Kraken latest chapter in NHL expansion saga

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The Seattle Kraken, the National Hockey League’s 32nd team. will be unveiled Wednesday, another chapter in the league’s eventful expansion saga:

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PAY TO PLAY

On June 2, 1967, league president Clarence Campbell was proudly walking around the ballroom of Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel at the expansion draft with six cheques for $2 million each in his breast pocket.

By 1970, Vancouver paid $6 million for the Canucks, then the fee went up to $7.5 million when the defunct World Hockey Association Oilers, Nordiques, Whalers and the original Jets merged. Ottawa and Tampa Bay paid $45 million to come aboard in 1991, rising $5 million later that decade for the Predators, Wild, Blue Jackets and Thrashers.

In today’s world of arena perks and broadcast rights, compare those ‘67 bargains to $500 million US that Bill Foley paid for the Vegas Golden Knights in 2016 and the $650 million the Kraken just ponied up.

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NOT-SO-0RIGINAL SIX

A few serious hockey buffs refuse to call the Leafs, Canadiens, Bruins, Red Wings, Rangers and Blackhawks ‘the Original Six’, as Toronto, Montreal, Hamilton and Ottawa were established by the early 1920s and prior to ‘The Six’, the NHL was a two-division 10-team outfit.

The Montreal Maroons, meant to appeal to the city’s anglophone fans, came into the four-team league with Boston in 1924, with the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Americans the next year among other entries. After a few relocations, including to St. Louis and Philadelphia, teams began falling by the wayside. With the demise of the Brooklyn Americans in 1942, it left six clubs who played exclusively the next 25 years.

BLACK AND BLUES

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Blackhawks owner James Norris was the hold-out for a unanimous vote on ‘67 expansion. After finally getting on level ice with great rivals Montreal, Detroit and Toronto, he was against sharing the wealth or any of his deep roster of stars and prospects.

A key enticement turned out to be the chance to unload the empty, neglected St. Louis Arena that Norris had inherited. A bowling alley attached to the 12,000-seat rink generated more revenue at the time, so Norris made putting a team in St. Louis and selling the Arena the price of his vote.

SEALING THEIR FATE

The only ‘67 team to fail long term were the Oakland/California Seals.

Mel Swig of the WHL’s San Francisco Seals had the inside track on a team, but the league chose to deal with 29-year-old socialite Barend Van Gerbig. An in-law of actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and godson of hockey fan Bing Crosby, Van Gerbig headed a 50-person syndicate. But his group mis-read the market and failed to lure Frisco fans across the Bay Bridge, eventually leading to the calamatous Charlie Finlay era and a move to Cleveland.

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TAKING A FLYER

Washington/Baltimore was on the short list for a franchise in ‘67, but trumped when Philadelphia Eagles stakeholder Ed Snider got wind of it.

Despite knowing little of the NHL, civic pride prompted Snider to call the league to make an offer and get his city’s mayor to save a small piece of land for a rink where the Eagles were building their new stadium.

When Washington did get in for ‘74-75, a name-the-team contest was held, led by off-beat entries such as Polar Bears. They eventually picked ‘Capitals’ after a previous pro basketball team, but won just eight of 70 games the first year, still a league worst.

ROASTED ON THE COAST

The L.A. Kings and Seals had vastly different expansion draft day experiences.

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L.A. took AHL scoring star Gord Labossiere No. 1 overall among skaters, a move GM Larry Regan instantly regretted when he saw so many prominent names from recent Cup teams. Then Toronto’s Punch Imlach made a late call to protect Red Kelly, after discovering Kelly’s side deal to retire and coach the Kings. A trade had to be arranged to free him.

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Oakland took Leaf defenceman Bob Baun among other stars and was considered to have done the best drafting of the new six clubs, yet by ‘70-71 they were near the basement. Montreal GM Sam Pollock, who’d flim-flammed the league into letting him draw up the expansion draft rules that were Habs-friendly, badly wanted potential ‘71 top junior Guy Lafleur. He bamboozled Finlay to trade the pick and when it seemed the Kings would be worse than the Seals and ‘steal’ last place, Pollock sent veteran Ralph Backstrom to boost L.A.’s standing – for a package that included Labossiere.

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THE GREAT BEER BATTLE

Toronto owner Harold Ballard led a small group of NHL hawks opposed to a WHA merger, centred around the potential loss of TV revenue to Edmonton, Winnipeg and Quebec.

But that led to fan boycotts of Molson Brewery products (owners of the Canadiens and sponsor of the Leafs) right across the country in non-league cities. A bullet fired through the window of the Molson plant in Winnipeg got everyone’s attention in the corporate towers. The deal went through, but the NHL did strip the new team of most assets.

THE STEELTOWN STEAL

Through the 1980s, it seemed Hamilton would finally get back in the NHL through expansion, despite looming territorial battles with Toronto and Buffalo.

Copps Coliseum was already up and Steeltown citizens were pumped for a team in ‘92-93. But the late Ron Joyce of the Tim Horton’s Donut empire flinched at terms of paying off the full $50 million franchise fee. Ottawa and Tampa Bay had no NHL-class rinks built or much cash on hand, but gladly agreed to all the league’s requirements, scrambling to get their finances in order just in time.

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IMPERFECT PICKS

Senators fans groan when reminded of their management’s mis-steps in making their first expansion selections.

With TV cameras rolling, three times GM Mel Bridgman chose ineligible players from teams who had already lost the required two skaters, with stern league exec Brian O’Neill denying each. Bridgman’s “Ottawa apologizes” became the buzz-words of that draft.

It turned out Bridgman was making his picks off an outdated list.

WHO’S NEXT?

Seattle made it to the front of the line in part to balance the Eastern and Western Conferences at 16 teams each, but other cities still hope to be in the mix one day.

Kansas City and Houston own rinks and have been mentioned often, each with natural NHL rivals already in the area, as does Cleveland. In Canada, Quebec City hopes for a returnwith its new arena and the dream has never died for Saskatoon, Halifax or a second team in the GTA. Commissioner Gary Bettman is not in favour of moving any franchises so a 33rd expansion team can’t be ruled out.

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