Forty years ago at the 1974 NHL Amateur Draft, Buffalo general manager Punch Imlach made the Sabres the first and only NHL team to draft a player who didn’t exist.
Many hockey fans, particularly those in Buffalo, know the story of Taro Tsujimoto. The made-up Japanese phenom was an inside joke between Imlach and the Sabres PR director, Paul Wieland. During the endless conference call to draft amateurs, Wieland and Imlach decided to have some fun by selecting Tsujimoto in the 11th round.
Nobody had heard of Tsujimoto, but Imlach insisted he was a real player from Japan’s Tokyo Katanas, and the league diligently added his name to its draft list. Months would pass before Wieland and Imlach exposed the the joke to hockey insiders. Tsujimoto’s name appeared in draft lists on league and team publications for years.
The NHL had conducted its infamously tedious 1974 draft via conference call because it was trying to prevent the rival World Hockey Association from learning names of selected players before NHL teams had a chance to contact them. The WHA had made a similar pre-emptive strike months earlier, when it held two draft rounds in a a much shorter secret conference call.
The NHL’s 1974 conference call lasted several days — ending before the WHA’s non-secretive draft on May 31, 1974. The NHL list, including Tsujmoto’s name, was not released to the media until after the WHA picks were announced.
Nobody at the WHA knew about Tsujimoto at the time of that league’s own draft. But, as if not to be outdone by the NHL, the WHA also went for years listing a person who didn’t exist in its 1974 draft records.
Actually, it’s complicated, because the drafted player did exist, and if you live in Grand Rapids, Minn., you probably know him well.
His name is John Rothstein, a former Grand Rapids High School star who is now the school’s head coach. Rothstein was a legendary Minnesota high school hockey player, who led his team to a state championship as a senior in 1975 and then went on to an impressive college career at Minnesota-Duluth. While he was in college, the Chicago Black Hawks made Rothstein the 115th pick in the 1976 NHL Amateur Draft.
In 1974, however, Rothstein was a junior at Grand Rapids and not well known outside of Minnesota high school hockey circles. At that time, the WHA’s Minnesota Fighting Saints were hoping to attract fans by drafting local high school kids, and because the league allowed them to choose players as young as 17, the Fighting Saints had an advantage over the NHL’s North Stars.
The Fighting Saints used their final pick in the draft, No. 204 overall, to select Rothstein. He joined fellow Minnesota high school stars Chick Yackel, Reed Larson, and Tony Dorn Jr., on the Minnesota list for 1974. Due to their age, none of these players were eligible for the NHL draft until 1976, and only Larson would end up being selected.
Unfortunately, someone who didn’t know Minnesota high schools that well was aked to record Rothstein’s name in the official WHA draft list distributed to the media. That same someone didn’t verify the name he was typing — or at least made a typo when recording it.
And that’s how the WHA inadvertenlty created a mythical player named John Rolstein.
The name John Rolstein was announced by the WHA as Minnesota’s final pick. The error found its way into the WHA draft list that appeared in the Sporting News’ 1974-75 Pro and Amateur Hockey Guide. The rest is history.
WHA historian Scott Surgent, author of the “Complete Historical and Statistical Reference to the World Hockey Association”, listed Rolstein in his outstanding book, which was first published during the Internet’s infancy in 1995. Today, if you type “John Rolstein” and “hockey” into Google, you get multiple results within various 1974 WHA draft lists. Rolstein’s name appears on popular reference sites such as hockeydb.com, eliteprospects.com, prosportstransactions.com, and icehockey.wikia.com.
In other words, 40 years later, John Rolstein is still out there, chilling with Taro Tsujimoto in a world where people who don’t exist can forever insist they were once among the world’s very best amateur hockey players.