Long before Gary Bettman spent the 1990s and early 2000s spreading hockey to every corner of the United States, the NHL was interested in trying to break into new markets and expand its reach as much as possible.
Prior to the 1967-68 season, the league underwent the single biggest expansion in its history, doubling in size by adding six teams. The new teams would play in a newly formed division, the "West Division", along with the returning Original Six teams, who played in the "East Division."
Joining the league were the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, St. Louis Blues and the subject of our next chapter in Lost Franchises, the Oakland Seals.
The Seals ended up playing nine seasons in California before relocating to Cleveland in the mid-1970s, but their beginnings go all the way back to the early 1960s when they were a minor league team in the now defunct Western Hockey League known as the San Francisco Seals.
One of the NHL's motivating factors for expansion in the late 1960s (along with a desire for a new television contract in the United States, a deal that required the league to put two teams in California) was the concern that the WHL, which had existed between 1952 and 1974 as a minor league, was on the verge of becoming a rival professional league. In an effort to crush the league before it could ever pose a threat, the NHL expanded for the first time since the 1926-27 season when the New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Cougars (now the Detroit Red Wings) joined the league.
When the Bay Area was selected as one of the NHL's six expansion sites for the 1967-68 season, Barry Van Gerbing purchased the Seals from then owner Mel Swig to transform them from a minor league team into one of the NHL's newest clubs. Five players from the WHL days remained on the roster while the rest of the team was assembled through an expansion draft.
Initially known as the California Seals in an effort to appeal to a wider fan base, the team moved from its former WHL home (San Francisco's Cow Palace) to a brand new building in Oakland. The immediate response was underwhelming to say the least. As the team struggled at the box office, the name was changed just one month into the inaugural season, to the Oakland Seals, in an effort to concentrate their efforts on building a fan base in Oakland.
It still didn't work.
As the team struggled to draw fans, playing in front of an average crowd of only 4,890 fans during their debut season, Van Gerbig was already threatening to move the team and had received an offer from the Labatt Brewing Company to move the team to Vancouver. That offer was rejected by the league.
After just two seasons, Van Gerbig finally sold the team to a group of investors that included former NFL player Pat Summerall and former Major League Baseball pitcher Whitey Ford. But that group was never able to get off the ground and would file for bankruptcy, putting the team back into the hands of Van Gerbig. He later sold the team to Oakland Athetics owner Charlie Finley, paving the way for him to rename the team the California Golden Seals and change their color scheme to match the A's.
Failure on the ice and one of the worst trades ever
While the ownership situation was a constant mess off the ice, on the ice the Seals were one of the worst teams the NHL has ever seen.
During their nine seasons in California the team never finished with a winning record and qualified for the playoffs just two times (its second and third years in the league), never advancing past the first round. Between 1967 and 1975, their final season in California, the team managed to win only 182 games. To put that into perspective, the second-worst team that entered the NHL during the '67 expansion, the Minnesota North Stars, won 232 games, made the playoffs five teams, and twice advanced to the second round during the same nine-year stretch.
At the center of the team's struggles was a 1970 trade with the Montreal Canadiens. Following the '69-70 season, the Seals traded their first-round pick for 1971 and Francois LaCombe to the Canadiens for their 1970 first-round pick (No. 3 overall), Ernie Hicke and cash.
Hicke ended up playing just two seasons with the Seals before he was claimed by the Atlanta Flames in the 1972 expansion draft, while the first-round pick was used on Chris Oddleifson, a center that never played a game in California before being traded to Boston for Ivan Boldirev.
Because the Seals ended up finishing the following season with the worst record in the league, Montreal (which won the Stanley Cup) would come away with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft as a result of the previous year's trade. They used that pick on Guy Lafleur. Three scoring titles, five Stanley Cups and 560 goals later, it is still one of the most laughably one-sided trades in the history of the league.
Merger with Cleveland, and connection to the San Jose Sharks
After years of ownership issues, rumors of relocation, and even one year under the control of the league, the team was eventually sold back to Melvin Swig, the owner of the team during their glory days as a minor league franchise.
After one season, Swig was convinced by minority owners George and Gordon Gund to move the team to their hometown Cleveland, a move that was approved by the league in 1976. The team was renamed the Barons and lasted only two unsuccessful years before merging with the Minnesota North Stars.
When the NHL began its second biggest expansion boom in the 1990s, the Gunds, who were still owners of the North Stars following the 1970s merger, got involved again in Bay Area hockey when they were awarded a franchise in San Jose. It resulted in one of the more bizarre expansion drafts in league history.
In order to get the franchise in San Jose, which would later become the current day Sharks, the Gunds sold their share of the North Stars and were given the right to select players from the North Stars organization in an expansion draft. They ended up taking five players off of the NHL roster and several more from the minor leagues. From there, the North Stars would participate alongside the Sharks in an expansion draft to replenish their roster.