Fifty years later, fake hockey player holds real collectible value

Taro Tsujimoto never existed as an NHL prospect, but his 2010-11 Score rookie remains a rare gem

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The Taro Tsujimoto rookie card ranks among the most valuable cards in the 2010-11 Score set.

Fifty years ago this week, the 1974 NHL Amateur Draft slowly made its way into its second day.

That's when the Buffalo Sabres pulled off one of the greatest sports pranks of all time. For their 11th-round pick, the Sabres drafted a Japanese player who the league would soon find out didn't exist.

Sabres public-relations man Paul Wieland and general manager Punch Imlach devised the prank because they were reportedly so upset with the length of the draft, which had seemingly gone on forever. That year, the NHL was concerned about the World Hockey Association tampering with its draft, so the league conducted the selection process all over the phone.

Teams would sit around for at least an hour to get to their next pick, and boredom was setting in.

"Why don't we draft a Japanese player?" Wieland asked Imlach.

The next thing he knew, Wieland was on the phone to one of the Japanese-owned business he knew: Tsujimoto Garden Supplies in Elma, New York, some 16 miles east of Buffalo.

When the owner Joshua Tsujimoto answered, Wieland asked him what would be a good Japanese's boys name. Tsujimoto suggested Taro, which in his 2013 obituary was revealed as the name of his cousin who lived in Japan. Before Wieland got of the phone, he asked one more question.

"How do you say Sabres in Japanese?" he asked.

Tsujimoto replied "katana," which was more of a Japanese-style sword.

When it was time for the Sabres to make their pick, they took Taro Tsujimoto of the Tokyo Katanas of the Japanese Ice Hockey League.

A highly sought-after chase card, the Tsujimoto rookie commemorates one of the most memorable sports pranks of all time.
A highly sought-after chase card, the Tsujimoto rookie commemorates one of the most memorable sports pranks of all time.

In 2010, thanks to the folks at Panini, an amazing chase card was made of Taro Tsujimoto in the company's first year of having the NHL license.

"I had a lot crazy ideas and the league and the players union turned most of them down," said Al Muir, then Panini's hockey brand manager. "But when we came up with the Taro Tsujimoto card, they jumped all over it."

There were a couple of challenges. Where would they find a picture of someone who never existed?

"One of the guys I knew in the Players Association was friends with a guy who played in beer league who could play the part," Muir told cllct. "His friend found a picture of himself playing D-II hockey in a uniform that happened to look like the Sabres. It could not have turned out more perfectly."

Without announcing it to the public, Panini put Tsujimoto in their 2010-11 Score Rookie & Traded Series. The rare card was No. 659 out of 659, but not all buyers of the set were guaranteed to get a Tsujimoto. The base card was only put into five percent of sets, and an even more rare gold card (25 total printed) was made.

The card, not surprisingly, became the most valuable card in the set, immediately worth $30. Last month, a Tsujimoto in a PSA 6 and an ungraded one sold for $250 and $200, respectively. There are also five Tsujimoto cards currently listed on eBay. Three are ungraded, while two are: a PSA 8 and 9.

Tsujimoto jerseys have also been popular customizations for Sabres fans. Though there seems to be a burden to wearing one out. When a fan in a Sabres Reddit feed asked last year about getting one, another fan sounded a warning.

"Fair warning," Reddit poster Ursidae said. "Every older fan will come out of the woodwork when you wear it, and they’ll all want to talk to you. I don’t wear that jersey if I’m going to be with my girlfriend now because she gets impatient with all the times we have to stop and talk to people about the Taro story."

Darren Rovell is the founder of and one of the country's leading reporters on the collectible market. He previously worked for ESPN, CNBC and The Action Network.