Feb 012010

Today the annual NHL entry draft is a showcase event, with NHL teams selecting the best young players in the world.

It’s hard to believe that the annual post season was once conducted in secret–with all the choices being made over the telephone! In 1974, the hush‑hush draft was held behind closed doors because the NHL clubs feared growing competition for young players by a new pro league–the upstart World Hockey Association.

The telephone draft was found to be incredibly slow, spanning three days. And the Buffalo Sabres contributed the most shocking–and most amusing–twist. General manager Punch Imlach selected a little‑known Japanese star, Taro Tsujimoto, in the 12th round. Imlach described Tsujimoto as “a 5’8″, 180 pound playmaker from the Tokyo Katanas.”

Followers of the draft were stunned. Nobody had heard of this Taro chap. Or the Tokyo Katanas. It marked the first time an Asian player has been drafted. Over the next few days, Buffalo reporters hounded Imlach, demanding to know more about Tsujimoto. “Wait’ll you see this guy in training camp,” Imlach answered. “He’ll really surprise you with his skills.”

But Tsujimoto didn’t show up for training camp.

Only then did Imlach confess his selection of the Japanese star had been a practical joke. He’d plucked Tsujimoto’s name from the Buffalo telephone book and no such hockey player existed. “I just wanted to have a little fun at those dull-as-dishwater draft proceedings,” said Imlach.

But the hoax didn’t die. Years later, Buffalo fans were still flashing “WE WANT TARO” signs at Sabres games.

Incidentally,  Ice Hockey is  one of the oldest sports in Japan, dating back to the 1920’s and a Japanese born hockey player was not as far fetched as Imlach thought.    The honor of being the first Japanese-born hockey player to play in the NHL goes to Yutaka Fukufuji.    He was born in Kushiro, Hokkaidō, Japan and played on the Kokudo hockey team of the Asia League Ice Hockey. He played for the ECHL and was voted rookie of the month in January 2003. . He was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2004 entry draft. On January 13, 2007, Fukufuji made his first NHL appearance when he started the third period of a game against the St. Louis Blues.

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