Gone But Not Forgotten: California Golden Seals

Today’s look back takes us to the San Francisco Bay Area. One of six expansion teams that entered the league in 1967, the chaotic California Golden Seals struggled mightily on and off the ice during their nine seasons in Oakland, going through four owners and three name changes while never managing to find a modicum of the success the San Jose Sharks would achieve years later. A poll and more after the jump...

Despite not exactly being a hockey hotbed at the time, the Bay Area got its first shot at NHL glory in the Great Expansion of 1967, largely due to the terms of the league’s television contract with CBS which called for two of the six new teams to be located in California. The California Golden Seals trace their organizational roots back to the San Francisco Seals who began playing in the Western Hockey League in 1961 and won two championships in that league. Barry van Gerbig was the last owner of the WHL Seals and made the bid for the NHL expansion franchise which would retain the Seals name. Prior to their final season in the WHL, the Seals, who had been playing just outside of San Francisco in front of good crowds at the Cow Palace in Daly City, moved across the bay to the new Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. The team was renamed, becoming the California Seals in an effort to appeal to fans in both Oakland and San Francisco. The plan was to eventually move the NHL Seals to San Francisco proper once a new arena was built but that never happened and the team would remain in smaller Oakland during its run in California. Tom Thurlby was the only member of the WHL Seals to play for the NHL version, appearing in 20 games during the club’s inaugural season.

The California Seals opened the 1967-68 NHL season with a 5-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers in Oakland on October 11, 1967. They followed this up with a 6-0 blanking of the Minnesota North Stars and then skated to a 2-2 tie with the Los Angeles Kings to finish off their first homestand. The team’s fortunes would take a sharp turn for the worse as they set off on their first road trip. The Seals lost five straight before ending the trip with a 2-2 draw in Philadelphia. The team dropped six of its next seven, picking up only one point in a 2-2 tie with Chicago, before finally winning again against Los Angeles on November 15th, by this time, with few fans coming over from San Francisco, they were known as the Oakland Seals. The club picked up its first win against an established NHL foe three days later by shocking the Montreal Canadiens 2-1 in Oakland. An eleven game winless skid in the middle of the season ended any hopes the Seals had of making the playoffs and a 0-8-5 run to finish the season doomed them to last place in the new West Division. Gerry Ehman, who was acquired prior to the season from the Toronto Maple Leafs for Bryan Hextall Jr. and J.P. Parise, two players the Seals had picked in the expansion draft, led the team in scoring with 44 points and Bill Hicke, an expansion draft pick up from the New York Rangers, contributed 21 goals to the offensive cause. Ted Hampson, acquired from the Detroit Red Wings on January 9th, added 27 points in his 34 games with the Seals. Former Maple Leaf Bobby Baun led the defensive effort while ex-Montreal backup Charlie Hodge got the bulk of starts in goal. The team’s losing ways kept fans away in droves, causing coach Bert Olmstead to publicly support a move to Vancouver, which was spurned in the expansion process, after LaBatt’s Brewery offered to purchase and relocate the Seals franchise, an offer which the NHL rejected along with a second offer from the Knox brothers in Buffalo.

A very sad moment in Oakland’s first season came on January 13, 1968 when Minnesota’s Bill Masterton lost his life after being checked to the ice by Seals Ron Harris and Larry Cahan, hitting his head and never regaining consciousness.
Before the start of the 1968-69 season GM Frank Selke Jr. overhauled the roster and brought in a new coach, Fred Glover. Only seven players remained from the inaugural 15 win season. Norm Ferguson, fresh off a 42 goal campaign for AHL Cleveland the season before, was the centerpiece of a seven player deal between the Seals and Canadiens while Doug Roberts and Gary Jarrett were useful pieces acquired from Detroit for veteran Bobby Baun and Ron Harris. The heavy shuffling of the roster had little effect in the early portion of the season as the Seals won only five of their first twenty one games but a 5-4 win over Montreal led to the team picking up 5 out of 6 possible points on a three game homestand in early December. After the win over the Canadiens, the Seals played .500 hockey the rest of the way to finish second in the West Division with a 29-36-11 record. Oakland met the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs. A strong 4-1 win in game five finally gave the favored Seals the lead in the series but they dropped a tight 4-3 affair in game six before falling at home by a 5-3 score in game seven in front of 9,384 fans. Veteran center Earl Ingarfield was a force in the series with ten points in seven games. Ted Hampson led the Seals in scoring during the regular season with 75 points and won the first Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy while Norm Ferguson scored 34 goals and Bill Hicke produced a 61 point campaign. Defenseman Carol Vadnais added 42 points from the blue line and Gary Smith supplanted Charlie Hodge as the team’s number one goaltender, posting 21 wins.

