Assignment: 1966: The NHL Expansion

It’s February 9th, 1966. Two days ago, while President Johnson and South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Cao Kỳ discuss the course of the Vietnam War in Hawaii, TV broadcasts begin in South Vietnam using “Stratovision” (a process involving transmitting signals from flying airplanes) and Chris Rock was born in Andrews, South Carolina. However, today, the biggest news was that the National Hockey League’s Board of Governors approved six new expansion franchises, doubling the size of the league in one fell swoop.

While expansion was the rule of the day in the four major North American sports leagues in the ’60s, the NHL was the unlikeliest to have joined the party, as the “Original Six” teams had been a tightly controlled cartel since the Great Depression and World War II, respectively, had forced the Montreal Maroons and Brooklyn Americans to fold. (This same cartel refused to allow those two teams to reform after the war, as they technically existed until the late ’40s.) Things were so bad that James E. Norris (for whom the Norris Trophy, given each year to hockey’s best defenseman, and the Norris Division, which is now know as the Central Division, were named) owned the Detroit Red Wings, effectively owned the Chicago Black Hawks, was a majority shareholder of the New York Rangers, and held loans belonging to the Boston Bruins. (Suffice to say, the Red Wings, along with the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, dominated the Original Six era.)

However, this corruption and calcification (rosters in particular were extremely stagnant) had its effects. Despite being a pioneer in television coverage in both the US and Canada (where Hockey Night in Canada, already a Saturday night tradition in the days of radio, shifted right over to the CBC’s TV arm), the NHL allowed their US TV deal to expire for fears of increasing player leverage over ownership and a lack of desire to shift game start times to fit the needs of the networks. The league is still recovering from this error. However, what caused the league to act were three things: One, the Western Hockey League was rising and rumored to be looking to compete with the NHL and in talks to get a national TV deal in the US. Two, the league was told in 1965 that they would need to expand in order to secure a TV deal in the US. And finally, the owners and execs responsible for the backwards policies started to die off.

As a result, the Board of Governors approved the expansion, slated to begin with the 1967-68 season, with teams paying a hefty $2 million franchise fee, as well as having to pay $50,000 per player taken in the expansion draft. The teams approved were:

California Seals-In actuality the WHL’s San Francisco Seals, who were purchased by Barry Van Gerbig after being awarded a franchise. Gerbig moved the team across the Bay to Oakland, and attendance was awful as a result. Later, the team moved to Cleveland, becoming the Barons, and merged its operations with the Minnesota North Stars in 1978.

Los Angeles Kings-Awarded to LA Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke, the Kings struggled to consistently win for years (and with their purple and gold colors and even their logo, appeared to trade off the goodwill generated by the far more successful Lakers) until 1987, when the team was purchased by coin collector (and eventually, convicted fraudster) Bruce McNall purchased the team from then-owner Dr. Jerry Buss (who was far more interested in the Lakers). He changed the team’s colors to silver and black (appropriating the colors of the LA Raiders) and in 1988, traded for Wayne Gretzky. The team became instant contenders, eventually reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 1993, before McNall’s house of cards imploded after they lost to Montreal. However, the team eventually rebounded, and behind goalie Jonathan Quick, they’ve won two Stanley Cups in recent years and are annual contenders (and celebrated their 50th Anniversary by demolishing my Bruins in Boston by a score of 9-2).

Minnesota North Stars-Awarded to a nine-man ownership group led by Walter Bush, Jr. and John Driscoll, the North Stars struggled financially and on the ice until after their merger with the Barons, when they had a string of deep playoff runs. However, the second half of the ’80s were a disaster and the Gund brothers who owned the team threatened to move, but were instead awarded the San Jose Sharks, an expansion franchise. The North Stars were purchased by Norman Green, who was one of the owners who bought the Atlanta Flames in 1979 and moved them to Calgary. He turned around and moved the North Stars to Dallas, citing poor attendance and a lack of a new arena (never mind that Target Center, home of the Minnesota Timberwolves, was new at the time). Green sold the team in 1995 to Tom Hicks, and the Dallas Stars won the 1999 Stanley Cup. In 1997, however, the NHL awarded the Minneapolis area a franchise, which became the Minnesota Wild, who started play in 2000.

