By Alan Siegel
Sheer boredom -- and nothing else -- sparked the prank.
It was the spring of 1974, and the National Hockey League was facing a serious threat. The nascent, cash-flush World Hockey Association had begun to sign top players. To keep the upstart WHA from poaching young talent, the NHL held its annual draft in private. Prior to every selection, league president Clarence Campbell phoned each team, then read and spelled out the names of the round's previous picks.
It didn't take long for the onerous process to wear on the Buffalo Sabres brass. General manager George "Punch" Imlach, whose vocabulary was saltier than a kummelweck roll, spent the interminable event cursing out the NHL. Eventually, scouting director John Andersen perked up. "Wouldn't it be great," he said, "if someone would take a player who isn't eligible for the draft?"
Public relations czar Paul Wieland liked the idea, but took it a step further. "Why don't we just make up a player and draft him?" he asked. Andersen, for reasons unknown, suggested that the fictional player should hail from Japan. The country, Wieland pointed out, did have professional hockey. New Sabres head coach Floyd Smith was on board. Wieland remembers Imlach excitedly saying, "Let's do it."
Now they needed a name. There was a store in nearby Elma, N.Y., called Tsujimoto Oriental Arts and Gifts. The owner, Joshua Tsujimoto, was Japanese. That's the name, Wieland decided. At one point, according to a Buffalo.com story by Ben Tsujimoto, Joshua's grandson, a secretary working in the Sabres' front office called the Tsujimoto home. The staffer inquired about common Japanese boys names. Joshua, who died last year at 93, suggested "Taro."
The last step was making up a Japanese team. Wieland wanted something that roughly translated to Sabres. That part was easy. So, when it came time for the Sabres to make their 11th-round choice, Imlach said, "Buffalo selects Taro Tsujimoto from the Tokyo Katanas." He even spelled out the name for Campbell, a stiff-backed former war crimes prosecutor who reminded Wieland of a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. "But," Wieland says now, "he wasn't a Gatsby type."
When the bewildered league president asked for clarification, received it, then spelled back "Taro Tsujimoto" letter by letter, the four men holed up in the directors room at Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo struggled to suppress their laughter. "It's not like it was Brown or Jones or something," Wieland says. "It just slowed the draft down even more." The proceedings mercifully ended after the selection of 247 players, all but one of whom were real.
Wieland soon prepared a press release that listed the Sabres' prospects. Sure enough, on June 1, Dick Johnston of the Buffalo Evening News included a blurb in his draft recap about a hotshot forward who didn't exist. "TARO TSUJIMOTO, Tokyo Katanas, center, 5-8, 180, shoots right," Johnston wrote. "Who knows how they came up with this fellow?"
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Almost 40 years later, Wieland's sense of humor remains sharper than a skate blade. When we had breakfast on a snowy morning in December, I couldn't stop laughing. Every story he told topped the last. The way he peppered his anecdotes with "heh heh heh" made them even funnier.
A handful of people invented Taro Tsujimoto, but he truly was a product of Wieland's ingenuity. In a quarter century with the Sabres, the p.r. wiz concocted some of the most creative, irreverent and subversive stunts in the history of sports. Without stooping to anything as aggressively hostile as Disco Demolition Night or as stupid as Ten Cent Beer Night, he managed to create buzz for his then-fledgling franchise -- and had a hell of a time doing it.
"We had so much fun," says Debbie Driscoll, a former member of the Sabres' communications department who's now an executive assistant in the Buffalo Bills' front office. "I just wish everybody could've enjoyed working as much as we did."
It's hard to fathom, but four decades ago, the city was dripping with star power. Braves big man Bob McAdoo won three straight NBA scoring titles. Bills running back O.J. Simpson set the NFL single-season rushing record. And Sabres forward Gilbert Perreault centered the best line in the NHL. "We had arguably the three best athletes in each sport," says John Boutet, exhibit chairman of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. "It was a great time to be a fan."
In 1970, Wieland was working for General Motors. "I was just bored s***less with corporate life," he says. One day, Johnston, his old colleague at the Buffalo Evening News (Wieland's first career was as a reporter at his hometown paper), called with a tip. Seymour III and Northrup Knox, the owners of Buffalo's brand new NHL team, needed a p.r. director. "Jeez, I just bought a house in Jersey," Wieland told him, and dismissed the idea.
