Whether you’re talking about the California Seals, Oakland Seals, or California Golden Seals, you’re talking about a team which had a relatively short and turbulent history as the NHL’s entry in the Bay Area… and if the NHL didn’t have reasons to make things work in the Bay Area, the team’s history would probably have been shorter.
In 1967, the NHL doubled in size by adding a “Western Division” comprised of 6 expansion teams: the California Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues.
The Seals had their start as the San Francisco Seals in the Western Hockey League, as the owner who was given the NHL expansion team bought the Seals and essentially moved them over to the NHL. The WHL Seals were a very successful team, but because a proposed arena in San Francisco fell through while a new arena opened across the bay, the NHL’s California Seals started off in Oakland. A month into the season, when it became apparent that the fan base wasn’t moving with them, the team attempted to build local interest by changing its name to the Oakland Seals.
As it became more and more apparent that hockey was not working in Oakland, attempts to move the team started to surface, all while the NHL dug in its heels to keep a league presence in the bay area.
In the late 1960’s, both Vancouver and Buffalo were promised teams by the league, and before they were granted expansion teams for 1970, both cities attempted to obtain the Seals. Both moves were rejected by the league.
The team was sold to Charles O. Finley, who changed the name to California Golden Seals and changed the colors to match his Oakland A’s. The change in ownership did not bring an end to the rumors and failed relocation attempts surrounding the Golden Seals.
Late in 1971 there was speculation that there might be work underway for Finley to move both the A’s and the Seals to Washington D.C. Washington had just lost the Senators to Dallas (where they became the Texas Rangers), and was a couple of years away from getting the Capitals as an NHL expansion team.
In June, 1973, a group from Indianapolis reached an agreement with Charles O. Finley to move the Seals to Indy (this was before the WHA’s Indianapolis Racers).
In the mid-1970’s, both Seattle and Denver had been awarded conditional expansion franchises. In the meantime, both cities tried to get an existing franchise to relocate. In 1975, a group in Seattle was trying to get the Seals or Penguins without success. The proposed expansion fell through; Seattle still is waiting for its first major professional hockey team.
Later in 1975, the Seals were said to be either moving to Denver or being folded. Neither would happen.
The team was sold to a local group, but when plans for a new arena in San Francisco fell through, the league finally gave approval for the team to be relocated.
In July, 1976, the team was finally approved to move to Cleveland and become the even-shorter-lived Cleveland Barons.
Success On The Ice:
Well, “success” is a bit of a misnomer. The high point of Seals franchise history was in their second year (1968-69) when they finished with a 29-36-11 record, good for 2nd place in the new “West Division”, and they made the playoffs and lost to the Kings in 7 games… But keep in mind that despite the “East” and “West” labels, all six expansion teams were in the “West”, while four teams in each division made the playoffs. In the first year of expansion, the Flyers won their division with a losing record and a worse record than 5 of the 6 teams in the East.
The Seals also made the playoffs in their third year (1969-70), but they finished the season with a 22-40-14 record and beat out the equally-dismal Flyers on a tiebreaker. They were swept in the first round by the Penguins, and never made the playoffs again.
The most notable player associated with the Seals is one who never played for them. After the 1969/70 season, the Seals and Canadiens made a deal which involved exchanging draft picks; In addition to players moving in either direction, the Canadiens’ 1970 draft pick (#3 overall) went to Oakland and the 1971 Seals’ draft pick went to Montreal. The Seals used their pick on Chris Oddleifson, who also would not play for the Seals… He would be traded to Boston the year after being drafted. The Seals went on to have the league’s worst record, and the first round pick they’d traded away turned out to be the first overall, which the Canadiens used for Hall-of-Famer-to-be Guy LaFleur.
As far as players who suited up for the Seals, Dennis Maruk holds the franchise single-season records for goals, assists and points.
Hall-Of-Famer Harry Howell played for the Seals towards the end of his career.
Among the relatively notable names to play for the Seals are Ivan Boldirev, Gilles Meloche, Carol Vadnais and Craig Patrick (who’s in the Hall primarily as a GM, decidedly not as a player).
The Seals were a dreadful team on and off the ice, and if the NHL didn’t need a California team for a TV contract, who knows what would’ve happened.