Hockey Central

Expansion:

The NHL Doubles.... then Triples

Before the 1942-43 season, the Brooklyn Americans as the record book tells it, "retired from League" and the National Hockey League settled into the six-team circuit that was to be its format for the next quarter of a century. Over that span, especially in the 1960s, the word "tight" was often used to describe the governing body of the world's most exclusive ice club. Writer Jack Olsen, in an article, "Private Game: No Admittance" (Sports Illustrated, April 12, 1965) pictured the NHL as "A tight little island of close-fisted, inbred standpatters with a stronglehold on a grand professional game." His view was not particularly singular. Until February 8, 1966, when league president Clarence Campbell formally announced the addition of six new teams, the idea of expansion was generally as welcome among NHL leaders as a forward in the goal crease.

The earliest wave of expansion might be said to have started in 1924, when the Boston Bruins became the first team from the United States to join the league. In the same year, the Maroons presented Montreal another club to vie with the Canadians. The following year, the Hamilton Tigers franchise, which had replaced the Quebec Bulldogs in 1920, was sold to New York, becoming the Americans, and the Pittsburgh Pirates were also admitted.

By the beginning of the 1926-27 season, the NHL ranks had swelled to an all-time high of 10 teams. In addition to the Bruins, Maroons, Canadians, Americans and Pirates, there were the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators, as well as three new entries: the New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks, and Detroit Cougars (later the Falcons, then the Red Wings). The league was divided into two five-team divisions, Canadian and American, with the New York Americans lined up with the four north-of-the-border clubs. From that time until 1967, any new NHL clubs resulted not from expansion but migration.

The Pittsburgh franchise became the Philadelphia Quakers in 1930; in 1931 Philadelphia folded. Ottawa, which had suspended operation in 1931-32, returned in 1932-33, became the St. Louis Eagles in 1934 and molted into oblivion in 1935. Three seasons later the Maroons disbanded, beating the Americans to extinction by four years.

After World War II, hockey, like all professional sports, began to reclaim its stars and solid regulars. The one-sided games of the wartime years subsided into more normal scores as the retreads and teenagers returned to the minors. Not only was the caliber of play up, but so were the attendance figures. In the postwar boom there was much ready money and sports shared amply in the entertainment dollar. The last-place Blackhawks of 1946-47 drew a crowd of 20,000 to Chicago Stadium as far along in the season as late February, and the Rangers, who had suffered much humiliation in the war years, again had a respectable team to attract consistently good crowds.

In May 1952 Jim Hendy, general manager of the Cleveland Barons, thought that his club was on the verge of leaving the American Hockey League to become the National Hockey League's seventh member. It had taken six months of beaverish activity to reach this point. A Cleveland sports columinst wrote: "Our city has been awarded a franchise in the NHL. This is the most pleasurable news of the year." He was a trifle premature.

Despite all indications that the Barons were "in," two months later they were truned down. "What do they want?" wailed Hendy, and the league responded with the following stipulations: $425,000 to cover the franchise, league reserve fund and working capital, and 60 percent of the stock to be owned by Cleveland residents. Hendy fullfilled these requests. His backers were solid and he seemed to have the support of members teams. He built up a farm system along major-league lines. President Clarence Campbell came out in favor of the Barons acceptance as a boon to hockey interest in the Unites States.

With seemingly only the formalities to be dispensed, the NHL suddenly shot a "no" from a curved stick. Included in the money raised to fulfill Cleveland's requirements were substantial advances against TV and radio earnings and concessions extending over two seasons. In the eyes of the NHL governors, this was not "working capital." Application denied.

A variety of reasons had made the NHL ultra-cautious. From the past there were the specters of all those failed franchises of the 1930s. In the present were new financial problems. Although there was no Depression, the postwar boom was over and people were not going out to see losers. Unfortunately there were two of those in the NHL at that moment. Between 1949-50 and 1956-57 the Blackhawks finished last seven out of eight times. From 1950-51 through 1954-55 the Rangers were fifth four times and in the celler once. In that period there was nothing so enervating as a mid-week struggle between the league's two lowliest teams. At one such contest, a 1-1 tie that neither team seemed eager, nor particularly capable, of breaking, the Rangers management decided not to open the balcony at the old Madison Square Garden in deference to the size of the crowd. One literally could hear a puck drop. It was little wonder that the league sought new lands carefully, very carefully. Instead, the NHL strengthened from within.