Six months later, on the eve of the Sabres' inaugural season, Johnston rang again. "The guy they got isn't working out," he said. "Would you like to talk to the Knox brothers?"
"I did," Wieland says, and the job was his. "I jumped ship. Two weeks after I was sitting in a corporate office with an English secretary overlooking Central Park, I was standing next to a rink in Peterborough, Ontario, freezing my ass off."
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In the '70s, working for an NHL team wasn't exactly a glamorous proposition. Early in his tenure with the Sabres, Wieland remembers complaining about his salary to Floyd Smith. "If you don't mind me asking," the coach said, "how much do you make?" After the p.r. man disclosed the figure, Smith replied, "Hell, you make more than two of my players."
Technically, Wieland was one of Smith's players. For years, he served as a practice goaltender. When I ask for an assessment of Wieland's skills, Smith, now 78, says this: "Just a little better than a board."
"I was playing four shifts a day in those days," Wieland says. "Oh my god. But I was having fun." After practice, he'd shed his pads, shower and then assist the media, which actually had a decent club to cover. The prolific French Connection line -- Perreault, Rick Martin and René Robert -- made its debut in 1972. The next year, the Sabres made their first trip to the playoffs. They lost their six-game, East Division quarterfinals series to the Montreal Canadiens, but not for lack of resourcefulness.
With the score tied 2-2 late in Game 5, then-Buffalo coach Joe Crozier asked official Bruce Hood to measure Habs goalie Ken Dryden's pads. (That season, Wieland had noticed that the Hall of Fame netminder's pads looked like they exceeded regulation width. Before Game 3, he clandestinely ventured into the visitors dressing room at Memorial Auditorium, investigated the matter, and passed his findings along to Imlach.) The referee's ensuing measurement confirmed what Wieland suspected: Dryden was wearing illegally oversized equipment.
The Sabres didn't capitalize on the resulting penalty, but Robert scored the winning goal in overtime. Wieland rehashed the episode in his book, "Then Perreault said to Rico...": The Best Buffalo Sabres Stories Ever Told, writing that "The author was honored by the players at their final banquet with his own gilded 'goal pad measurer' made out of three pieces of wood."
By the time the infamous 1974 draft rolled around, Buffalo had become a contender. Before the shenanigans began, the Sabres actually secured two future All-Stars, defenseman Lee Fogolin (11th overall) and winger Danny Gare (29th overall). Then, a round after snagging forward Derek Smith (168th overall), and a round before taking Bob Geoffrion (196th overall) with its final pick, the team "selected" Taro Tsujimoto (183rd overall). Derek Smith, who went on to play nine NHL seasons, says, "I was proud I was drafted before him rather than after him."
A less-committed franchise might've let the public in on the joke. Not the Sabres. And especially not Imlach, who was no ordinary wiseass. Jerry Kirshenbaum of Sports Illustrated once described him as "a brusque, irreverent sort who covers his bald pate with one of his two dozen beaver hats." In his 11 years as the coach and general manager of the Maple Leafs, Imlach led them to four championships, the last of which came in 1967. Toronto hasn't won a Stanley Cup since.
But after mediocre seasons in 1967-68 and 1968-69, the Leafs fired Imlach. A year later, the Sabres hired him as their first coach and general manager. Wieland vividly remembers the team's first trip to Maple Leaf Gardens. It was November 1970, the Sabres prevailed, 7-2, and the crowd gave Imlach a standing ovation. "I've never seen a guy have more fun than that night," Wieland says. "Coming back to Buffalo on the bus, he was just full of piss and vinegar."
A heart attack in 1972 forced Imlach to give up coaching and become a full-time GM, but he remained as irascible as ever. Once, Fogolin recalls, after the Bruins pummeled the Sabres at Boston Garden, a curious Logan Airport employee asked, "What kind of team is this?" Imlach responded, "It's a horses*** team."
Naturally, he loved milking the Tsujimoto hoax. "Reporters and team officials from all over the league are asking questions about the Sabres' draft choice from Japan, Taro Tsujimoto," Johnston wrote in the Buffalo Evening News on June 12, 1974. "Taro is listed as a center from the Tokyo Katanas, 5 feet, 8 inches, and 180 pounds. All Imlach will say about him is, 'I'm waiting to hear from his agent.'"
