How one documentarian is bringing the eccentric California Golden Seals back to life
The California Golden Seals lost a lot, but they were never dull. (Brad Kurtzberg)
How one documentarian is bringing the eccentric California Golden Seals back to life
The California Golden Seals were one of the most bizarre and lovable franchises in the history of the NHL, and filmmaker Mark Greczmiel is bringing the team back to life in a new documentary. From green and yellow jerseys to white skates and a team-backed streaker, the Seals were never dull and Greczmiel can’t wait to tell their story.They were the misfit toys of the NHL – a group with green jerseys and white skates, with an owner that wanted orange pucks, flew his players first class and slapped their names on the back of the jerseys. But even if the California Seals were an NHL oddity, documentary filmmaker Mark Greczmiel loved them all the same. That’s why when he realized that someone needed to do their due diligence and tell the Seals' story, Greczmiel stepped up to the plate. The Seals are the perfect team for a documentary, too, because in a way, their time in the NHL is almost akin to if Slap Shot’s Charlestown Chiefs somehow gained entry to the league. “There’s a gentlemen named Brad Kurtzberg who I interviewed, he wrote a book about the Seals called 'Shorthanded,' which is great. His quote was, ‘This was a franchise where if something could possibly go wrong, it did go wrong.’ They were never boring, they lost a lot of games, but they were never boring on or off the ice.” Over their history, the Seals put up a total record of 182-401-115, but their roster featured players such as Dennis Maruk, Carol Vadnais, Charlie Simmer and goaltender Gilles Meloche, who, some Seals players told Greczmiel, could have been one of the all-time greats had he played on a better team. “The Seals were playing in Boston and this new, rookie goalie (Meloche), who was 21 at the time, he started that game and they shutout the Bruins in Boston 2-0," Greczmiel recalled of Meloche's Seals debut. "I remember what huge news that was even in the Bay Area, which didn’t have a lot of media focusing on hockey. But it was huge news that the Seals, of all teams, shutout Boston with a rookie goalie in his first game. That was the year the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, and they were only shutout one more time the whole season and that was near the end of the regular season. That was a huge thing for the Seals and Meloche always kept the team in the game, even when they were getting way outshot. A number of the Seals players actually mentioned that if he had played more of his career for other teams other than the Seals that he would probably be in the Hall of Fame.” Even with star players, the team couldn’t do much. It was more losing than winning, and that’s simply the way it was for the Seals, who eventually became the Oakland Seals and, subsequently, the California Golden Seals. There was always a certain personality to the team, though, including the bizarre fascination those in New York had with Seals winger Morris Mott. “(Mott) wasn’t an exceptionally good player, but for some reason the New York Rangers fans at MSG adopted him and formed a Morris Mott fan club. Whenever the seals would come to Madison Square Garden, the fan club would be up there with their banners and meet with (Mott) after the game and he would sign autographs. One of the players told a story that when they arrived there was a sign that said, in big letters, ‘MADISON SQUARE GARDEN WELCOMES: MORRIS MOTT’ and below it in small letters, ‘and the California Golden Seals.’” One season, Greczmiel said, the Seals had set aside a total of $5,000 for an entire year’s worth of marketing. The team could afford one billboard for the entire season and were forced to cancel a stick night because they simply didn’t have the cash flow to hand out the souvenirs. So, as struggling teams are wont to do, the Seals started to get creative with how to generate publicity for the team. “One thing they did, when streaking was kind of big across the US and Canada, they hired the girlfriend of the stick boy to come to the game, crawl underneath the stands and then come out just wearing ice skates and skate across the ice,” Greczmiel said. “They let all the photographers know, they were snapping pictures, and (the Seals) got more coverage from that than they did for their play.” But even before they had hired an on-ice trespasser to drum up some press for the club, the team, under the ownership of the eccentric Charles Finley, had become somewhat of a sideshow. One of the most recognizable things about the Seals to this day are the green and gold jerseys – jerseys that matched those of the Oakland A’s, the MLB club that Finley owned – but it got even more bizarre when the team donned white skates.