The Blackhawks, with deliberate help from the stronger clubs, moved to fifth in 1957-58 and made the playoffs a year later. They were not out of the playoffs again until 1969. Once their farm team began to produce the likes of Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, they became self-sufficient. The Rangers, after a pocket renaissance from 1955-56 through 1957-58, fell back to the role of perennial also-ran until 1966-67, with the exception of 1961-62. They were joined by Boston, which did not participate in one playoff game from the spring of 1960 to the spring of 1968. However, there was an important difference between the doormats of the 1950s, and the weak teams of the 1960s: the hometown rooters were still filling the arenas to see the latter play.

More specifically, they were coming to watch hockey. Television, descrided by Clarence Campbell in 1951, as "the greatest menace of the entertainment world," had helped magnify the appeal of the ice sport in already established areas and spread its magnetic aura to unlikely corners, even to places where it had been only a dirty word. In Nashville, "hockey, prior to the arrival of the Eastern League's Dixie Flyers, was no more than a local joke. It took local residents a while before they could view the sign "Hockey Tonight" outside the arena without having a fit of thigh-slapping hysterics.

What began as local televising of certain home games, or parts of games, by each team in the early 1950s, eventually reached the network stage, In 1956-57 the Columbia Broadcasting System inaugurated a Saturday afternoon series from Boston, Chiacgo, Detroit and New York. Meanwhile, the Canadian Broadcasting Company's "Hockey Night in Canada" added TV to its weekly Saturday night radio broadcasts. None of these telecasts hurt attendance, but, in fact, boosted it in certain areas. The Rangers finished dead last again in 1965-66, but their practice of televising their Saturday night road contests made so many new fans for hockey that a pasteboard to one of their games at Madiason Square Garden had become one of New York's hot tickets despite several losing seasons.

In the 1960s, hockey not only spread to the American south, but towns like Ft. Wayne, Indiana, in the International Hockey League were attracting bigger crowds to their games than "major-league" cities in other winter professional sports such as basketball. Before the 1961-62 season, San Francisco and Los Angeles joined the Weatern Hockey League. The success of these franchises in large population centers already represented by major-league teams in baseball and football became a constant spur to NHL expansion as the 1960s unfolded. The American Football League set up shop alongside the National Football League in 1960. Faced with the possibility of a third baseball league, the American League added two teams for the 1961 season, while the National League took in two new franchises for 1962. That spring, columnist Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times wrote: "The National Hockey League makes a mockery of its title by restricting its franchise to six teams, waging a kind of private little tournament of 70 games just to eliminate two teams.

"Other big money sports are expanding," he continued, "but hockey likes it there in the back of the cave. Any businessman will tell you that in a dynamic economy you either grow of perish. Baseball had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, out of its rut. Football groped its way on the end of a short rope. Hockey just can't sit there in the dark forever, braiding buggy whips."

At the same time, Harold Ballard, one of the owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs, said: "If the right kind of people come to us with $5,000,000 and the right kind of plans, we'll listen. We'd be crazy not to." Although mitigated by some of the requirements, this was one of the rare positive statements on expansion to come from the NHL hierarchy at that time. Clarence Campbell's position for the league was couched in more conservative terms. "The league is not actively promoting or encouraging expansion of the numbers of its members at this time," he stated dryly. "But it is prepared to consider each individual application on its own merits."

By 1964, rumblings from the West Coast were edging toward the seismic. Coley Hall, a manipulator in Vancouver, but then the owner of the San Francisco Seals, said, "The time has come for the NHL to realize that Los Angeles and San Francisco can't wait; our hockey fans are just as major-league-conscious as fans of baseball and football and feel they should be up there. An angry feeling is developing."

One of the more testy, anonymous quotes from the Pacific territory to reach print at that time was, "If the NHL won't expand to us, why don't we go outlaw, raid them groggy and find out if their control over hundreds of young players through B and C forms will stand up in law?"

The next flurry of expansion and excitment also came in 1964 from the Pacific Northwest. At the Western Hockey League's annual meeting in Seattle, Stafford Smythe, former president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, revealed that his club was willing to erect an $8,000,000 coliseum seating 20,000 in downtown Vancouver in time for the opening of the 1966-67 season. Smthye envisioned Vancouver as a member of a new six-team division. His accomplice, Harold Ballard, saw the new entry as part of the old circuit along with Los Angeles, San Francisco and St. Louis. Ballard made it clear that the Leafs' interest in Vancouver would be confined to building and operation the arena, with the franchise to be independently owned. What eventually became the main stumbling block was the contingency that the city donate the property for the arena site.

At first the City Council appeared to have agreed to this offer but almost immediately the motion was described as "a noncommittal resolution." Major William Rathie of Vancouver advocated a green light in the proposal. Although he won an election, the land grant was voted down by the taxpayers of Vancouver.

