The legend of Taro Tsujimoto from the Tokyo Katanas is an oft-forgotten, quirky part of the National Hockey League’s history. Buffalo Sabres general manager George “Punch” Imlach drafted an imaginary player in 1974 because the league conducted the draft in secret due to competition, which meant painstakingly calling all the teams over and over for each round, a process that took two days. Imlach and then-director of communications Paul Wieland were so bored waiting by the phone, that, when they finally got to the 11th round, Imlach couldn’t take it any more and decided on a whim to make up a fake player. Tsujimoto, the name of a local farm in the area run by a Japanese family, and Taro (one of the most common names for boys in Japan) were born out of thin air. The press jumped all over the pick to start the NHL season and the prank was soon unearthed as harmless fun. But head to KeyBank Centre in Buffalo where the Sabres currently play and you will still spot people sporting “his” made-up jersey with the number 74 some 50 years later. The Asian ice-hockey players in the ‘whitest sport on Earth’ What was a bit of fun to fight boredom turned into a long-standing legend with the team, one that now seems to hold special meaning as the NHL is on the brink of exploding, diversity wise, led by players of Asian descent. Now, the NHL is fast becoming a multicultural hotbed. One of the most heartwarming stories this season in the NHL is that of diminutive Edmonton Oilers forward Kailer Yamamoto, whose father is half-Japanese and half-Hawaiian. When the Spokane, Washington, native was drafted 22nd overall in the first round in 2017, he made headlines for being the shortest pick ever (he stands at roughly 1.70m). Yamamoto unveiled his playful, fun-loving nature on the spot, joking to reporters he was probably also the lightest as well (67kgs). Yamamoto’s storybook run to the NHL was far from easy, though. He first got the call from the Western Hockey League’s Spokane Chiefs two seasons ago, but only ended up playing nine games and managed just three points. It was pretty clear he was not ready for the big time. Last season (2018-19) started strongly for Yamamoto as he made the Oilers out of camp, but only managed two points in 17 games. This season the Oilers were in desperate need of someone to fill out their top two forward lines, which feature superstars Conor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Looking to separate the two and have them anchor lines is something the organisation had tried and failed to do in the past. This time it appeared to be working out as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had found chemistry with Draisaitl, but the question remained: who would fill the third and final spot on the wing? On New Year’s Eve, against the New York Rangers, the Oilers got their answer. Yamamoto, called up from the American Hockey League’s Bakersfield Condors, the Oilers’ farm team, did not waste his third chance in the “show”, as the league is known in ice hockey circles. He now has six points in eight games this season. Yamamoto, along with Montreal Canadiens rookie Nick Suzuki, also profiled in the South China Morning Post , are almost undoubtedly bellwethers and a sign of things to come. North America (Canada and the United States) - which makes up the vast majority of NHL players and have for its 100-plus seasons - is continuing to blossom in terms of its demographics and cultural diversity. Asian and mixed-race people are two of the fastest-growing segments of the US population, according to US Census Bureau statistics, and in Canada, according to the government’s latest census in 2016, 61 per cent of new immigrants were born in Asia. And while other professional sports leagues such as the NFL and the NBA still largely require players to be physical monsters well over 1.82m and 90kgs (which would still be considered small in both leagues), the NHL is now a much different story. The league has undergone a massive metamorphosis from its famed “Dead Puck Era” in the 1990s and early 2000s when massive, hulking players like Eric Lindros, who stood at 1.93m and weighed around 109kgs, dominated the sport. But a lockout, changes to rules and the overall speed of the game have ushered in a sea change. Size and strength, once a pillar of NHL scouting combines, have been replaced by speed and agility as the top assets. This has invariably opened the league up in terms of its diversity and talent pools. Players like Yamamoto, who previously would have been overlooked by scouts and coaches, are now motivated, given the way the league is trending. The list of Asian players in the pipeline is staggering, according to NHL.com writer William Douglas, who covers diversity for the league. Forward Cliff Pu, whose parents arrived in Canada from China, is a Florida Panthers prospect playing for the Springfield Falcons of the American Hockey League. There’s also forward Jonathan Ang, another Panthers prospect and the first player of Malaysian heritage to be drafted (fourth round in 2016) by an NHL team and defenceman Jordan Spence, who was born in Australia and started playing ice hockey in Osaka, Japan, before his family moved to Canada, and who was selected by the Los Angeles Kings in the fourth round (No 95) of the 2019 draft. In the 1970s, Tsujimoto, sadly, turned out to be nothing more than a figment of the imagination of two bored ice hockey executives. Now, in 2020, that dream is fast becoming a reality as the Asian wave of ice hockey players has begun in earnest.