Back then, Sabres training camp was held in St. Catharines, Ontario. Before the players arrived in the summer of 1974, equipment manager Robert "Rip" Simonick dutifully prepared Tsujimoto's locker. There were sticks, pads, skates, a nameplate and a No. 13 jersey. Wieland says Simonick, who's still with the club, warned a few veterans that the new Japanese center was going to take their jobs.
To his new teammates, Tsujimoto's absence wasn't completely implausible. In the '70s, an NHL player from anywhere but North America was considered exotic. Tsujimoto might've had immigration issues. Or maybe he couldn't get out of his Japanese league contract. Nobody knew. "He was training in the Himalayan mountains," Simonick says from a hallway deep inside First Niagara Center, the Sabres' arena since 1996.
Somehow, Wieland and company kept the Sabres' owners in the dark. When they asked about Tsujimoto, Imlach would say, "I don't think he's going to show up." 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. "That was when we told Seymour there was no Taro Tsujimoto."
After a week went by, Simonick says, the players figured it out. But there was never a big reveal. For a while, Simonick kept the bogus forward's locker intact. Even after the Sabres made a run to the Stanley Cup Finals in the spring of 1975, the gag persisted. Before the Internet could instantaneously disprove his existence or giddily spread his apocryphal story, Taro Tsujimoto became Buffalo sports fans' ultimate inside joke.
A group of balcony-dwelling Sabres diehards called the Phantom Sign Makers started hanging pun-filled, Taro-themed banners. Across western New York, people slapped Taro bumper stickers on their cars. And Tsujimoto jerseys began popping up at Memorial Auditorium.
"It's really funny and pretty clever when you think about it," says Paul Tsujimoto, one of Joshua's three sons. "It was a great hoax. We're sort of humbled and honored to be part of that." He even recently bought a customized Tsujimoto sweater for his teenage son Joshua. In a few years, he'll be eligible for the NHL Draft.
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When Gerry Helper took a job as a Sabres p.r. assistant in the late '70s, he received some simple instructions. "You're going to write all the press releases except one," Wieland told him. "I do the April 1 release." By then, Wieland had proved he was more than a one-bit wonder. He made April Fool's Day pranks a Sabres tradition.
"I thought I had a sense of humor," says Helper, who's now a senior vice president of communications and p.r. for the Nashville Predators. "But not the kind of sense of humor that he had."
In the last week of March 1977, Wieland sent out a press release, but instructed reporters not to make any of the information in it public until April 1. The Sabres, he wrote, were replacing the Memorial Auditorium ice with an artificial surface called "Sliderex."
Wieland made the whole thing up, but that didn't stop a laugh-seeking reporter from Hamilton, Ontario, from calling Clarence Campbell for comment. The flabbergasted league president, Wieland recalls, said something about the NHL always being at the forefront of technology and innovation.
"It entertained the hell out of me," Wieland says. "But I didn't do it to deliberately get guys." But, as he put it: "People are dumb."
Case in point: a Buffalo sports anchor led his broadcast with an "exclusive" story about Sliderex. After the segment aired, Wieland called to yell at him -- not for falling for a hoax, but for reporting embargoed information. "I'm fiendish," Wieland says.
"Well," the man claimed, "I learned it from someone else."
"I wanted to say, 'You couldn't have learned it from anyone else because it's just in my mind,'" Wieland says. "It wasn't real."
The April Fool's Day gag he devised in 1982 was downright inspired. With the Cold War raging and the U.S. Olympic hockey team coming off the Miracle On Ice, Wieland knew what to do. He asked an artist to craft both a letter from President Ronald Reagan declaring the Sabres "America's Hockey Team" and a Time magazine cover featuring a photograph of Gilbert Perreault.
To top it all off, Wieland wrote a press release that outlined several new patriotic game-day rules and procedures. For example:
1. Continuous play of the United States national anthem during warmups instead of the current taped pop music.
3. A 17-gun salute will follow each Buffalo goal, with inspirational readings on the public address system by the Rev. Billy Graham, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen.
6. No player will be allowed to skate across red, white, and blue areas of the ice unless he has signed a loyalty oath.
A few days later, an Associated Press reporter called for comment. The writer claimed that by forging the president's signature and using White House stationery, Wieland had broken two federal laws. "You're subject to indictment," he warned.
Wieland's reply: "Bring it on!"
"Holy s***," Wieland says, "wouldn't that be great publicity?"
A year later, he introduced the "Sabres Experience." For a fee, fans could charter the organization's yacht (the Sabretania), rent players to stage a personalized playoff series, and own the team for a day.
