I know this might be hard to believe, but once upon a time, the Buffalo Sabres were fun.
Taro Tsujimoto, taken by the Sabres in the 11th round of the 1974 draft, wasn't real. Imagined from whole cloth, he was a silent protest of an interminable draft process, a supposed unknown Japanese player, and neither the media nor the NHL itself had the means to check whether he actually existed.
The original idea was GM Punch Imlach's, but it fell upon Buffalo PR director Paul Wieland to give Tsujimoto life. Today at Sports on Earth, Alan Siegel catches up with the puckish Wieland, something like the Bill Veeck of his sport. It was Wieland who snuck into the visiting locker room to measure Ken Dryden's pads, so the Sabres could alert the referees and garner a power play. It was Wieland who sent out annual April Fools' Day press releases, including one in which he announced the Sabres would replace their ice with a mysterious artificial surface called "Sliderex," and another that featured a fake letter from Ronald Reagan declaring the Sabres "America's Team."
But it was the Tsujimoto prank that remains Wieland's magnum opus. He found the last name from a nearby store, and called the owner to ask about common Japanese given names. Taro Tsujimoto was supposedly from the Tokyo Katanas, because the katana-sabre synergy was too perfect to pass up. He kept the joke secret from the media, the players (Tsujimoto had a locker prepared for him at training camp), and even the Sabres owners.
While talking to Floyd Smith in the lobby of the team hotel one afternoon early in training camp, Wieland noticed a young Japanese man eating lunch. Seymour Knox happened to be sitting nearby. "I got this sick idea," Wieland says.
When the Japanese man paid his bill and stood up to leave, Wieland had Taro Tsujimoto paged. Seymour Knox followed right behind the man, but couldn't quite catch him. "I actually fell off the couch laughing," Wieland says.
Wieland, one of the true characters of the NHL's goofy expansion era, is 75 now, and after 25 years with the Sabres teaches television production full-time at St. Bonaventure. He sounds like a fun teacher, but pay close attention to those April 1 homework assignments.
Sabre Rattler [Sports on Earth]