When the original proposition had come from the Maple Leafs, Clarence Campbell called it "kite-flying" and further threw around his presidential weight by stating: "I know that, as of this minute, they are not speaking for anybody official in the National Hockey League." However, he did say of Smthye and Ballard: "I agree with them that expansion is inevitable, With a show as good as ours, economics may someday either induce or force expansion.

The arguments against expansion were many. Travel expense was one. A major-league baseball team stays three or four days on one city when on the road; a hockey team plays one-night stands. Lack of talent was another. When baseball moved to Los Angeles and San Francisco it gave those cities established teams, but when it expanded it presented new teams that were hardly competitive. Campbell cited the "formation of a clown club" without directly naming the New York Mets. "We don't want any clown teams in the National Hockey League," he concluded. It was common thinking – and this prevailed until proved wrong during the actual playing of the 1967-68 season – that there were simply not enough good players availabe to make up two more NHL teams, let alone a new six-team division.

At the conclusion of the 1963-64 season it was reported that the NHL had played to 94.5 percent of its total seating capacity; this in a year when the fifth-place Rangers finished 17 points from the last playoff spot, and the Bruins trailed the New Yorkers by another six points. ("I'm for expansion," wrote one waggish columnist, "on the condition that it first include New York and Boston.") The stand-patters could say, "What can we gain by expanding and adding to our expenses?" and the answer would have been, "Nothing," if not for one factor – television.

Aware of the lucrative deals garnered by baseball and football, the most forward-thinking of the NHL governors realized that in order to snare the TV dollar, major-league hockey would have to extend its nets over the length of the United States. On March 11, 1965, at a special meeting of club owners on New York's Plaza Hotel, the NHL announced that it was expanding with the formation of a second six-team division, and would begin evaluating applications from responsible groups. The official acceptance in February 1966 found Los Angeles, San Francisco, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Minneapolis-St. Paul as the representatives of the new division. St. Louis was a surprise since it had not filed a formal application. Buffalo and Baltimore had been rejected. So had Vancouver and this rankled many Canadians. After all, here were six additions to the NHL and not one city was located in the country that was the cradle of hockey.

It is generally conceded that the younger governors like the Canadiens' David Molson and the Rangers' William Jennings were the prime movers in the expansion. For the daring jump to be successful, it was realized that the arrangement for stocking the new teams had to be equitable. When the Board of Governors thought they had a fair paln devised, the general managers balked. President Campbell explained the delay with: "I never met a generous general manager."

The approved plan called for each existing team to protect one goalie and 11 other players. When they lost a player, they could protect one more. This would go on until each new team had a roster of 20 players. The old teams would lose their number 12, 14,16,17 and 18 men to the expansion clubs. When the established teams' general managers heard this they moaned. The new members seemed satisfied. Only Campbell was reported to be not completely pleased. However he felt that an extended back up plan that called for all teams to be able to protect two goalies and only 14 players for the 1968 and 1969 intraleague drafts would help in the equalization. "The new teams won't have trouble picking out which 14 to protect," he said, "but the older teams ... they're going to have problems."

"I visualize definite improvement on the new teams by 1968-69 because of the back up plan," Campbell added. "By 1970, they should have a glorious field day and I hope they do."

On June 6, 1967, the Expansion Draft was held in Montreal and the new teams received an opportunity to see what they were going to get for their initiation fee of $2,000,000. When the cigar smoke had cleared, there were those observers who felt the neophytes had been taken when they wound up paying what amounted to $100,000 each for bodies that ordinarily, under the regular draft price, cost only $30,000. Of course, for their $2,000,000 the new teams not only received 20 players but also an arena in which to skate – provided one had the rink.

Even the players, pleased by the doubled job opportunities, had differing opinions. Forward Billy Hicke, drafted by the Oakland Seals, said of the new owners: "They didn't get a fair shake. The league was charitable with goaltenders, but that was all. Of the 20 players each team drafted, only six or seven are of NHL caliber."

Later, toward the tail end of the season, Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ed Van Impe waxed positive about the new division. "Expansion was a good thing for hockey. These teams are good teams. There were a lot of good hockey players who never had a chance until this year. It's hard to imagine until this year there were only 120 spots open for major-league hockey players. Now it's 240. Expansion hasn't hurt. These guys are proving they belonged."

One thing expansion did was create more holdouts. Players who knew that they were vital to the new teams – especially the all-important goalies – drove hard bargains. The older players realized that this was their last chance to cash in.

