Japanese hockey is a growing empire across the Pacific, with international ties and an IIHF world ranking of 21st overall – pretty impressive considering the country’s land mass.
The history of hockey in Japan is surprisingly deep, something we’ll touch on later in this post. The ties to the Buffalo Sabres are something more… unique.
“In the eleventh round, the Buffalo Sabres select Taro Tsujimoto, of the Tokyo Katanas.” -Punch Imlach, via NHL conference call, 1974.
And thus the legend of Taro began.
The pick was a joke aimed at president Colin Campbell, in order protest the slow methodology of drafting via telephone. (A draft, which at the time, included a mind-boggling 25 rounds.) Imlach, the Sabres’ GM at the time, had a staffer call a local Japanese florist to ask for a popular Japanese name. Punch then phoned in the pick – a fictional name and team (“Katanas” being a loose translation of “Sabres”).
Ah, the good ol’ days of old time hockey. It was a pretty nifty prank by Punch, but no one got it at the time. “Taro Tsujimoto” was recorded into the draft log, and Imlach did not acknowledge the pick as fake for weeks.
For years after the pick, fans would at the Aud would mockingly chant “We want Taro, We want Taro!” Banners were hung from the balcony rail stating “Taro Sez…” followed by a snarky comment. A couple examples:
“Taro says Dave Schultz is German for Game
“Taro remembers Bill’s allergic
brother Gesund Hajt.”
From Imlach’s book, entitled “Heaven and Hell in the NHL:
“After we got Derek Smith (picked in 6th round), we had just
about everybody we wanted to take. But the draft was still
on. Waiting for our next call with not much to do I said, “Let’s
have a little fun.” The others looked at me. The players we
were drafting from then on weren’t likely to make our team
– at least, we didn’t think so. “Lets draft a Japanese hockey
player,” I said.
Chorus from around the room: “What the hell are you talking
“…We talked over later about actually getting a Japanese guy and brining him to camp. We didn’t carry it that far. But when we eventually went to camp, reporters would ask, “When is this
Taro going to report?”
“Any day now,” I’d say.
Taro obviously never did report, although Imlach and Co. went as far to consider actually bringing in a Japanese player for training camp, just to see how far they could take this thing.
The Tsujimoto legacy lives on to this day. Internet forums on the prank and player pop up from time to time, people order Sabres jerseys with “Tsujimoto” on the back, and even t-shirts featuring a logo for the “Tokyo Katanas” can be purchased.
In Japan, of course, hockey is a serious sporting culture. Hockey fans in the States don’t get to see much Japanese play, if at all, but the Japanese National Teams are a source of great pride. Besides earning records of 23-2-4 against rival China, 11-0-0 against North Korea, 15-1-0 against South Korea, they have also picked up 3 wins and 3 ties against hockey behemoth Canada.
Hockey has actually been played in Japan since the 1920’s. Originally a five-team league, the Japanese Ice Hockey League (JIHL) expanded to six teams – in 1974, coincidental to the Sabres’ interest in Japanese prospects then. After a bad economy caused the league to fold, the Asia Ice Hockey League (A-League) was formed in 2004.
Seven teams compete in the A-League: the Nippon Paper Cranes (based in Kushiro, Hokkaido), Oji Eagles (Tomakomai, Hokkaido), the Tohoku Free Blades (Hachinohe, Aomori,) and the Nikko IceBucks, (Nikko, Tochigi) hail from Japan.
NHL players have been no strangers to Japan over the years. Former Edmonton Oiler Randy Gregg, Chicago Blackhawk Darryl Sutter, Philadelphia Flyer Shjon Podein and Buffalo Sabres Derek Plante and John Tucker all had spells in Japan. In addition, NHL coach Dave King was hired to guide the Japanese national team at the Nagano Olympics in 1998.
Interest in the game is growing, and so are the prospects. In 2007, goalie Yutaka Fukufuji became the first Japan-born player to appear in an NHL game. Fukufuji sat as a backup for the Los Angeles Kings in a 6-5 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Jan. 13 of that year. He went on to play in three more games for the Kings before being sent back to the minors.
Fukufuji was the second Japan-born player to be drafted in the NHL, following Hiroyuki Miura, a defenseman picked by the Montreal Canadiens in 1992.
In 2009, speedy forward Shuhei Kuji was invited to the New York Islanders’ prospects camp, to skate alongside such names as Josh Bailey and John Tavares. “Inside Hockey” writer Brad Kurtzberg, said that Kuji certainly “did not look out of place” among the other Islanders prospects and draft picks. More and more, prospects out of Japan are drawing interest from NHL clubs, some even moving to Canada at age 15 to earn participation in the CHL’s Memorial Cup.
All that being said, it’s time for some video.
I can’t be certain, but I think the phrase “Top shelf, where momma hides the cookies!” has been the latest item to be transferred across the Pacific. Have a listen (at the 4:00 mark – and watch the water bottle fly):