The mystery of the NHL’s most forgotten expansion franchise
Today in GOTI’s history corner, we’ll be taking a look back at one of the NHL’s most infamous franchises - the California Golden Seals. Known for the eccentric jerseys, this franchise can often be considered the most forgotten team to grace an NHL standings page.
Well maybe not most forgotten. There were the Brooklyn Americans, Cleveland Barons, and Kansas City Scouts. There were also earlier expansion attempts such as the Philadelphia Quackers, Pittsburgh Pirates, and St. Louis Eagles.
But the Golden Seals continue to live-on in hockey lore - largely because of their aforementioned rambunctious jerseys. The bright yellow (or bright teal) and green design alongside the bizarre, if not intriguing font, continue to populate conversations when the best jerseys of all time are discussed. But what were the Golden Seals beyond their crest?
The California Seals were apart of the NHL’s 1967 expansion which saw the St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, and Minnesota North Stars join the NHL’s ensemble. The NHL’s ambitious endeavour was born out of a competing league that was threatening to go pro - the Western Hockey League. The California Seals were bought from the WHL (named the San Francisco Seals in that league), signifying a massive coup against their primary rival.
The Seals stumbled out of the gate, and figured a name change to the Oakland Seals might rectify this. They were wrong (unsurprisingly, why would a name change do anything?). This caused a number of relocation proposals despite the team not even being a year old. Proposals from Labatt (the beer company) to move the team to Vancouver and from the Knox family to move the team to Buffalo were quashed. Funnily enough, the 1970 expansion would see both of these cities acquire teams.
The Seals actually took the NHL to court on the matter, but the judge sided in favour of the NHL, in that they were within their right to reject the relocation bids. So the Seals trudged on.
In their first year, the Seals finished dead last in the league by a whopping 20 points, and
their leading scorer, Bill Hicke, secured 40 points, good for 58th in the league.
Their second season was… better! They were still had a sub-.500 win percentage, but managed to finish second in a weak Western division. Their leading scorer, Ted Hampson, even finished 14th in points, nearly securing a point per game! Their success was short lived, as they bowed out in the first round. This became the norm - in 1969-70, they only won 38% of their games, but managed to snag the final playoff spot before bowing out to the Penguins in a sweep in the first round, and despite a name change prior to the 1970 season (to the California Golden Seals as we now know them), they would finish last in the league.
The 70s Aren’t Different
The ownership situation in San Fransisco didn’t help either. In 1969, the original owner, Barry Van Berig, put the team on the market and actually sold them to Trans National Communications, who had owned the Boston Celtics. This would appear to bring some stability to the situation… but this was not the case. The holding company filed for bankruptcy the next year… whoops.
So the ownership returned to Van Berig, who then sold it to the Oakland Athletics owner, Charles O. Finley. A name straight out of a Scottish fairytale, Finley was a pioneer with regards to many of the accommodations we consider as basic necessities today. He was the first owner to mandate that all player travel be in first class, and was the very first owner to place last names on the back of their jerseys. On the more nonsensical side of his ideas, he believed that wearing white skates could give his team a tactical advantage since they were the same colour as the ice (well, most of the ice).
The Golden Seals were still garbage at hockey though. In 1970, California made a bold move to improve their chances, sending their 1971 first round pick to Montreal in exchange for a package that included a first round pick in return and multiple roster players. But they still sucked. They were, in fact, so garbage, that they were dead last, giving the Canadians the first overall pick in the draft, which they used to select future Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur.
The arrival of the professional Western Hockey Association in 1972 (different from the aforementioned WHL - they aren’t creative with their names eh?) saw the NHL lose many of their players in a bidding war against WHA teams. The Golden Seals were chief amongst them, losing five of their top 10 scorers from the year prior. To make matters worse, a realignment scheme that was meant to facilitate more league-wide parity placed the Golden Seals in a division with the perennial Cup contenders Bruins, Maple Leafs, and Sabres (also how does that make any sense geographically??).
The 70s ARE different - for the worse
Finley had enough. The Athletics were recent World Champions, and he frankly could not deal with the headache the Golden Seals were causing. He began looking for suitors to buy the team, but when no viable buyer presented themselves, he sold the team to the NHL. A couple of relocation attempts later (to Indianapolis and Denver respectively), and the Golden Seal now belonged to a hotel mogul intent on keeping the team in the Bay area, and in fact moving them into a new building!
Fear not, because nothing ever went right for those Golden Seals - a mayoral election led to a new office, and they kaiboshed the arena plans. With basically nothing keeping the team in the Bay-area, the NHL finally agreed to relocate the team if the proper situation presented itself. The minorities owners convinced management to move the team to their hometown - Cleveland.
They sucked outside of California too
After nearly a decade of failure and frustration, the NHL finally signed off on relocating the Golden Seals in 1976, settling on a home in Cleveland and naming the team the Barons (after the AHL team that had once been there).
That was a fiscally irresponsible move. Much of the north-central United States already had
allegiances to NHL clubs (be it Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis or Pittsburgh) and the Golden Seals had actually shown a rise in attendance prior to the move. But the frustration and desire for a solution led to the ill-advised move. The Barons would last two years before folding. In fact, the Cleveland Barons are the most recent professional North American franchise to fold.
The Barons were merged with the also-struggling Minnesota North Stars, who continued to struggle and moved to Texas to become the Dallas Stars.
Lessons to be learned
The main lessons to take away are that a nice jersey can’t do shit, that white skates can’t give you an edge, and that a hockey team can’t succeed in California.
*Checks regular season standings from basically the entire 2010s*
The main lessons to take away are that a nice jersey can’t do shit, that white skates can’t give you an edge, and that anything more than three hockey teams can’t succeed in California.
More seriously and importantly, I believe the series of unfortunate events that played out on Oakland ice tells us the importance of stable management. No, they may not be the most important quality to the actual on-ice product, but more simply that there is value in having an ownership group that is confident in the market they reside in. The constant changing of
the name inspired a lack of belief in the team and sport to draw fans. The game of musical chairs that was ownership made it so that the team was never fully settled, and certainly unprepared for the bidding war with the WHA. And finally that an owner that doesn’t want to be there, no matter how long the NHL fights, they will get their wish.
(Sorry Ottawa, you might be moving to Houston).