Forgotten Franchises: The NHL’s Colorado Rockies

Yes, that’s right; well before MLB’s Rockies, there was another team that used the name “Colorado Rockies” for eight seasons before leaving for greener pastures.

In my last “Forgotten Franchises” post, I ran through the history of the Kansas City Scouts, a 1974 expansion team that failed miserably and was moved to Denver after two seasons.

1980-81 Topps Hockey Rockies Pin UP

1980-81 Topps Hockey Pin-up insert

As you may have guessed by now, that team became the Colorado Rockies.

How they ended up in Denver and how they ended up leaving Denver was quite the convoluted story.
1978-79 Topps Hockey Paul Gardner
On the day of the 1974 expansion draft for the Scouts and Washington Capitals, NHL President Clarence Campbell announced that “conditional” expansion teams for 1976 were awarded to Denver and Seattle. It wasn’t very long before struggling franchises like the Scouts, California Golden Seals and Pittsburgh Penguins made the league open up to the possibility of Denver and Seattle obtaining an existing team rather than an expansion team.

After the dust settled, the Penguins stayed in Pittsburgh, the Scouts moved to Denver, the Seals to Cleveland, and Seattle is still waiting for an NHL team.

The Rockies’ logo was based on the Colorado state flag; as it worked out, that allowed the team to keep the same colors they had in Kansas City.
NHL Colorado Rockies logo

Unfortunately, for the new owner of the Scouts, the grass in Denver turned out to be greener only by comparison. The team still lost millions during their time in Denver, and spent much of their existence looking for a way out.

The highlight of the Rockies’ six years of existence was making the playoffs in their second year. This is less impressive than it sounds; the rules at the time gave the first two teams in each division a playoff spot, and as the Smythe division was pathetic that year, a 19-40-21 record got the Rockies second place and a playoff spot. The Rockies were swept in the best-of-three first round by the Flyers.

After that it was back to last place for the Rockies.
1979-80 Topps Hockey Garry Croteau
In 1978, Jack Vickers, the owner of the Rockies announced that he would sell the team to Arthur Imperatore who wanted to play for two more years in Denver and then move to New Jersey once the Meadowlands Arena was completed.  This deal was not approved by the league, and part of the reason was likely that the New York Rangers didn’t want to approve a team moving into their territory until they had decided that they wouldn’t move into the new arena themselves (or use the threat of moving as leverage for their own dealings).

At one point, it looked very much like the Rockies would be moving to Ottawa (this was a number of years before the Senators), but as it worked out the NHL approved a sale to John McMullen, who would move the team to New Jersey and call them the Devils.

The Rockies as a team had a very inglorious history, but there a few notable players who pulled on a Rockies’ sweater, including Lanny MacDonald, Wilf Paiement, Barry Beck and Glenn “Chico” Resch.  I don’t have Rockies cards for MacDonald or Beck, but I can fill in the others.
1978-79 Topps Hockey Wilf Paiement

1982-83 Topps Hockey Sticker Glenn Resch

1982-83 Topps Hockey Sticker Glenn Resch

I’m not 100% sure of which “Forgotten Franchise” I’ll tackle next, but I’m leaning towards an NBA team.  If anybody has any requests, feel free to leave a comment.

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20 thoughts on “Forgotten Franchises: The NHL’s Colorado Rockies

  1. You have a couple f good choices here. The lineage of the Atlanta Hawks or the Sacramento Kings would be my suggestions

    • I had to look that sticker up to see what year it was from. I can’t remember what had inspired me at the time, but I got a bunch of NHL stickers that year and they just ended up sitting in a box for 30 years… like so many other things in my collection.

    • It’s funny you mention that because while searching for “Rockies to Ottawa” information, I found a few references to Saskatoon… and I remember that happening in the early 1980’s and having to look at a map to find out just where the heck Saskatoon (or Saskatchewan) is. Had that move happened, I can’t help but think they would’ve moved again after a few years.

