I’ve posted here on occasion over the past two and a half or so years about the impact of the “first” major NHL expansion in 1967-’68. I won't walk you through all of that again, but if you are interested in a post that provides more context, by all means try "Twelve things I liked better about pre-early expansion hockey" .
For the Leafs, expansion came at an inopportune time, in a way. While they still had their relationship with the Toronto Marlies in junior hockey and used that development asset to bring plenty of new players to the big club in the mid-1960s (Brit Selby, Ronnie Ellis, Pete Stemkoski, Jim McKenny, etc…) the Leafs were life and death to win that unexpected Cup in the spring of ’67. They had done so on the backs of some aging vets, quality players each and every one, but, well, pretty old players by the NHL standards of the time. George Armstrong, Tim Horton, Allan Stanley, Johnny Bower, Terry Sawchuk, Marcel Pronovost and Red Kelly weren’t the full picture—the Leafs relied on Mahovlich, Keon and Pulford as well, for example—but let’s say this: those Leafs were more old and on the other side of the hill than they were young or up and coming.
So when Punch Imlach, the coach and GM at the time, prepared for the expansion draft in the summer of ’67, it was not easy to decide who to keep. He felt a loyalty to so many of the old guys who helped him win those four Cups in the 1960s—but who also may not have had much left in the tank. Given that the league was suddenly staffing six new teams—an entirely new league basically, as they were doubling from six teams to twelve overnight—the draft was structured such that, if I’m not mistaken, each existing team could only protect something like 11 skaters and one goalie. Well, you ended up with Leafs everywhere, not just guys from the big team but also a lot of minor-leaguers who heretofore the Leafs had control of in the minor leagues.
That of course applied to other franchises as well. It’s not as though the Leafs were unduly punished—just maybe not ready for the body blow that was the expansion draft, combined with the reality of a fairly old roster.
One of the more interesting draft outcomes was what happened in Oakland, of all places. The league, in its wisdom, had decided to plunk two major-league franchises into markets that would in theory open up the hockey world to the U.S. west coast—Los Angles and Oakland. Both were/are great cities, of course, and truth be known, both had a strong minor-league hockey history at the time. The LA Blades were a pretty big deal in the old Western Hockey League, a very good league, comparable to the AHL today. (In those days we actually had three really strong minor leagues—the AHL, the Central Hockey League and the Western League…)
Now I don’t know too much about Oakland as a hockey market back then, but I recall that San Fransisco had some popular minor-league teams, so I guess it all made sense. Off the top of my head I don't remember who the first owner of the Oakland franchise was (the famous Charlie Finley of baseball fame was briefly team owner a couple of years later and he brought in, among other things, colorful uniforms and white skates…) but the first GM of the team was, if I’m not mistaken, Frank Selke Jr.
Now the younger Selke was of course the son of the senior and more famous Selke, who was a key management guy with the Leafs in the 1940s before a falling-out with owner Conn Smythe led Selke to take his executive talents to Montreal. There, he built a dynasty that culminated in the Habs winning 5 Stanley Cups in succession in the late 1950s. The younger Selke cut his teeth on the public relations side of things with the Canadiens and also did some color commentary on the team’s broadcasts with the legendary Danny Gallivan. (The younger Selke was a class individual, who in more recent years held important positions in the Toronto area with the Special Olympics organization, I believe…)
Whether he was prepared to be a GM I don’t know, but he helped to assemble a pretty good line-up (on paper, at least) in the fall of 1967, especially for an expansion team. From the Leafs alone (then current or former) he had acquired rugged Bobby Baun, Wally Boyer, John Brenneman, Terry Clancy, Kent Douglas, Gerry Ehman (pictured above left), Ted Hampson, goaltender Gary Smith and slick center Billy Harris. A few of these guys had made other stops after playing for the Leafs earlier in the decade and joined the Seals that first expansion season, but they were true-blue Leafs who in all cases played their very first NHL games with Toronto. Baun, for example, was particularly instrumental in the first three Cups Toronto won that decade. Ehman was a versatile winger who helped them win in ’64 and had been in the organization for about a decade. Kent Douglas was part of a couple of the championships squads from earlier in the ‘60s. Billy Harris was a wonderful player who was traded in the mid-‘60s to Detroit after helping Toronto win three Cups in a row. Clancy was the son of the ever-popular King Clancy, longtime player and Leaf management executive.