The 1969-70 season saw the Seals sold to a group called Trans National Communications which included Pat Summerall and Whitey Ford. With much of its roster and management team intact, the team got off to a solid 4-3-1 start which included two wins over Chicago. A 2-13-3 run followed, sending the club into a tailspin they never really recovered from. They limped to the finish line with 58 points managing to squeak into the playoffs by virtue of having more wins than the fifth place Philadelphia Flyers. A 4-1 win over Los Angeles in the penultimate game of the regular season gave them the necessary points to qualify. In the first round, the Seals faced the Pittsburgh Penguins who easily eliminated them in four straight games. This would be the final time the Seals would make an appearance in the playoffs. Ted Hampson again led the team in scoring while Carol Vadnais poured in 20 goals and 44 points. Gary Smith won 19 games in net with Charlie Hodge posting the other 3 wins. After the season, Trans National Communications defaulted and declared bankruptcy allowing former owner Barry van Gerbig to regain control of the team which he promptly put up for sale again.

During the offseason two events occurred that would go a long way towards sinking the Seals. On May 22, 1970 they made two separate trades with Montreal that would have a huge impact on both clubs. The first deal saw the Seals pick up LW Dennis Hextall for cash but it was the second deal that would come back to haunt the team. The Seals acquired LW Ernie Hicke and Montreal’s 1st round pick in the upcoming June draft with defense prospect Francois Lacombe and Oakland’s 1st round pick in the 1971 draft going back to the Canadiens. That pick turned out to be first overall and the Canadiens would use it to select Guy Lafleur while the player the Seals selected with Montreal’s pick, Chris Oddleifson, never played for the team. Ernie Hicke would only log two seasons for the club before being selected by the Atlanta Flames in the 1972 expansion draft. In late June, with the backing of the NHL, van Gerbig sold the Seals to Oakland A’s owner Charlie O. Finley despite a more substantial and well thought-out bid from Roller Derby’s Jerry Seltzer.

Prior to the start of the 1970-71 campaign, GM Frank Selke Jr. quit and was replaced by a young Bill Torrey who would only last a month into the regular season before clashes with Finley also led to his departure. Coach Fred Glover would assume GM duties for the rest of the season. Finley changed the team’s colors to Kelly green and California gold to match the A’s. He also had a new logo designed and renamed the club the California Golden Seals after almost going with the moniker Bay Area Seals. The team responded to the changes by getting off to a horrid 0-7-2 start before finally winning 6-1 against a new expansion team, the Buffalo Sabres. The Golden Seals reeled off three more wins before dropping two straight to Buffalo and Pittsburgh. Things would go from bad to worse as the Seals would only win 7 games over the second half of the schedule to finish 20-53-5, the league’s worst record. Captain Ted Hampson, one of the team’s best players, was dealt to the North Stars on March 7th for Dick Redmond and Tom Williams. Offseason acquisitions Dennis Hextall and Ernie Hicke would lead the team in scoring with 52 and 47 points respectively while defenseman Carol Vadnais picked up 26 points in an injury shortened season. Gary Smith appeared in 71 games in goal and posted 19 of the team’s 20 wins.

Before the 1971-72 season, the Golden Seals were busy tweaking their roster again. Dennis Hextall was dealt to Minnesota for Joey Johnston and Walt McKechnie and the team acquired Marshall Johnston and Bobby Sheehan from frequent trade partner Montreal for cash. A September trade saw the Seals deal beleaguered starting netminder Gary Smith to Chicago for three players including goalie Gerry Desjardins who was later dealt back to the Blackhawks for rookie Gilles Meloche. California opened the season with a seven game homestand but lost five straight after tying the first two games. The team rebounded to win it’s first three games on the road, beating Buffalo, Pittsburgh and powerful Boston 2-0 with Meloche picking up his first career shutout. An 8-1 blasting of Toronto in Oakland on November 7th raised the club’s record to a respectable 5-6-3 but the team would go back on the road and lose six out of seven games on the trip. The Seals traded star defenseman Carol Vadnais to the Bruins for Reggie Leach, Bob Stewart and Rick Smith but would only win three times after the deal. A six game losing streak to cap the season cost the Golden Seals any chance of a playoff spot and they ended up in sixth place in the West Division with a 21-39-18 record, improving 15 points over the previous season. Former Blackhawk Gerry Pinder led the team in scoring with 54 points while Gilles Meloche won 16 games and posted 4 shutouts. This was the season the Seals began to sport white painted skates on orders from owner Finley.

The formation of the WHA hit the Golden Seals like a brick during the 1972-73 season. The team lost its top two scorers, Gerry Pinder and Bobby Sheehan, along with four other players as owner Finley refused to match the higher salaries offered by the rival league. They also lost three players, Ernie Hicke, Norm Ferguson and Frank Hughes, in the NHL Expansion draft. The depleted Seals again got off to an awful start, winning only 5 times in their first 32 outings. Things would get even worse as the Seals went through a stretch in the middle of the season where they won only 1 out of 21 games. California finished dead last in the West with 58 points, only the expansion New York Islanders were worse in the league. The team did manage to win their final four games to finish the season off on a bit of a roll. Walt McKechnie led the team in scoring with 54 points while Hilliard Graves, Reggie Leach, Joey Johnston and Craig Patrick all netted 20 or more goals. Gilles Meloche was absolutely shelled in net, finishing with a 4.06 GAA and just one shutout.