Philadelphia Flyers-After seeing a huge line of fans outside the Boston Garden enthusiastically buying tickets to Bruins games even though the team was in last place, Philadelphia Eagles vice president Ed Snider assembled an ownership group for a team in Philadelphia, and lobbied hard for a franchise (leading to the league passing over Baltimore). The Flyers have become one of the most successful of the original expansion teams, appearing in 37 playoffs out of a possible 47, winning the Cup in 1974 and 1975 (the latter being the first all-expansion Stanley Cup Final). However, they also brought to the league a rich tradition of goonery that spread through the league like a wildfire (and that’s besides the typical, well-earned poor reputation Philadelphia sports fans have). Right now, they’re awful, thankfully, and John LeClair is long retired, so I have no reason to like them.

Pittsburgh Penguins-Founded after an intense lobbying effort by Pennsylvania state senator Jack McGregor, the Penguins have reached the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Besides the tragedy of Michel Briere, the team spent much of its first four decades of existence in dire financial straits, with the last such period a direct result of wild free agent spending sprees in the ’90s that resulted in two Stanley Cup Championships. However, their position finally stabilized after the disastrous 2004-2005 NHL lockout, when the first pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft was awarded to the Penguins through a rather dubious lottery, which resulted in the Penguins drafting Sidney Crosby, who led the team to a Stanley Cup.

St. Louis Blues-Awarded (despite having no ownership group) because Black Hawks owner James D. Norris also owned the rotting St. Louis Arena, the team made the first three Stanley Cup Finals after expansion (the expansion teams were placed in a division separate from the Original Six at first)…..and have never returned. Despite being a perennial playoff team (at one time making the playoffs every year for a quarter of a century), the Blues have been a solid team at best with a number of great players, but nothing more.

The effects were swift. While not directly related, James D. Norris died on February 25th, and the Black Hawks (and St. Louis Arena) fell into the hands of “Dollar” Bill Wirtz, one of the most vile owners in pro sports history. As such, Chicago, which was competitive at the time, spiraled into irrelevance, and never really recovered until Wirtz died and his son Rocky took over in 2007. Besides being notoriously cheap, Wirtz refused to embrace television, not allowing home games to be televised at all unless they were carried nationally. The Maple Leafs, one of the three dominant franchises, have not even been to the Stanley Cup Finals since expansion, and following the 2004-2005 lockout have made the playoffs once, in 2013, where they choked in improbably epic fashion to the Bruins in Game 7 of the first round. And speaking of the Bruins, buoyed by the infamous trade with Chicago that brought Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield to Boston, the team transformed from perennial also-ran to one of the best-and most consistently winning-teams in the NHL, winning two Cups in three seasons and making the playoffs for three decades straight (and they’d have won even more titles if not for some key defections to the WHA and the early retirement of Bobby Orr). On a more esoteric level, the teams became more colorful, and the play more exciting (Espo famously became the first player with over 100 points in a season). And while it wasn’t until the ’90s that the NHL finally got a full national TV deal in the US, the expansions helped immensely, spreading the game across the US (albeit with dubious success in certain cities, such as Phoenix) and eventually making it harder for teams to qualify for years on end (the Blues and Bruins aside). And the players won the biggest of all. They successfully unionized in 1967, and with Orr’s record $1 million contract in 1971 and the formation of the WHA in 1972, salaries and benefits reached a level near that of the top players in the other three leagues, to say nothing of the increased number of roster spots and competition for them.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the rise of one of America’s first consumer advocates, and it’s not going to be a very friendly discussion.

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