up 15 goals and 25 points in his draft year.
And thus, Taro Tsujimoto was born.
The NHL found out about the ruse after a few weeks, and declared the Sabres’ pick invalid. NHL records skip the 183rd pick in 1974, but Buffalo still keeps it in its media guides.
Tsujimoto has become an inside joke to Sabres fans, and every once in a while, you might see someone wearing his jersey in Buffalo. Fans also used to chant “We Want Taro!” whenever the Sabres would get blown out in a game.
Here’s a rookie card for him (with the wrong birthday).
— Tokyo Katanas (@_TokyoKatanas) July 1, 2013
— Mathew MacQuarrie (@MatMacQuarrie) May 1, 2014
While Tsujimoto was a joke pick, there were actually a few NHLers taken after him. Dave Lumley went to Montreal at 199th, and racked up 680 penalty minutes in 437 games.The Islanders drafted Stefan Persson at 214th overall, and he ended up playing 622 games in the NHL. And the Rangers got a fringe NHLer in 241st pick Warren Miller, who played 262 career games.