As the Sharks get set to honor the 50th anniversary of hockey arriving in the Bay Area, the NHL's newest expansion team would be wise not to make the same mistakes as the Seals.
A bit of unsolicited advice for Bill Foley and George McPhee: take 95 minutes to watch the new documentary, The California Golden Seals Story, for valuable tips on how not to run an expansion team.
Fifty years before there were the Golden Knights, there were the Golden Seals, an NHL start-up trying to make a go of it in a Sun Belt city in the Pacific time zone. Technically, they weren’t the Golden Seals in the beginning, they were just the California Seals. Then they were the Oakland Seals, followed shortly thereafter by the California Golden Seals. Lesson No. 1: find an identity and stick to it.
The doc, written and produced by TV industry veteran Mark Greczmiel, traces the rise (if you can call it that) of the club from its inception in 1967 through its myriad follies, bad luck and occasional bright spots to its ill-fated relocation to Cleveland in 1976.
For Greczmiel, who grew up in the Bay Area, making the film was a labor of love, one he worked on during his spare time for more than two years.
“It’s a project I spent thousands of hours on, and I’ll never make my money back,” Greczmiel said, “but I really thought it was a story that should be told. I’m hoping this movie will shine a light on an era of hockey that a lot of people have forgotten.”
Greczmiel conducted 30-plus interviews, tapping into a variety of voices to weave his narrative, including former team employees and more than a dozen Seals players. Going in, he had a wish list of three men he most wanted to chat with: Carol Vadnais, Gilles Meloche and Wayne Gretzky. All three graciously accepted, but Vadnais, the face of the Seals early in their existence, passed away in the summer of 2014.
Gretzky, it turns out, has a soft spot for the defunct franchise. The first NHL game he attended was with his grandma at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, featuring the Seals. His memories of the club are mostly fond. Mostly.
“I remember seeing the white skates and thinking, ‘Boy, if I play in the NHL, I hope I don’t have to wear white skates,’ ” Gretzky says in the film.
Ah, the infamous white skates. The franchise’s eccentric second owner, Charlie Finley, ordered that all players wear boots that resembled figure skates. The players understandably hated them, as did the club’s trainer. The boots were easily marked by pucks and sticks, so Finley mandated the equipment guys had to paint them regularly, sometimes between periods, to ensure they remained white.
“By the time the skate was thrown out, it would weigh 10 times what it normally would,” said ex-Seal Stan Weir. “It was tough picking up your feet to skate.”
Finley was a legendary promoter and tried all sorts of gimmicks to attract fans. On one occasion, the team paraded a real seal to center ice where the creature promptly fell asleep. They tried “Barber Night,” granting free admission to hair-cutters in the hopes they’d spread the hockey gospel to their customers. Then there was the streaker stunt in which the team paid a young woman to zoom across the ice wearing nothing but skates and the word “Seals” painted across her naked torso. Apparently, it generated some buzz.
Finley also tried to convince the NHL to use orange pucks, he bought all his players garish Kelly green blazers to wear as a “uniform on the road” and gave them matching patent leather green suitcases, with the team logo emblazoned on the side. Former Seal Ernie Hicke told Greczmiel the players, “felt like a traveling circus.”
Some of Finley’s innovations had staying power. Most notably, the Seals were the first team to have player names stitched on to the backs of their jerseys. And while Finley was notoriously cheap when it came to paying employees, he insisted the team fly first class during long road trips, which, as just one of two teams west of Minnesota, were frequent.
One thing he didn’t do was watch his team much. At the beginning of his first press conference after purchasing the club, he took the microphone and informed those in attendance, “I wanna be the first to tell you that I know nothing about the game of hockey.” And his visits to the Coliseum were rare.
Finley’s heavy hand in the sinking of the Seals is legend, he did get some assistance. In a market already saturated with sports options (MLB’s A’s and Giants; NFL’s Raiders and 49ers; NBA’s Warriors; NCAA’s Stanford Cardinal), the Seals were bottom-feeders from the get-go and did little to capture the imagination of the locals, save for a pocket of boisterous diehards. The Seals had four ownership groups in nine years (not counting an NHL takeover), each one wanting to sell or move them. They had a coach (Bert Olmstead) who quit during the inaugural season in disgust and another (Fred Glover) whose approach the players questioned so much they tried to get him fired.
“Our practices were a joke,” Walt McKechnie recalled. “For us, it was drop the puck, shots on goal, then scrimmage.”
At the end of one campaign, the PA announcer at the Coliseum bid the fans farewell, promising the next season things would get better. “Then he added, ‘They can’t get any worse.’ ” Greczmiel chronicles.
Finley scared off good hockey men such as Bill Torrey and Frank Selke, Jr., the Seals lost more players to the WHA than any other NHL club because Finley refused to pony up, and they traded away first-round draft picks like hockey cards, including the one in 1971 that became Guy Lafleur.
There was a small handful of gold dust in a mountain of dirt, including Meloche, a superb reflex netminder who had MVP skills in a DOA environment.
“I remember thinking it wasn’t a very good team,” said Gretzky, “but maybe for a two- or three-year span the best player in hockey was their goaltender, Gilles Meloche…how dominant he was, how many saves he made, how miraculous he was every night.”
And the club would go on runs or produce stunning upsets that offered hope. But every time a glimmer of optimism appeared, an anvil fell from the sky. Eventually, co-owners Mel Swig and brothers George and Gordon Gund relocated them to Ohio for two painful, slow-death seasons. At the time of the departure, the Seals had just come off their best season in terms of attendance, and it was widely believed they’d be staying put. But a deal to build a new rink in San Francisco fell through, and the bottom dropped out on the Seals’ golden era. A couple years later, the Gunds purchased the Minnesota North Stars and merged the Barons with their new club. The Barons own the distinction of being the last franchise in the four major North American pro sports to fold.
The movie, available for download on iTunes, is replete with colorful stories told by some of the key figures of the day and quirky appearances by Krazy George, the one-time school teacher whom the Seals hired as a cheerleader after hearing him rile up the crowd one night. ‘The Krazy One’ was known for banging a drum and hollering to incite passion. One time it backfired, when he got into the kitchen of Bruins’ rugged winger Terry O’Reilly, who apparently jumped out of the penalty box and into the stands to chase old George. Good times.
Forty years after the extinction of the Seals, the Bay Area has proven it can support an NHL franchise and then some. The San Jose Sharks (owned originally by the Gunds, coincidentally) are thriving, having done things the right way and benefitting from the impact Gretzky’s trade to Los Angeles had on hockey in California. San Jose has drafted well, marketed with savvy and, wisely, has opted not to bring in any live sharks or bare-naked ladies.