Former MSU star Taro Hirose is looking to carve out a permanent spot with the Red Wings.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
In the not-so-distant past, before the days of fax machines or the Internet, the process of plucking potential pros from the amateur aether was an exhaustive process for NHL general managers.
The draft was a time-consuming necessity that was inevitably viewed by some GMs as an exhausting two-day ordeal, given that most of the talent was chosen in the first couple of rounds anyway.
The 1974 NHL Entry Draft lasted a mind-numbing 25 rounds but it also included one of the greatest picks of all-time: Buffalo general manager George “Punch” Imlach selected Taro Tsujimoto of the Tokyo Katanas in the 11th round.
It was also one of hockey’s greatest gags.
With too much time on his hands, Imlach thought it would be funny to draft a fictitious player and enlisted the help of Sabres PR director Paul Wieland to help pull off his prank.
Wieland decided to make the player Japanese so fact-checking would be near-impossible, drawing the name from the Tsujimoto market he remembered from his college days. Wanting a popular Japanese boy’s name, he called the store’s owner, Joshua Tsujimoto, who suggested Taro (literally meaning “eldest son”).
Now all Imlach needed was a fake team for Taro Tsujimoto. They decided he would have played for the Tokyo Katanas – the Japanese katana being the equivalent of the western saber. With a fake name and a fake team in tow, Imlach chose the first fake NHL player in history with the 183rd pick in the draft.
Reporters fell for the hoax, especially after the Sabres went to lengths to set up a stall in the team dressing room for the incoming Tsujimoto. Only after training camp opened did Imlach reveal the ruse.
It was a surprise to everyone, even the owner of the team.
That, however, is not the end of the tale. For years after, fans embraced the “Legend of Taro,” and would chant, “We want Taro,” any time the Sabres fell behind in games.
Taro Hirose first heard the “Legend” during his freshman year at Michigan State University. “It’s a great story,” he said.
Hirose, of course, is the genuine article. He made a name for himself in East Lansing, where he twice led the Spartans in scoring. During his junior season at MSU in 2018-19, he was named a Hobey Baker finalist, a First Team All-American, the Big Ten Player of the Year and a unanimous All-Big Ten First Team selection.
He may not make anyone forget Taro Tsujimoto (if anyone still remembers), but Hirose is determined to write his own story as an elite playmaker who is at his best when he is making the most of his shifty skating and smooth stickhandling abilities.
Danton Cole, who coached Hirose the last two years at Michigan State, has nothing but praise for his former star player.
“Taro was fantastic for us,” said Cole, who was the head coach of the Griffins from 2002-05. “He has a tremendously high hockey IQ. He’s not just good, he’s off the charts in terms of being able to play in every situation. He was our best penalty killer, our best guy on the power play. We relied on him late in games, whether we were down a goal or up a goal. We had a lot of faith in him.”
Of course, Hirose first had to have faith in himself.
Smaller in stature, he admits he never imagined playing professional hockey, let alone in the NHL. He knew all about Hockey Hall of Famer Paul Kariya, a Japanese-Canadian like himself, but he was a bigger fan of Jarome Iginla by virtue of following the Flames, having moved to the Calgary area from Winnipeg when he was age 2.
His father had played hockey for fun, so he gladly obliged his son’s interest in the sport and paid for his skating lessons when he was young. Taro and his younger brother Akito loved playing various versions of the game, whether it was in the basement, on the family’s driveway or at the neighborhood pond five minutes from their home.
“Our garage was pretty beat up from my brother and me shooting balls at it from the driveway,” he said. “We also had a net in the basement that we would goof around with. That’s kind of where it all started.”
His game progressed to the point that he eventually attended the prestigious Edge School, where he was able to take his play to another level while working hard in the gym and the classroom. He spent three years at the unique school before leaving to play junior hockey for the Salmon Arm Silverbacks in the British Columbia Hockey League.
“I felt like I was good enough to go to college, so my goal was to get a scholarship,” he said. “When I started getting a couple of offers, I knew it could happen. I got to see what Spartan Nation was all about when I took a visit during what was finals week at the school.
“I fell in love with the campus as soon as I got there. It was an easy decision for me after that.”
Hirose totaled 24 points (6-18—24) in 34 games during the 2016-17 season, the most points by a Spartan freshman since 2009-10. He ranked second on the team in both points and assists and was honored with the team’s Outstanding Rookie Award.
“It wasn’t really until after my freshman year in college that I even thought there was a chance that I could someday play pro,” he said. “I had a good year and was given the chance to go to an NHL development camp.”
Hirose got a good look at the five-day development camp of the Toronto Maple Leafs, playing alongside and against a variety of prospects within the organization as well as other free agents like himself.