      • I actually thought that the Saskatoon Blues was a good idea at the time. I still do. Yes, they may have ultimately moved out of Saskatchewan, but not until the 90’s. It’s important to put a relocation to Saskatoon into context. (Sorry about the length -eh?)

        1)The Blue’s owner, Purina, actually sold the team to the Saskatoon group, but the NHL vetoed the deal. Purina then abandoned the team and gave the arena’s keys to the NHL. At the time, the choice was to allow the move to Saskatoon, or kill the franchise. All but 3 owners voted to kill the Blues. If not for a last second bid magically appearing, the Blues were over. (The real story of “Why no Saskatoon Blues?” is explained at the end.) So, Saskatoon is better than nothing. I think that’s actually the town motto.

        2) Hockey had just gone through 10 years of chaos and needed the stability it was once famous for. Very few cities DIDN’T have a major-pro hockey team during the 70’s and most failed. Hockey was just running out of places to try. During it’s run, the WHA had 26 teams, but only 6 made it through their final season. In the NHL, all but a couple non-Original 6 NHL teams failed, or were always on-the-edge. In 1983, the Rockies just moved to the “glamorous” Jersey swampland. In 1980, the Atlanta Flames (a .500 team in a major city) moved to Calgary, a city 1/4 the size it is now and far smaller than Atlanta was. Calgary played in the Stampede Corral for 3 seasons. It’s a very quaint arena with good sight lines. But it only seats 6,400 and has bizarre corners that cause insane bounces. Hardly a major league arena in a major league city! But at the time, Calgary was considered good enough and the NHL is still there. Back then, Saskatoon was only slightly less plausible.

        3) The rival WHA had recently “merged” with the NHL, putting the NHL in 3 more Canadian cities. Most relevant; nearby Winnipeg & Edmonton. Because of the WW1-esque terms of surrender, ex-WHA teams could only keep 2 skaters & 2 goalies and had to pay $6 million in reparations. So for several seasons, these teams were both poor and sucked badly. In the WHA, Winnipeg could’ve beaten any NHL team, maybe even Montreal. Now they got beat by Toronto. Lucky for Edmonton, they kept Gretzky and road him like a mule. Quebec luckily had the perfect rival (Montreal) to keep fans interested. Located in-between, Saskatoon would’ve been a natural rival to Calgary, Edmonton & Winnipeg. It would boost attendance in all 4 cities. Even a 2 year “sacrificial” team would have bought the others the time they needed.

        It also allowed for a possible Canadian Division, something both Canadian & American fans would respond to. Still to this day, American fans ask themselves, “Where the hell is Edmonton/Winnipeg/Quebec City/Saskatoon…and why would I buy a ticket to see them?” Most American teams hate hosting Canadian teams.

        4) Saskatoon’s economics could work in ’83. Buying the team AND the arena was going to cost a now-laughable $12 million. (Today’s Blues likely have players making that much a season!) The city of Saskatoon was already planning a new stadium without a major tenant, so rent would have been cheap. Also, the Saskatoon bid’s “money-man” wasn’t one of the money-grubbing criminal-type who run the show today. He later gave his fortune to charity. So once there, moving from Saskatoon because of unprofitably would have been FAR less likely and would’ve taken much longer.

        It’s important to note that, at that time, TV money was a TINY fraction of what it is now. Unlike now, most of it came from Canadian TV and went to Canadian teams. Hockey profitability was all about getting fans in seats. Saskatchewan sports fans are committed. Their Canadian Football League team’s fans are “rarely rewarded”. Yet they often ensure sell-outs in other team’s stadiums with “road fans” who travel, or who’ve moved to bigger cities, but remain loyal. The would-be Blues owners claimed 18,000 signed up as season ticket holders at a time when 18,000 would’ve filled the NHL’s biggest arenas. While probably inflated, I have NO doubt every game would have been a sellout. In all likelihood, Saskatoon would have been hockey’s Green Bay Packers. I think their economics would’ve worked perfectly in the 70’s and very well for most of the 80’s.