“The A’s wore white shoes, so (Finley) wanted the players to wear white skates,” Greczmiel said. “The problem with the white skates was that he was adamant that they had to look spotless. So the skates were painted, but during a game they would get scuffed up when they go into the boards or a puck would hit them, so he would come into the dressing room and have the trainers repaint the skates and touch them up. I thought the players were joking about this, but too many of them said it, they said as the season went on the skates would get heavier and heavier because there was so much paint on them. They said it was a real detriment to skating. The other problem was that back then a lot of people still had black and white televisions so when they would be on television sometimes it would look like, with the skates blending into the ice, they were skating on stumps.”All this personality brought on by Finley and the franchise’s players make for an interesting story, but much of it could have been different. In a roundabout way, had it not been for roller derby – yes, that roller derby – the Seals may have had a better shot at succeeding. “When (the original owners) decided to sell the team there was two people who wanted to buy the Seals: Charles Finley and a guy named Jerry Seltzer," Greczmiel said. "Seltzer’s father helped create roller derby, they owned a roller derby team, and he was well connected with arena owners. He was located in the Bay Area, he devised this huge marketing plan on how they were going to sell hockey in the Bay Area, and all the things they were going to do. NHL officials meet Finley and Seltzer in a hotel just outside the Chicago airport and they make their presentations. Seltzer had this whole thing, this presentation, and Charles Finley has a one-page memo about what he wants to do. And so at the meeting the NHL decides to go with Finley because the feeling was that roller derby was a low rent sport at the same level as professional wrestling. If they had gone with Seltzer it might have been a whole different story for hockey in the Bay Area.” With moments like that, the story of the Seals almost writes itself. It does help, however, that this isn’t Greczmiel’s first trip around the block. He used to work in television news before going on to do freelance documentary work for channels such as E! Entertainment Television, so aside from lugging equipment, recording and transcribing the footage himself, it hasn’t been such a far cry from his normal day-to-day. To really make the film shine, though, Greczmiel is going to need some alternate funding. Up to this point, he’s done everything on his own dime, but he’s turned to crowd-funding website IndieGoGo to secure the money he’ll need to put the final touches on the movie. “I’ve dug up a lot of rare footage, so there’s a lot of old news footage from Bay Area TV stations that were shot in the late ‘60s and ‘70s that has been in storage for 40 years,” Greczmiel said. “That’s part of the reason I’m doing fundraising right now on IndieGoGo – to be able to license this footage. I’ve spoken with the NHL and the Hall of Fame, so there are licensing fees and some additional game footage I’d like to license. Up to now, I’ve been financing this all myself and so now I’m just looking for a little bit of help with getting the footage.” To this point, he’s landed himself nearly $7,000 of the $26,000 goal with the campaign set to close in less than a week. When the campaign closes, Grieczmiel will continue to raise money through a Facebook page dedicated to the documentary. And as for the perks of the campaign for those who donate, things like pennants, posters, game programs and downloads of the film have mostly found their way to Greczmiel through eBay and the kindness of some of the players. And it makes sense that the players have helped out so much, because through telling their story, Greczmiel is carrying on the legacy of a team that still provides many of the players with memories to this day. Several players told Greczmiel that they still get letters and cards asking for autographs from their Seals days, something that keeps the memory of the team alive and well. “A lot of players, they talked about how close they became,” Greczmiel said. “Here they were in Oakland, they weren’t big celebrities, but they just had a lot of fun. Back then there was also a lot of drinking going on. They would be on a 747 in the upstairs lounge drinking and one of the players would be passed out against the cockpit door. The pilot couldn’t get out because a 6-foot-4 hockey player was passed out against the door. They lost a lot of games, but they had a lot of fun.” (The IndieGoGo campaign can be found here. No release date is currently set for the film.)