Throw in names like Charlie Hodge from the Habs, who was a stellar little goalie and helped them win some Cups, along with ex-Montreal speedster Billy Hicke and the Seals should have had the makings of a really solid expansion team. In fact, I recall that most pre-season pundits picked the Seals to finish first in the new “Western Conference”, made of up Philadelphia, LA, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Minnesota.
In the end, though, the Seals were the worst of the bunch.
The coach was Bert Olmstead, a long-time Montreal star who was one of those old-time tough-as-nails wingers. Not a brilliant skater, he was nonetheless one of those guys who had an extreme will to win. He carried that with him when he finished his Hall-of-Fame career in Toronto, helping the Leafs win the Cup in 1962. (After he was picked up on waivers before the next season by the Rangers, he chose to retire instead of playing in New York.) Still, he came back to the game as a coach. You would have thought he was the ideal guy- with his winning attitude - to bring a new team together.
However, from various people I’ve talked to over the years he was not a guy cut out for coaching, apparently. He loved the game but perhaps didn’t have the patience to deal with the frustration of running an expansion team. The Seals won about 10 games that year before he either quit or was fired before the end of the season, I can’t remember which.
Douglas was traded part way through the season, I think (to the Red Wings). I know Ehman had a nice year offensively (44 points, I just looked it up). He went on to have a few more 20 goal years, I believe, playing regularly on the coast. Harris was OK and put up some decent numbers, but by all accounts he was never happy playing away from Toronto (he had stints with the Red Wings and the Penguins, too). He was a real Maple Leaf and missed being part of the Leaf organization.
Hodge (right) was the number-one goalie and played well that season but the team was not strong defensively. I’m not sure Bobby Orr could have made them a big winner, and that’s saying something because Orr was the best player I’ve ever seen. A journeyman defenseman like Larry Cahan, the big, tough former Ranger defenseman, gave everything he had but the team was simply lacking in the end.
Hicke was their fastest (until Bobby Sheehan arrived a few years later, who was super fast, I remember) and most skilled forward and he had a few nice seasons in Oakland. (Quick aside, in the famous 1964 playoff series between Toronto and Montreal, when Keon scored 3 in Game 7 to win it for Toronto, I thought Hicke was the most dangerous guy on the ice that night for Montreal. If you ever get a chance to see one of those “classic” games on TV, check this one out. It was superb hockey that night…Hodge was great in goal for Montreal that night, too.)
All in all it just wasn’t a good team, or a good season for the Seals. Clancy ended up back in the Leaf organization. Baun was traded to the Red Wings after the season was over, where he re-joined his former Leaf defense partner Carl Brewer, who was coming out of “retirement” (for the first time). Ex-Leaf goaltender Gary Smith went on to play for years in Oakland before landing eventually in Chicago. Another ex-Leaf (briefly), Teddie Hampson, played about half the season with the Seals and had some fine years in the first few seasons of expansion with Minnesota.
But bottom line, it just didn’t work out in Oakland. In fact, I’m not sure the Seals every really got fully off the ground. They rarely, if ever, made the playoffs (I wonder how many playoff games they ever actually won…) and by the mid-‘70s, they re-located to Cleveland as the “Barons”. That didn’t last long either, and they ultimately merged (wish we could do that with a few teams nowadays…) with Minnesota.
Yes, it was a short and unsuccessful history in the city of Oakland for the NHL—even with all those old Leafs on the roster in that exciting first season of expansion.