Buffalo Sabres GM Punch
Imlach Went "Off The Board"
With His 11th Round Pick In
The 1974 NHL Draft
(Photo from www.buffalosabres.com)
I love hockey. From ages 4-24, I loved playing the game, whether it was in a backyard alone or a college rink with a few thousand fans. For the past 5 years I loved teaching the game and trying to instill a passion for the sport of hockey in young players taking the ice for the first time and educating parents and coaches looking to give back. Today, the thing I enjoy most is watching and talking about the game. From current events going on around the world of hockey, to reflecting and learning about the history of the sport and the players and actions that have made the game so special. The stats elite players in different eras have put up, the debates over the best and worst teams ever assembled, and the inspiring or sometimes quirky tales that are equally a part of the rich tradition and history of the game and have made the sport what we know it as today. I love it all.
My respect for the history of the game started as a young child. Through my work in sports I have attended hundreds of National Hockey League games over the past few years, but I will always remember my first. My family grew up in Western New York and my father was therefore a Sabres fan. When I was 8 years old, he took my brother and me to my first hockey game at the Memorial Auditorium. That night, the Sabres retired the jersey of the organization’s first ever draft pick, Gilbert Perreault. Though I had never seen him play, as the number 11 was pulled to the rafters, I became a fan of the since retired great and the Buffalo Sabres. My dad explained Perreault’s impact on the organization, told us about the “French Connection,” and probably answered 100 other hockey and Sabres related questions for us that night. In addition to learning about the birth of the franchise in 1970, the run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1975, the rise and tragic fall of Tim Horton, and the night he saw Gretzky break Phil Esposito’s single season goal scoring record when he recorded his 77th of the season at the Aud, it was that night he also first told me the tale of Taro Tsujimoto.
This all came back up the other night when I sent my dad a link to a blog post I had written that referenced the 1974 draft. I got an email back later that day with something to the effect of “You remember that was the year Punch Imlach took Taro Tsujimoto?”
I was 8 when I first heard the story, and it isn’t one often retold outside of Western New York by people in my generation, so my recollection of Taro was foggy at best. I called him up to discuss hockey as we often still do, despite both being removed from any daily involvement in the game and he gladly retold the tale of the Sabres folk hero taken in the 11th round in the 1974 draft….For those not familiar with the what transpired that day, here is the abridged version.
In 1974, with the WHA becoming a more prominent and more appealing option for some players, the NHL attempted to host their draft in secret and earlier than in years past. They also expanded the number of rounds in the draft, essentially saying teams could take players round after round until they didn’t feel like drafting any longer, all in an effort to keep players in the NHL and away from the WHA. The draft took place via a long and drawn out conference call. Without the technology we enjoy today and the luxury of Central Scouting which was founded the following year, the event became arduous and boring for some.
Buffalo Sabres GM Punch Imlach had landed a couple of picks that would go on to have lengthy careers in the NHL when he took Lee Fogolin and Danny Gare in the first two rounds that year. By round 11, it was safe to say Imlach was pretty much over the 1974 draft. Fed up with the duration of the event and perceived lack of legitimate NHL prospects remaining, Imlach decided the Sabres had picked up all of the talent they needed that weekend and he would choose an imaginary player from the Japanese League to spite then President Clarence Campbell and to keep himself amused.
With the 182nd pick in the 1974 draft, the Atlanta Flames chose Randy Montgomery from St. Catharines, Ontario. With the 183rd pick, Imlach took Taro Tsujimoto from the Tokyo Katana's (The player’s name was a common Japanese name found in the local phone book and the team name "Katana" was a loose Japanese translation for Sabre). Neither Montgomery nor Tsujimoto would ever play a game in the NHL, Montgomery likely due to insufficient skill, Taro largely due to insufficient existence.
The pick stood until training camp that Fall, when Tsujimoto obviously failed to report and Imlach informed the media that it was one big joke.
In the 12th round Imlach took Bob Geoffrion from the Cornwall Royals of the QMJHL. Geoffrion never cracked the Sabres line up either, which should come as no real surprise since he started his career behind a fictitious character on the organizations depth chart. The draft, in its wacky format went a total of 25 rounds with the expansion Capitals filling out their system with pick after pick, but Imlach called it a day after taking Taro and Geoffrion in rounds 11 and 12.
For years, Sabres fans embraced their Japanese draft choice and signs and chants in support of Taro filled the old Aud. Today, it is a story rarely told or known by most fans from younger generations outside of Western New York. Punch Imlach's draft choice did little to change the dynamic of the sport and in no way impacted the Sabres run that season to the Stanley Cup Finals, but it is an amusing anecdote that highlights one of the many characters that has made the game so great.