"The very rich have little or no chance to integrate their wealth with professional sports, other than long-term investments in franchises and sponsorship," Wieland wrote in a press release. "We anticipate many of those who become part of the Sabres Experience will do so as a viable alternative to such offerings by other prestige gift suppliers as helicopters, matched pairs of fighting aardvarks and a monopoly on the mineral rights to the state of Rhode Island."
In the '80s and '90s, Wieland's fingerprints also could be seen on the Sabres' television broadcasts. As a producer, he filmed several April Fool's Day segments, one of which misfired. In 1991, he recruited former Sabres employee Debbie Driscoll to play the head of the imaginary International Women's Hockey Federation. "Hell yeah," she remembers telling him. "I'm in."
In the bit, her character charged the Sabres with sexism, and spent an entire telecast angrily interrupting the announcers. During an interview with enforcer Rob Ray, Wieland says, "All of a sudden you hear a woman's voice come on and say, 'Women aren't interested in that. Isn't there something better you can say?'" Later, she talked about shopping, suggested that the graphics department change its font color to pink and asked goalie Clint Malarchuk if he or his girlfriend did the dishes.
Wieland claims that after the stunt, a local cable carrier received 1,200 angry phone calls.
"Maybe it was a big joke, but this woman came on the air and made us all look like a bunch of idiots," Maria Stainsby wrote in a letter to the Buffalo News. "By the way, Debbie, the play of the game was when [Alexander] Mogilny scored to finish off his first NHL hat trick, NOT the woman in the stands feeding her baby. It's playoff time now, Mrs. Driscoll, so you'd better turn on the figure skating championship, because the Sabres will be fighting for a first-round victory."
Wieland's sister loathed the gag so much, he says, that she didn't talk to him for three weeks. He claims his point was that the professional sports world did exclude women. His jokes, he says, always contained "a little germ of truth. Because sports are sort of sexist." Still, he acknowledges that "It was the stupidest thing we ever did."
Whether the stunt was sophomoric, offensive, just plain unfunny, or a cocktail of all three, the fact that Wieland pulled it off without getting fired is proof that, for better or worse, he operated in a looser era. "There was less money then, which meant you could have more fun, really," says Floyd Smith, the Sabres coach from 1974 to 1977. "There's so much revenue [now]. You have to be careful you don't degrade your assets." By today's standards, even the Los Angeles Kings' clever, fairly tame Twitter account is considered risqué. It's not a world fit for a rogue p.r. man. "I would not be able to hold a job in the NHL now," says Wieland, who sadly isn't on Twitter. "I'm a free spirit, and I was a free spirit."
For Wieland, the fun ended in the mid-'90s when the Knox brothers -- to whom he directly reported -- informed him that they were selling the Sabres. He knew it was time to go. (Adelphia Communications CEO John Rigas, the new owner, ended up being convicted of stealing $100 million from the company and hiding $2.3 billion in liabilities from investors. He's 89 and still in prison.)
Wieland left the organization in 1995 and soon relocated to Fitchburg, Mass. Over the next few years, he worked for the local public television station, spent weekends producing college hockey telecasts for NESN and ESPN and continued to be a s***-stirrer. In fact, in 2002 Wieland wrote a column for the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise that he says led to death threats. The piece mocked motorcyclists, several of whom hated it so much that one morning they parked in front of his house in protest. "My wife wanted to call the cops," says Wieland, who claims he shooed away the bikers with one of his old goalie sticks.
A decade ago, he got a phone call from friend Lee Coppola, the dean of the journalism school at St. Bonaventure University. The former reporter, who in the '70s named the French Connection line, needed someone to teach television production. Wieland balked at first, citing his hatred of TV news. "Well," Coppola said," why don't you just try to make it better?"
And so Wieland moved back to Western New York. Many of his hockey contemporaries, including Dick Johnston, John Andersen, Punch Imlach and the Knox brothers, are dead. Wieland himself has survived a heart attack, bypass surgery and a nasty staph infection. But at 75, he still teaches a full load of classes at St. Bonaventure, his alma mater. "I'm an old man," he says. That may be true, but his attitude -- especially toward sports -- hasn't changed.
"If they're not fun," he says as we're finishing breakfast, "what the hell are they?"
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Alan Siegel has written for Slate, Deadspin and Boston Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @alansiegeldc.