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The “Original Twelve”: A lot of ex-Leafs and Habs and a lot of good memories

Those of us of a certain age like to remember—and talk about—the so-called “Original Six”.

Those six teams are, of course, the Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Black Hawks.

Now, in truth, when the NHL was established in 1917 or thereabouts, those weren’t the six original teams. But the term “Original Six” has come to mean the long-standing franchises in those six cities as then hockey fans knew them in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s—until the NHL expanded by six more teams in one fell swoop.

I was talking about this very subject with a good friend just a few days ago. The fact is, while many hockey fans, myself included, grumbled in 1967 about watered down talent and all the ills of NHL expansion, some of us now look back relatively fondly on that late 60s era as kind of special in its own right.

Each team developed fairly quickly its own unique history and place in the league, even for then young fans like myself.

St. Louis hired Scotty Bowman as their (almost) first coach. Bowman is famous now, but back then he was just one of many rising guys in the Montreal brain trust under master General Manager Sammy Pollock. I believe Lynn Patrick (of the famous Patrick hockey clan) was the first General Manager of the Blues. Patrick initially also coached the team with Bowman as his assistant, but soon handed the reins over to the driven future Hall-of-Famer, Bowman.

The Blues were built that first few seasons with some wonderful old names: Glenn Hall and later Jacques Plante in goal. Ex-Canadiens and Leaf Dickie Moore played there that first season. Other former Canadiens Ab McDonald, Jimmy Roberts and Doug Harvey all contributed at various times, giving the Blues a real Montreal connection along with a winning attitude and a bit of flair. Ernie Wakely, another goaltender out of the Montreal system, played a fair bit as well starting in the third year of expansion.

Ex-Leaf defenseman Al Arbour, part of the ’62 championship team, anchored the St. Louis backline for years.

But perhaps the player who made the most lasting contribution to the Blues in those early years of expansion was yet another former Hab, forward Red Berenson. If I’m not mistaken, Berenson was acquired from the New York Rangers for former Leaf Ron Stewart. Berenson was unusual for a couple of reasons. He wore a helmet regularly, and was a former U.S. college player when few, if any such players made it to the NHL. Berenson became a St. Louis mainstay, once scoring 6 goals in a single game (I believe against goalie Doug Favell and the Flyers, but I stand to be corrected).

In Philadelphia, former Leaf great Allan Stanley played one season in 1968-’69—before they became the Broad Street Bullies. Former Leaf NHL rookie-of-the-year Brit Selby was there for a while, too. The Flyers were originally a low-scoring team, built around two fine young goalies - the aforementioned Favell (who later played with the Leafs) and future Hall-of-Famer Bernie Parent. I think both came out of the Boston system; I know Parent did for sure. When Bobby Clarke joined as a rookie in 1968 from the Flin Flon Junior team (he was able to cope successfully with diabetes) they started to become a contender, eventually winning the Stanley Cup in 1974. But in the early expansion days they relied on useful guys like defensemen Wayne Hillman and Ed Van Impe, who had both experience with Original Six teams.

Minnesota has long been a high school and college hockey area. And when the NHL came to town in 1967, there was a great response to big-league hockey. The Stars depended on former Maple Leaf and Hab Cesare Maniago in goal. Gump Worsley joined a bit later after helping win 4 Cups in Montreal, as did former Leaf Larry Hillman, who also spent time with the Flyers and Kings. One of the neat pick-ups was Elmer “Moose” Vasko, the long-time Black Hawks defenseman. J.P. Parise came over from the Leaf organization and became a star with Minnesota. Former Bruin Bill Goldsworthy was their big goal scorer. U.S. born Tommy Williams was a favorite there, after spending a few seasons with the Bruins.

Pittsburgh was another new entry, with a decided New York Ranger influence up front. Andy Bathgate (who scored the Cup winning goal for the Maple Leafs in 1964, but is best remembered as an all-time Ranger), Kenny Schinkel and Earl Ingarfield all played prominent roles for the Pens in those early days. Defensemen Noel Price and Leo Boivin, who both played briefly way back in the 50s for the Leafs, anchored on defense. Eddie Joyal, who played well for the Red Wings when they nearly won a Cup earlier in the 60s, was a good addition for LA. Long-time minor-leaguer Les Binkley was the main man in goal in the early days.

Now, it was a bit of a surprise in those days to see the NHL go west, specifically Los Angeles and Oakland. Both cities had earlier success as minor league hockey towns, but most observers figured NHL hockey would fail in the southern and western United States.

Canadian businessman Jack Kent Cooke, who also became the owner of the National Football League Washington Redskins, owned the Kings. The crowds were often sparse. Cooke once commented, and I’m quoting a bit loosely here, that after bringing a team to LA, he realized why so many Canadians had earlier moved there. “It was,” said Cooke, “to get away from hockey”.

Somehow (Marcel Dionne and Rogie Vachon helped in the 70s) the Kings survived until Wayne Gretzky arrived and cemented the future of the franchise. In the expansion draft, they selected Terry Sawchuk from Toronto, and he was their main goalie that first year in 1967-’68. But he was injured a fair bit, and while he played well at times he was aging and didn’t make too much of a difference. Dale Rolfe and Bill White, who later had success with the Black Hawks and Rangers respectively, anchored the defense. Gerry Desjardins, the future Sabre, became their first good young goalie. Former Leaf Larry Regan was the team’s first GM, as I recall.

In Oakland, former Montreal and Toronto winger Bert Olmstead took over as coach of the Seals that first expansion season. He only lasted one year, as he brought a lot of intensity but was not cut out to be a coach. The son of the legendary Montreal hockey club architect Frank Selke, Frank Selke Jr., played a management role. Former Hab Billy Hicke was a good forward for the Seals in those early years, who also had ex-Leafs Bobby Baun and Billy Harris for a time. Long-time Montreal goalie Charlie Hodge was in goal and fellow goaltender Gary “Suitcase” Smith, briefly a Leaf earlier in his career, was a Seal for a number of years.

The franchise never fully found its legs, even though one-time owner Charlie Finley of baseball fame had them skating around in gold and green uniforms—and sometimes all-white skates. (The team eventually moved to Cleveland, became the Barons, and later merged with the Minnesota North Stars, who ultimately moved to Dallas.)

Given the sudden influx of six new teams, the expansion-team player pool was largely made up of minor-leaguers and veterans cut adrift from the established franchises. I’m trying to think as I write this of young ‘star’ players and draft choices who made a big impact in the early days. Michel Briere was a fine young prospect who had a great rookie season with the Penguins in 1969-’70, but died tragically before the next NHL season. Bobby Clarke had a huge impact with the Flyers, of course. (Other than Clarke, the first real ‘expansion’ superstar draft choice came when the league expanded further, to 14 teams, and Buffalo made Gilbert Perreault the first overall selection before the 1970-’71 season. I’ll write about Perreault another time.)

All this said, for even the hard-core, old-school hockey fan, each team had its own identity, some stronger than others, some with more of a Maple Leaf or Montreal orientation than others.

So yes, in the end I liked the “Next Six”. Not as much as the “Original Six”, but they became, for me, the new “Original Twelve”.

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