Back in 1991, the San Jose Sharks took the NHL by storm when their fashionable logo and colors made them an instant hit around the world. Sellout crowds filled the Cow Palace before the same full houses moved south to HP Pavilion at San Jose.
However, 40 years ago the NHL had an initial venture into the Bay Area with the California Seals. Ultimately, after nine painful seasons, the adventure failed. But there is no question it laid the groundwork for eventual hockey success in San Jose.
In 1967, the NHL was as six-team league with franchises based on the East Coast. The expansion to twelve teams put franchises across the multiple times zones, with the five other locations being St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Minnesota.
Four of those franchises are thriving in their original city today in St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Two, the Seals and North Stars share an odd history that ties them to the current Dallas Stars and San Jose Sharks.
The Sharks franchise was originally named the California Seals, but that was quickly altered to the Oakland Seals as a new arena never materialized in San Francisco and the club played at the Oakland-Alameda County Arena. While the Seals played in a conference with the five other expansions clubs, they were a dismal 15-42-17 in their inaugural campaign.
A major factor in the Seals lack of success in the attendance was their utter lack of success on the ice. White skates may have grabbed a few headlines, but the closest the Seals ever came to .500 was seven games under in their second campaign. It was in their second and third season’s that the Seals made their only two playoff appearances, only to bow out in the first round.
That was as close to good times as the Seals ever had. While finishing 27 games under .500 could be expected in the first season, having four more seasons worse than that was a difficult hill to climb. The Seals bottomed out in 1973-74 when they had a paltry 13-55-10 mark.
Despite their on-ice challenges, there were some talented players that represented the green and gold. Bert Marshall, Gerry Ehman and Joey Johnston lead the games played list, while the top three point producers during the Seals history included the likes of Johnston, Ted Hampson and Bill Hicke.
Johnston and Hicke are joined by Norm Ferguson atop the top goal scoring list. Gary Smith, Gilles Meloche and Gary Simmons were the primary netminders for the Seals and Carol Vadnais served the ever-popular role as the career leader in penalty minutes. Reggie Leach and Dennis Maruk were among other notable players.
Prominent names with ownership stakes during parts of the nine years include Bing Crosby, Pat Summeral, Whitey Ford and, of course, Charlie Finley. In addition, the NHL also took over the franchise for the 1974-75 campaign.
As with many sports clubs back in the era, when the offseason meant finding other work to pay the bills, the Seals players had their share of fun.
“Jack Evans (Head Coach) caught Gary Simmons eating hot dogs before the game and then threw him in during the third period,” said former Public Relations Director Len Shapiro. “He went in, played great and Evans told him he could eat all the hot dogs he wanted.”
The players did fluctuate quite a bit during the years as tends to happen with struggling franchises. Even the name changed as the club started out as the California Seals, then became the Oakland Seals and finished their Bay Area tenure as the California Golden Seals.
From a personnel perspective, the Seals moved their first round pick in four of nine drafts, making it difficult to build for the future. They even surrendered the first overall pick to Montreal one season. The top choice that year – Guy Lafleur.
As for the Seals ties to the current Sharks, it is a long, twisted tale. When it was finally decided to pull the franchise off life support, they moved to Cleveland and became the Barons. Two unmemorable years there saw the franchise merge next with the Minnesota North Stars. Then, when North Stars owner George Gund was granted expansion rights to the Bay Area, he was ceded a portion of Minnesota’s prospect list via a dispersal draft. In a very odd way, the Seals still live on.
The club is forever remembered in a book by Brad Kurtzderg titled, SHORTHANDED – The Untold Story of the Seals, Hockey’s most colorful team.
On top of the book, the Seals Fan Club still gathers on the last Friday of each month at Rickey’s in San Leandro. About 25-30 hearty souls still meet to remember their favorite team. The Seals may not have been a success on the ice, but no one can take away the fact that they were the first Bay Area entrant into the NHL. A website for the club is also available at www.sealshockey.com.
NEXT GAME The Sharks will host Los Angeles Friday night with limited tickets available at the HP Pavilion Box Office and www.ticketmaster.com. The contest will be aired on FSN Bay Area, 98.5 KFOX and sjsharks.com.