"Back then, I wasn't a physical player anyway, but I remember in Boston one night and some guy hollers over, 'Hey Johnston where's your purse? But that part of it. It was kind of fun."
-- Marshall Johnston
The 2008-09 season is here, and with it comes some changes both in personnel and in team attire. The new season will see the debut of third jerseys from a number of NHL clubs, but there won't be any major change in the appearance of the skates.
That's may be a relief to today's players, since it wasn't always the case. Back in 1971, Marshall Johnston
joined Charles O. Finley's California Golden Seals and was introduced to Finley's ideas, which didn't quite match traditional hockey standards. Finley decided that his baseball team, the Oakland A's, looked good in white shoes, so his hockey team would probably look really good if the players were outfitted in white skates.
Golden Seals players traded their green and gold skates from the 1970-71 season for the white skates, and that didn't necessarily sit well with the players.
"It started off, they were all white and then I don't know why they got the green in them, but with Mr. Finley, he wanted the color," Johnston said. "I know the trainers didn't like it all white because they had more work to polish them up and with a little green on them, they didn't have quite as much to polish. I look back on it, but now (in 2008) look at the colors, he was ahead of his time."
Finley might have been ahead of his time in choosing marketable colors for merchandising purposes, but in 1971, sports marketing was rather unsophisticated and consisted of hanging out a shingle outside of a stadium or arena announcing "Game tonight."
Finley's players had to skate in the white boots, and Johnston recalled one guy sitting in the stands at the Boston Garden who reminded him that white skates on an NHL player was not in vogue in those days.
"Back then, I wasn't a physical player anyway, but I remember in Boston one night and some guy hollers over, 'Hey Johnston where's your purse?" he said with a laugh. "But that part of it. It was kind of fun."
Even though some players cringed at the thought of wearing white skates, those old Golden Seals white skates are a keepsake, and 37 years later, Johnston has them on display in his home.
"Oh yeah, I got them," he said, and he always gets the same question when people see them. "Are those your wife's skates?"
Johnston understands why Finley opted for the white skates and the gold and green uniforms for his team. Finley was trying to brand his sports teams, Major League Baseball's Oakland A's, the NHL Golden Seals and the American Basketball Association's Memphis Tams. The three teams had the same color schemes. Finley was filled with ideas, mainly in baseball. His Kansas City A's had numerous uniforms. He had a zoo and a home run porch beyond the outfield fence in Kansas City and the A's mascot was a mule. After he moved the A's to Oakland, he wanted to use orange colored baseballs so hitters could see the ball better.
His contributions to hockey were the white skates -- which looked terrible on TV screens -- and names on the backs of players' uniforms.
"Mr. Finley did the same in baseball and it turned out great (the A's happened to also win three straight World Series between 1972 and 1974) and look what baseball did after that (multi-colored uniforms and World Series night games are part of Finley's baseball legacy)," Johnston said.
Johnston's last playing stop in the NHL was in Oakland with the Golden Seals. Johnston retired and became the Golden Seals coach on Feb. 16, 1974. Johnston's first coaching assignment came after Finley could not find a buyer for the Golden Seals and sold the team back to the NHL. With Finley gone, the skates and the color scheme were gone as well.
There are a number of reasons that the NHL could not make a go of it in Oakland. The two biggest marks against the franchise was the team's location in Oakland and the start of the World Hockey Association in 1972-73. Finley refused to meet the salary requests of Bobby Sheehan
, Gerry Pinder
, Tom Webster, Paul Shmyr
, Wayne Carleton
and Norm Ferguson and they went to the rival league. The Golden Seals won just 16 games in 1972-73.
"We had some good players, but some went to the WHA," Johnston said. "I was fortunate, I had a lot of good teammates in California and a lot of good memories."
Oakland was a problem though. The Bay Area Rapid Transit rail line did not open until September 1972 and the only way people could get to the Oakland Coliseum Arena was by car. But Oakland has forever had a perception problem.
"That might be right," Johnston said. "We had a big following from down in the San Jose area. People would not go. They would not come across from San Francisco across the Bay Bridge because, I was told anyway, that was going a step down. If you lived in Frisco and went to the Oakland side, you were slumming it. You didn't want to be seen there."
The San Jose Sharks
franchise has its roots in Oakland. Johnston coached the California Golden Seals in 1973-74 and was fired in February. The team changed its colors to "Pacific Blue," gold and white with that "Pacific Blue" looking an awful lot like the San Jose Sharks
expansion color in 1991.
"You wait long enough, everything goes around in circles," said Johnston.
Well maybe not everything. The white skates were never tried by another NHL team.