        The 90’s would be Saskatoon’s problem…At the start of 80’s, the NHL was all about “selling hockey to hockey fans”. By the end of the 80’s, the league was full of hucksters & outright criminals. They sold “entertainment products” like widgets to mass, marginally interested, audiences…for the benefit of corporations trying to advertise to them. Butts in seats were just for “atmosphere”. It was all about US TV deals. TV no was longer an advantage to Canadian teams.

        As a result of this approach, franchises in smaller hockey-mad cities could no longer compete, even if they were better run. For example, even though the arena was full and they had a better team, Winnipeg’s entire arena ad-space went for almost what the NY Rangers charged for ONE board-ad. As a result of the size disparity, teams like Winnipeg, Quebec, Minnesota, Hartford (and almost Edmonton) were replaced with teams in hockey-apathetic cities full of people that had never seen ice outside a margarita glass just because there were more eyeballs to potentially advertise to.

        To end my (likely never-to-be-read) rant, here’s the REAL reason Saskatoon’s bid was vetoed…The front-man for the group was “Wild” Bill Hunter. He was pivotal in starting the arch-rival WHA. The veto vote was 100% personal revenge inflicted by NHL owners. They saw their lucrative monopoly threatened and had to double salaries to keep players they literally owned before the WHA defeated them in court. Saskatoon’s rejection had NOTHING to do with Saskatoon’s (albeit arguable) merit. They would rather murder one of their own teams than let it slip into the hands of WHA man.

        I remember a very popular conspiracy theory/fact from that time…A few of the most profitable, WHA hating, NHL teams (Leafs & Habs for sure, maybe Boston & Chicago) secretly bought the Blues and gave them to the eventual owner, who owned it for only 3-4 years & never had any money. They did it to keep the Blues out of Hunter’s hands and avoid the bad PR of condemning another NHL team to death out of petty revenge. For decades, the Leafs & Habs split the Canadian TV money and a hockey-mad nation’s fans in half. They didn’t want the Canadian WHA teams and Saskatoon would’ve cut their share even more. Leaf owner Harold Ballard had a particular hate-on for the WHA. While he was in jail, the WHA stole half his roster and put a team in Toronto that was almost as popular as his.

        “If you run an appliance store and somebody steals all your washing machines, would you buy them back off him? That’s what this (WHA) merger thing boils down to.” – an illuminating quote from Harold Ballard, who’d have burned the Saskatoon arena down, if he had to.

      • Safe to say that the Braves, Kings/Royals and Hawks are all on the short list, but they may take me a bit more time because I know less about the NBA and I have almost no basketball cards of my own, so I’ll have to go looking for images as well.

      • While my interest had already been declining as fast as their respect for their own fans, the NHL has been “dead to me” since the 2005 Stanley Cup non-playoffs.

  2. when Lanny was traded for Pat Hicke just to break up the friendship in Toronto between Sittler and him, that was the beginning of the end for the Leafs….now, almost 40 years later, they still suck in Toronto.

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  5. I don’t know if it’s still the case, but for a LONG time, the Devils organization denied their 1974-82 existence. Getting merchandise, stats (note: pre-Internet era), comments, or anything out of them from that era was almost impossible.

    I once saw a press conference with a Devil’s general manager/president and the topic of the Rockies came up. He got hostile and denied the Rockies (and presumably KC Scouts) had ANY relationship whatsoever to the Devils. Never happened! And in an era when sport’s teams are fanatical about their copyrights, (ie threatening to sue newscasts for airing “unauthorized” game clips/scores etc) I’m not aware that the Devils even batted an eye when the pro-baseball team stole their name & (to a lesser extent) look.

    Yes, the Rockies were chronic underachievers. But for many years, the Devils blew too. Worse yet, they popularized the excitement-killing “Trap” among top tier teams. That’s a more embarrassing history, if you ask me.

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