Charlie O. Finley was growing weary of the Golden Seals and put the team up for sale during the 1973-74 season. An offer came in from a group looking to relocate the franchise to Indianapolis but it was rejected by the NHL who eventually took over the club in February 1974 by purchasing it from Finley. After doing very little to bolster the roster in the offseason, the Seals got off to a good start on the ice, beating St. Louis and Chicago to began the season. Unfortunately, a three game losing streak followed, capped off by an 11-2 trashing at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings, which was an ominous sign for the rest of the campaign. The Golden Seals won their 13th and final game of the season on March 10th over the Bruins before going a ghastly 0-11-1 to finish off the schedule. Once again they placed 8th in the West Division, this time with a franchise low 36 points. Joey Johnston was the scoring leader, posting a career high 67 points. Ivan Boldirev and Walt McKechnie each cracked the 50 point mark while Reggie Leach potted 22 goals. Gilles Meloche only won 9 games and saw his GAA swell to 4.24. Marshall Johnston replaced Fred Glover as coach during the campaign.

The Golden Seals continued to be run by the NHL during the early part of the 1974-75 season with Bill McCreary assuming GM duties. The team changed their uniform colors to Pacific teal and gold but kept on losing and fans continued to stay away. Rumors surfaced that the team was heading to Denver where a conditional expansion franchise had already been awarded. Instead of expanding again, the NHL was thinking of relocating the Golden Seals to Denver and the troubled Pittsburgh Penguins to Seattle to fill those promised spots. Real estate developer Mel Swig finally purchased the team from the NHL in early 1975 with the intention of moving it to a proposed arena in San Francisco. The Seals finished in last place again, this time in the new Adams Division, with a record of 19-48-13 but did make a 15 point jump in the standings. Larry Patey and Stan Weir tied for the team scoring lead with 45 points while Dave Hrechkosky led the team with 29 goals. Future Kings star Charlie Simmer would score 21 points in 35 games as a rookie for California.

Now coached by Jack Evans, the Golden Seals began the 1975-76 season with wins over the Atlanta Flames and the Detroit Red Wings. After eight games the team had a solid 3-3-2 record but they dropped six in a row to fall into an early hole. A 7-1-1 run during the middle of the season had the Seals thinking playoffs and drawing better crowds but they cooled off and again finished in the last place in the Adams. The 27 wins and 65 points were second best numbers in franchise history. Al MacAdam led the team with 63 points while rookie sensation Dennis Maruk scored 30 goals and added 32 assists. Fellow 3M line member Wayne Merrick totalled 25 goals on the season after coming over from St. Louis in a trade for Larry Patey. Unfortunately, the planned arena in San Francisco was cancelled and minority owners George and Gordon Gund convinced Swig to petition the league to allow the franchise to move to their hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. The NHL granted permission for the relocation during the offseason on July 14, 1976. The last game in the turbulent history of the Golden Seals was a 5-2 win over Los Angeles in Oakland on April 4, 1976.

The story of the Golden Seals is one of right place, wrong time, rotten luck and missed opportunity. Bay Area fans took to the San Jose Sharks when the Gund brothers returned the NHL to the region fifteen years later but never got behind the Seals. In retrospect, had the NHL not been pushed by CBS to place two expansion teams in California the Seals likely would not have gotten in despite Barry van Gerbig’s connections to league power brokers like Bruce Norris and William Jennings. The lack of a large, modern arena in San Francisco should have excluded the club but once admitted the NHL’s refusal of the Cow Palace as at least a temporary home for the NHL version of the team forced the move across the bay to Oakland, costing the franchise a good portion of its fanbase from the WHL days that it never got back. With little fan support, the team was run in survival mode almost right away and was plagued by constant rumors of relocation and/or contraction. The decision of the NHL to back Charlie O. Finley’s purchase of the franchise instead of the superior Jerry Seltzer bid was also a poor one. Finley knew baseball but didn’t know anything about the game of hockey or how to run and market a successful NHL club. Finley had but quickly drove away GM legend in the making Bill Torrey and ran the club on a shoestring budget which led to a lot of personnel turnover. The Seals always seemed to have good forwards along with at least one solid goaltender on the roster but never got around to putting together a competent defense which kept the team from winning and made the on ice product nearly impossible to support. The missed chance to draft superstar Guy Lafleur and the arrival of the WHA on the scene were two more nails in the coffin but once it became apparent that an NHL caliber arena was just not going to get built in San Francisco the NHL finally pulled the plug and gave up on the Golden Seals.

NHL Seasons: Nine

Stanley Cups: None

Notable Players: Carol Vadnais, Gilles Meloche, Al MacAdam, Ted Hampson, Joey Johnston, Walt McKechnie

Which of the three choices would have given the Seals a better chance of survival?

Keeping their first round pick in '71 and selecting Guy Lafleur12
Retaining Bill Torrey as GM3
An arena in San Francisco12