Gone But Not Forgotten: The Great Expansion - NHL's Early Years

Comprehensive histories of every "defunct" National League club from 1917 through today.

So far we've read the obituaries of the Montreal Wanderers, Quebec Bulldogs, Hamilton Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Quakers, original Ottawa Senators, St. Louis Eagles, Montreal Maroons and New York Americans. Let's take a break to look at an event that had an enormous impact on today's NHL and set the stage for the league's next set of lost teams. A poll and a look at how the NHL super-sized itself after the jump...

The NHL's formative years were a bit rough. Charter members, the Montreal Wanderers were lost just a couple of weeks into the league's inaugural season while other teams fell victim to the Great Depression and one had it's plug pulled due to a player's strike. The league tried relocating teams three different times but none took root in their new home. The six teams that survived this period remain in their respective cities today.

After the demise of the New York Americans in 1942 the NHL settled into a cozy little six team loop. This era of the "Original Six" would last twenty five years until the league doubled in size for the 1967-68 season. Once into the expansion era, the NHL would only see one more franchise pass away for good. Instead, relocation as opposed to termination became the way to deal with its troubled teams.

During the "Original Six" era the NHL rebuffed groups representing the cities of Cleveland, Philadelphia and Los Angeles using a conflicting set of criteria for each to gain admittance. At the time, it seemed the owners of the six clubs had no real desire to increase the the number of teams in the league as this would have cut into their profits.

William Jennings, president of the New York Rangers, was first to float the idea of expansion to his colleagues. Jennings proposed expanding to two locales on the west coast for the 1964-65 season to head off the Western Hockey League, which was compiling talented rosters of players who could not crack the static lineups of the original six teams and steadily creeping into major U.S. markets like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Denver. The growth of the WHL was raising fears that it would go from a minor to a major league in the near future, either on it's own accord or by merging with the AHL. Jennings also thought that expansion west would finally make the NHL a truly national league instead of a regional one and lead to a lucrative TV deal in the United States, something the NHL was without at the time.

While his plan was denied, the topic became one the other owners could not ignore for much longer. In 1965, the NHL was told by the major networks it would not get another television contract in the U.S. without expansion, with one network stating the WHL had just as much chance of getting televised as the NHL did. Under pressure from the networks, the WHL and a few younger, more open-minded league leaders eager to spread the game like Jennings and Montreal's David Molson, the NHL finally accepted the inevitable, announcing in March 1965 that it would expand with the creation of a second six team division.

On February 9th 1966, after reviewing 13 total bids from 8 different cities, NHL president Clarence Campbell announced the NHL had granted conditional franchises to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, San Franciso-Oakland, Minneapolis-St. Paul and St. Louis. Vancouver, Buffalo and Baltimore were left on the outside looking in. The Los Angeles and Bay Area franchises were a foregone conclusion as part of the NHL's new TV deal with CBS called for two of the new teams to be located in California. St. Louis was awarded a conditional franchise despite not applying as the owners of the Chicago Blackhawks were bullish on the market and also wished to unload the St. Louis Arena on the ownership of the new team located there. Baltimore waited in the wings until Sid Salomon Jr., his son, Sid Salomon III and Robert L. Wolfson stepped in as owners of the team that became the Blues. Another reason the NHL waited on St. Louis was because it wished to spread the new teams geographically by adding two each in the east, mid-west and west.

The owners of the new clubs paid a $2 million expansion fee and also had to pay $50,000 per player claimed in the expansion draft. The Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Minnesota North Stars, St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings and California Seals opened play in October 1967. They were all placed in the same division (the West Division) in order to provide competitive balance during the regular season and to guarantee one of the new members a spot in the Stanley Cup finals.The Flyers would finish first in the West Division at the end of the regular season while the St. Louis Blues advanced to the Stanley Cup finals, where they were promptly swept by the Montreal Canadiens.

After 1967-68, the NHL was never the same. Once growth started, the desire to fill in the map while collecting large expansion fees coupled with the arrival of the rival World Hockey Association on the scene, propelled the game in a direction that would have been unimaginable a few years earlier. Next time up. we will head to Northern California, where the girls are warm, to check out the first one of the league's new members to pack it up and go.

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