Punch Imlach didn’t typically use his trolling powers for good, but when he did, it was a thing of beauty,
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A full, plaint text transcript of today’s episode can be found under the cut. As always, you can reach with me with any concerns about accessibility at ecmarconTO@gmail.com
Hi, I’m E.C. Marcon and this is Church and Carlton, a bi-weekly podcast about the intersection of sports and life in Toronto.
No point in dancing around it – I am still completely shaken what happened on Monday. We seem to know very little about the man who killed 10 people at Yonge and Finch and injured 14 others aside from the fact that he appeared to deeply, violently hate women.
I had the show ready to go yesterday but to be honest, I was still reeling from a number of things: I have a huge extended family in Ireland who was very concerned for my well-being, and it really hit home for me that Yonge and Finch is a neighbourhood of first, second, and third generation Canadians. I live nowhere near the scene of the attack but I still had family on the other side of the ocean who were emotionally affected by what happened and I’m sure most of the people in the neighbourhood are in the same boat.
Toronto truly is a global city and what happens here sends ripples throughout the world. I hope and pray that we continue to protect our incredible diversity as, all cliches aside, it really is our greatest strength.
In the wake of this tragedy, I offer a bizarre and delightful story to celebrate the bizarre and delightful city we call home. No matter what happens, we are still a city of creative, clever, and deliciously weird people and that thought is what’s keeping me going this week.
Without further ado, here’s Episode 12 of Church & Carlton.
If you know anything at all about the Toronto Maple Leafs, you know that the legacy of long-time coach Punch Imlach is…complicated. The winningest coach in Leafs history led the team to four Stanley Cups in the 1960s, including the fabled one in 1967. His legendary status in the hockey world is comparable to Knute Rockne in football or Phil Jackson in basketball. But his relationship with his players was, to put it mildly, troubled. And his reputation as a tyrannical, emotionally abusive control freak is not entirely undeserved.
But if anyone knew Punch Imlach was a total bastard, it was Punch Imlach. And he absolutely revelled in his cultivated bastardry. Explosive showdowns with players, literally hiding from the press – he fully leaned in to his public image as a nightmare person. He started shit with everyone from Frank Mahovlich and Darryl Sittler to his supposed best friend Harold Ballard.
Imlach drove Frank Mahovlich, Ron Ellis, and Mike Walton into therapy. He bribed Tim Horton to keep playing through his injuries with the sports car that he died in. He punished Darryl Sittler for backtalk by trading his best friend. And keep in mind, these were not exactly young rookies with no power. This is equivalent to Mike Babcock bashing Auston Matthews’ character in the press after a bad game or punishing Morgan Rielly by trading Jake Gardiner.
Punch Imlach, for lack of a better phrase, was freakin’ nuts. In Dungeons and Dragons, he would absolutely be chaotic evil.
But every once in a while, his talent for starting shit went beyond mere pettiness and entered the realm of genius performance art.
By 1974, Imlach had been fired from the Maple Leafs and was coaching expansion team the Buffalo Sabres. In the mid-70’s, the NHL was in trouble. Upstart rival league the Western Hockey Association had lured players like Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe, and for the first time in nearly 60 years, the NHL wasn’t the only game in town anymore.
Keep in mind, this is pre-Raptors, pre-Blue Jays. Hockey and football were essentially the only pro sports Canadians could watch, so the NHL was completely thrown off guard by having any kind of competition.
The league was concerned that the WHA would send spies to scope out potential draft picks and lure them over to their side, so in the early NHL president Clarence Campbell declared that year’s NHL draft would be done over the phone.
If you’re having trouble figuring out the logistics of a draft by telephone, so did they. It was a miserable and tedious process. And Punch Imlach had no patience at this best of times. So, to make things interesting, he decided to surprise everyone by drafting Japanese superstar Taro Tsujimoto.
Taro Tsujimoto? The hockey world was stunned. How had it never heard of such a prodigious young talent? But Imlach assured them that the star centre for the Tokyo Katanas was going to change the NHL forever, and lead the Buffalo Sabres to victory. Thrilled by the prospect of an international phenom, the NHL awaited Tsujimoto’s arrival with bated breath.
But he never came.
Because Taro Tsujimoto didn’t exist.
All summer, the press speculated what it might mean for the future of the North American game if Tsujimoto turned out to be as good as Imlach said he was. And Imlach, one imagines, spent the summer laughing his ass off. When reporters asked about Tsujimoto’s absence at training camp, Imlach admitted that he’d made the whole thing up just to be a bastard. He and NHL PR Director Paul Wieland had invented him as a protest against the closed-door draft. See, Weiland had a buddy called Josh Tsujimoto, Taro was the first name they found when they looked up popular Japanese names, Tokyo was the only Japanese city they could think of and “katana” meant “sword.” As in “sabre.” Get it? You get it.
The league was pissed. But Punch Imlach got away with it because he was Punch Imlach, and really, in the pantheon of batshit crazy things he’d done, this was at least relatively harmless. Taro Tsujimoto became a beloved urban legend among Sabres fans, with people facetiously bring Tsujimoto signs and banners to games. And Imlach went back to what he did best – making players miserable.
I find this story hilarious not just for the sheer ballsiness of what Imlach did but because it illustrates how insular the North American hockey world is. Nobody at any point thought to verify the story by say, looking up whether or not the Tokyo Katanas existed. And I know it was pre-Google but come on. The conviction that North American hockey was the only hockey that mattered meant that none of the NHL brass or North American hockey press knew that Japan had a respected professional hockey league since 1966 and that it was actively recruiting players from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
It’s a good lesson for aspiring hockey journalists like myself – you can’t just write down everything a coach or a player or a GM tells you and call it a day. Of course, not everyone is as big a troll as Punch Imlach, but I think it’s wise to remember that what you see isn’t always what you get. And what you don’t see just might be Taro Tsujimoto.
Church and Carlton is written and produced by me, E.C. Marcon. Original music is by Josh Labelle. If you like what you heard, and I hope you did, check out my website at www.churchandcarlton.net
There, you can find links to my Patreon and social media. We’ll be back with a brand new episode of Church and Carlton in two weeks – until next time, don’t take your shoes off at the park.