At the conclusion of the season, even the league's most ardent critics had to concede that the NHL version of expansion had been the most successful of any professional sport. The new teams, with the exception of Oakland, were all contenders for the four playoff spots. While Philadelphia finished with 73 points, Pittsburgh was fifth, two points out of fourth, with 67 points. The six new clubs won 40, tied 18 and lost 86 in competition with the established division, a figure even a clairvoyant would have rejected in October.

The West Division playoffs were so closely played that all three series went the full seven games and one-third of those games were decided in sudden death overtime. When the St. Louis Blues bowed to the mighty Montreal Canadiens in four one-goal victories – two of them in overtime – the creators of expansion could sit back and admire an artistic triumph.

How did the new teams reach this level so quickly? Top caliber goaltending, certainly; lots of extra effort, for sure; complacency on the part of the old teams, partially. Prevailing over all was the feeling that the major-league benchwarmers, the locked-in minor-leaguers, and the fringe faction were all better than they had been rated. And, of course, the theory of different combinations was given a thorough testing – Player A may not play well with B and C, but put him with D (digger in the corners) and S (speedy up and down the wings) and you will see a different hockey player. The individual stars are always important but hockey is a team game, and an inventive coach can make a whole out of a lot of seemingly disparate parts.

For all the huzzahs over expansion's initial bloom, there were some who warned that there might be a sliding back when the junior players that the East Division clubs were able to protect would come to maturity and jet the old teams a few strides ahead again. Others warned of the consequences of trading away future choices in the universal draft of 20-year-olds. (Minnesota, for one, was heavily indebted to Montreal in this area.) The open draft of junior players began in 1967, but the size of established teams' sponsored lists did not begin to really shrink until after 1968 as the phasing out process neared its conclusion. Before the 1968 draft only 33 untouchables were left while 4,500 players were available. The figure was greater in 1969. Anyone turning 20 was eligible and the days of signing a fledgling at 14 were over. Scouting had become more important than ever.

So successful did the league fathers deem the first expansion that another followed in the fall of 1970. Vancouver and Buffalo made their respective debuts in the NHL following a realignment of divisions. Chicago was moved to the West Division while the two new entries joined the East section.

Meanwhile, other North American cities clamored for admittance to the NHL. In an interview during the 1970-71 season, William Jennings, the New York Rangers governor, said that he expected Atlanta and Long Island (New York) to become potential applicants by 1974. However, when the World Hockey Association revealed plans for opening in 1972, the NHL responded by admitting franchises in Long Island (the New York Islanders) and in Georgia, where the Atlanta Flames were born, for the 1972-73 season. For the first time in 30 years, the New York City metropolitan area had two NHL teams ... in name at least. There were the established Rangers who had not won the Stanley Cup in 32 years, and the brand new Islanders, who began the 1972-73 season looking as though they might never win a game.

The Islanders' problems began at the top and ran all the way to the bottom. Owner Roy Boe, who also owned the New York Nets basketball team, knew enough about hockey to hire Bill Torrey as general manager, but while Torrey would quickly build a great dynasty, there would be growing pains first. He ignored the newborn WHA and paid for it dearly when half his team jumped leagues, among them veteran forwards Norm Ferguson, Ted Hampson and Garry Peters. Torrey hired former Canadien/Ranger/Sabre Phil Goyette as his coach. Goyette was best known for skating with that Montreal-induced finesse and wearing pointed shoes off-ice. In other words, Phil was a nice guy but he had zero coaching experienec. It didn't work.

In Atlanta, Bill Putnam, instrumental in forming a strong Philadelphia Flyers organization, was brought in as president of the Flames. He chose an excellant ex-scout named Cliff Fletcher to be his general manager. While the Islanders watched a huge chunk of their players march over to the WHA, Fletcher lost no one to the new league. Putnam named the explosive and erratic-tempered Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion coach, and at first look, this seemed unwise, since Geoffrion's only other coaching assignment led to a bleeding ulcer. Instead, Geoffrion got his charges off to a winning start, and by mid-season the Flames astoundingly found themselves in the midst of a West Division playoff race.

Atlanta's goaltending that first season was truly superior, with Quecbecers Dan Bouchard and Phil Myre splitting the duties. First-round draft choice Jacques Richard was a disappointment, as the club's scoring leader turned out to be Bob Leiter. The defense corps was anchored by journeymen Noel Price and Pat Quinn and the youthful Randy Manery. Center Curt Bennett arrived at midseason to bolster the front line.