He returned to MSU reinvigorated by the experience and had an even stronger season. As a sophomore, he compiled 42 points (12-30—42) in 36 games, never going more than two consecutive games without a point. At the Spartans’ year-end awards banquet, he claimed the Ron Mason Team MVP honor and the team’s Outstanding Offensive Player Award.
Hirose was blossoming as a player through his diligence and hard work.
“In college, you have so much time to practice,” he said. “You’re not playing as many games (as in the pros or juniors), so practice becomes very important and I did my best to take something from every practice.
“I think I grew in all facets of my game, but especially in my ability to create more offensive chances. I learned how to be effective on every shift from game to game and I found good chemistry with my linemates, and that’s something I’ve always tried to achieve.”
Last season, Hirose posted 50 points (15-35—50) in 36 games. He led the NCAA in multi-point games (15) and three-point games (9), while tying for the lead with 50 points, the most by a Spartan since John-Michael Liles recorded 50 in 2002-03.
Even so, Hirose figured he would return for his senior season until the Red Wings made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. “I never had any thoughts of leaving early,” he said. “I thought I would be in school for four years and then see what happened after that.”
He signed a two-year entry-level contract with Detroit at the end of MSU’s season.
“The Wings gave me a really good opportunity to play with them,” he said. “It was definitely a whirlwind for me because three days later, I was heading down the road to Detroit, not going to class anymore, and getting ready to play my first game in the NHL.”
His NHL debut, which took place one week after signing, came in Madison Square Garden on March 19 last year.
He admits that he had trouble sleeping the night before his first game. “I was so nervous that I felt like I couldn’t do anything,” he said. “Even in warmups, just shooting the puck seemed like the hardest thing in the world to do.
“Once the game started, the nerves went away. Then you just play and have fun.”
Hirose was credited with the first point of his career, an assist. Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill put Hirose on a line with veterans Frans Nielsen and Thomas Vanek, who had 1,857 NHL games between them at the time.
“The whole idea that you should watch and learn from your teammates goes to an exponential level when you’re in the NHL,” Hirose said. “Both of them had played so many games in the NHL that it made it really easy for me to play with them because they’re so good, plus they talk to you to make sure you’re always feeling good about yourself.”
Hirose had an assist in each of his first five games with the Red Wings, becoming only the fifth player in NHL history to begin his career on an assist streak of five games or longer. Other players accomplishing the feat were Sergei Makarov (seven), Wayne Gretzky (six), Sidney Crosby (six) and Brett Calligen (five).
He finished his NHL debut season with seven points in 10 games.
“You always want to help contribute to the team, so it was nice that I was able to do it right away,” he said. “Even if I hadn’t gotten any points, I felt like I could play there. But getting those points and enjoying success right away was great for my confidence.”
Hirose started this season with the Red Wings but was sent down in early December after failing to produce points on a consistent basis.
By his own admission, he wasn’t playing well.
“I wasn’t playing with a lot of confidence,” he said. “I was worried about things that were out of my control, like how I looked to the coaches, instead of just making plays and creating offense like I know I can do.”
Hirose joined the Griffins with the idea of re-establishing himself as a playmaker. His play in Grand Rapids eventually earned him a recall to Detroit in early February, but he was soon reassigned to the Griffins.
“For me, it’s important to be playing well wherever I am and to do whatever I can to help the team win,” he said. “It’s tough going up and down, but I’m staying positive. There are great guys with both teams, so they make it really easy.”
Cole is confident that his former player will find his way back to the NHL.
“Taro’s a very intelligent young man and he’ll figure things out,” Cole said. “He can certainly play and there are not that many guys who can make plays like that anymore. Plus, he sees the ice so well. He can pass, he can score, and he’s outstanding on defense, so there’s a place for him.”
Hirose wants to make the most of his time with the Griffins.
“I had always heard good things about Grand Rapids, but had never really been here,” he said. “It’s blown me away with how nice it is and how much I’ve really enjoyed it. So far my experience here has been really good and I’m hoping that it continues.”
Hirose has been producing at nearly a point-per-game basis at the AHL level.
“Points aren’t everything,” he said. “As long as I’m creating chances, I know the points will come eventually. What counts is that you’re making a positive impact on the game. I want to be a player who can play in all situations.
“I want to be the guy on the ice the last five minutes, whether we need a goal or need to stop one. The same is true for the power play and penalty kill. When you can play everything, you’ll be able to have a greater impact on helping your team win.”
He feels that his play continues to progress but realizes there is still room for improvement.
“Being able to come down here, play a lot more and relax a little bit was big for me,” he said. “Right now I’m concentrating on helping the team here. The team has been winning and we’ve been able to climb back into a playoff spot, so it’s been great.
“It would be fun to be in the playoffs in Grand Rapids. I would love to experience what winning a Cup is all about.”