The NHL’s return to the Bay Area with the San Jose Sharks in 1991 has been a huge success. Virtually every home game is sold out and the club is an annual contender. But the NHL was in Northern California nine up and (mostly) down seasons.
In the late spring of 1967 the NHL officially doubled its size from 6 teams to 12. Added to the Original Six were the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburg Penguins, St Louis Blues, Minnesota North Stars, Los Angeles Kings and Northern California’s Oakland Seals. The Seals’ home ice was the brand-new Oakland Coliseum Arena. Goaltender Charlie Hodge was the first Seal, claimed from Montreal in the first round of the expansion draft. The Seals, like the other new teams selected from unprotected players, aging stars, prospects, journeymen and career minor leaguers.
The Seals struggled on and off this ice in their first season. The club went 15-42-17 in ’67-68 and home attendance was a disappointing 4,890 per game. Their second season saw things looking up. The Seals improved to 29-36-11, good for 2nd place in the expansion-only Western Division. They faced-off with their California rival Kings in the first round of the 1968 Stanley Cup playoffs. The Kings prevailed in 7.
Year three saw Oakland stumble with a 22-40-14 record, but good for 4th in the weak West. In their final appearance in the NHL playoffs the Seals fell in 4 straight to the Penguins.
1970-71 was a year of Change. Baseball mogul Charlie O. Finley purchased the team and renamed the m the California Golden Seals. He decked the team out in gold and green to match his powerful Oakland A’s team. This era is best remembered for the ill-advised white skates his team wore. But losing had become a bad habit. Eager to make a quick turn in the standings the Seals traded their 1st round pick in 1971 (which became 1st overall) prospect Francois Lacombe to the Canadiens for veteran forward Ernie Hicke and Montreal’s first pick in the 1970 draft. This would prove to be a disastrous move. Them traded first pick turned into Quebec Ace winger Guy LaFleur and the rest is history. LaFleur became a star among stars as the Canadiens dominated the NHL for most of the 1970’s. The pick California received turned into center Chris Oddleifson who played 10 years in the league but never played a game with the Seals.
The Seals had some notable players through the years. Names such as Bobby Baun, Harry Howell, Reggie Leach, Al MacAdam, Dick Redmond, Ivan Bolderov, Joey Johnson, Charlie Simmer and Walt McKenchnie. Dennis Maruk holds franchise records for goals both in a single season (36) and career (94).
From there things went from bad to worse. The newly formed World Hockey Association (WHA) formed to compete with the NHL. To do that the WHA raided NHL rosters for talent. The Seals were severely injured as young and highly touted prospects jumped to the new league. Talented players such as Tom Webster, Wayne Carleton, Bobby Sheehan, Norm Ferguson, Gerry Pinder and Paul Shmyr found homes in the WHA.
By 1974 Finley had grown tired of hockey, especially in comparison to his mighty Oakland A’s team. In February of that year the NHL took control of the team. For a short time Mel Swig owned the club with grand ideas to build a new arena in San Francisco and move the Seals there. But deals never closed the Bay Area future was now in doubt. There were rumors of the NHL moving the struggling Seals to Denver or Seattle. Ownership in those towns could never be secured minority owners Gordon and George Gund moved the team to Cleveland and were rechristened the Barons. Wins and fans were again hard to come by. A deal was worked out that allowed the Barons to merge with North Stars. Part of this deal granted the Gunds the rights to the NHL returning to the Bay Area sometime in the future. The North Stars ran into problems of their own and toyed with the idea of moving to the new San Jose arena. However Dallas appeared a better fit and the Minnesota club moved and became the Stars. This allowed for the Gunds to take ownership of the new expansion San Jose Sharks. Interestingly the Sharks were able to draft from the Minnesota farm system along with a NHL draft from the other NHL teams.
As the new Sharks built a strong following (partially from the die-hard Seals faithful) and a competitive team, the Seals became but another footnote to the professional hockey history of the Bay Area. In a weird way the Sharks are a cousin second removed of the ill-fated NHL Seals. Here’s to the Bay Area’s first NHL team. Go Sharks! Go Seals!