Although the World Hockey Association survived in spite of itself, the NHL continued to expand and in 1974 welcomed both the Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts. The choice of Washington as the sight of a new franchise was not as bizarre as some thought at the time. Washington had previously been a member of the old Eastern Amateur Hockey League. The Washington Eagles became the Washington Lions near the end of World War II, and reached their acme in the American Hockey League before dissolving in the 1950s. Next door to Washington, in Baltimore, there was also a long involvement with shinny. At the outset of World War II, with players rapidly disappearing into the services, the Curtis Bay Cutters were formed from a Coast Guard outfit in Baltimore. After the war Baltimore iced the Blades, and later, in 1962, entered the AHL with the Clippers. Throughout its hockey history, the Capital Area teams were feeders for the NHL and many a potential star labored below the Mason-Dixon line before making the bigs.

When Abe Pollin and his consortium of backers won the NHL Washington franchise, they decided to build a new arena, the Capital Centre, complete with huge instant-reply screens above center ice. Pollin, owner of the NBA's Washington Bullets basketball team, elected Milt Schmidt to put together his hockey team.

Schmidt, a Hall of Famer and center on the famous Bruins Kraut Line of the late 1930s and 1940s, had retired from playing in 1954 to coach the Bruins, becoming their general manager in 1967. He brought in Lefty McFadden as his assistant general manager, Jimmy Anderson as coach, and Red Sullivan as head scout. McFadden, a former writer, had organized the Dayton (Ohio) Gems of the International Hockey League; Anderson had played in the minors and coached in Springfield, Oklahoma City and Dayton; Sullivan had been a top NHL player and an indifferent coach with the Rangers and Pittsburgh. There was more talent behind the bench than there would be on it.

From the expansion and intraleague drafts Washington garnered the likes of second-rate forwards Denis Dupere, Dave Kryskow, Gord Brooks, Jack Egers, Pete Laframboise, Steve Atkinson, Mike Bloom and Lew Morrison. On defense they collected Bill Mikkelson, Gord Smith, and Yvon Labre. They drafted Ron Low and Michel Belhumeur for goal and purchased the aged, toupeed Doug Mohns from the Atlanta Flames to be father to the inexperienced defense and Bill Lesuk from the Los Angeles Kings to bolster the offense. Tommy Williams bolted the WHA's New England Whalers for the Capitals. Out of this potpourri of mediocrity, only Denis Dupere could be called something other than questionable, and in three seasons with Toronto he had never tallied more than 13 goals in one season.

Prior to this expansion round the NHL had a rule that no new club could trade away its Amateur Draft choice numbers for two years. Established teams such as Montreall had bolstered their clubs tremendously by robbing weak new clubs of their first round amateur numbers, depriving the expansion clubs of their opportunity for talented new blood. The Capitals had also learned from teams like the Islanders that it paid to sign draft choices fast, before they were enticed out of the league by the WHA. Schmidt signed defenseman Greg Joly of the Regina Pats and MVP in the Memorial Cup Playoffs. He also signed the number two pick, winger Mike Marson of Sudbury, a chunky African-Canadian who showed up in training camp more than 20 pounds overweight. (In June 1975, however, the Caps traded away their first-round choice to the Stanley Cup winning Philadelphia Flyers for veteran Bill Clement, apparently with NHL sanction.)

The Capitals were less than an artistic success in their early years but gradually developed a following and, in time, became a solid NHL franchise through the 1990s and a Stanley Cup finialist in 1998. The same could not be said for the other 1974 expansion club, the Kansas City Scouts.

The baby Scouts played out of Kansas City's new Kemper Arena. Missourians nurtured hopes that the state's second NHL club would fare as well as the Blues who, by this time, had become an institution of sorts in St. Louis. Relatively speaking, the Scouts did well – compared with the Capitals. While Washington finished with an abysmal 8-67-5 record for only 21 points, Kansas City was 15-54-1 for 41 points over the 80-game schedule.

The Capitals improved in 1975-76, but the Scouts remained stagnant and drew poorly enough to persuade the NHL that a franchise move was in order. After two dismal seasons in Kansas City, the franchise was transferred to Denver where it was rechristened the Colorado Rockies and gave fans at McNichols Arena little cause for jubilation. (This, incidentally, was not the only switch of the 1976-77 season; the California Golden Seals, formerly the Oakland Seals, were moved to the Richfield Coliseum where they became the Cleveland Barons.)

Eventually the expansion Scouts who had become the Rockies would relocate once more, becoming the New Jersey Devils in 1982-83. After years of frustration in three different cities, the Devils would become Stanley Cup champions in 1995 and 2000. Ironically, just one season after the Devils' victory, the Stanley Cup came to Colorado when Denver's second NHL franchise, the Avalanche (newly arrived from Quebec City) became NHL champions. Quebec had entered the league from the WHA, with Winnipeg, Hartford and Edmonton, in 1979 in the NHL's last expansion before the many franchise additions of the 1990s.