Ten landmark moments that defined California’s Seals
by Steve Currier
The franchise best known as the California Golden Seals, existed from 1961 to 1978, in various leagues and under different names. The franchise’s first five years were spent in the minor-pro Western Hockey League as the San Francisco Seals. In 1966, the club was purchased by a group led by Barry van Gerbig, was relocated to Oakland, renamed the California Seals, and later became one of the NHL’s 1967 expansion franchises. After an early, lukewarm reception from Oakland fans, the team was rechristened the Oakland Seals in December 1967. When Charles O. Finley purchased the struggling franchise in 1970, he decided, two games into the new season, to rename the team the California Golden Seals, which is the name that stuck until the team moved to Cleveland in 1976. There were more lowlights than highlights during the team’s 17 seasons, but here are the ten defining moments that shaped the history of the franchise.
The First Championship
May 6, 1963: Seattle Totems 3 at San Francisco Seals 4 (Game 7, 1963 Patrick Cup Final)
The WHL Seals’ best-ever team earned the nickname “Adversity on Ice” for its tenacity and toughness. It took the Seals the maximum 17 games – six in overtime — to win their first Lester Patrick Cup. In the second round of the 1962/63 playoffs versus first-place Portland, the Seals battled back from a 3-1 series deficit to win. In the finals against the Seattle Totems, the Seals faced another 3-1 deficit, even though the entire series was played at the Cow Palace in San Francisco due to a scheduling conflict in Seattle. The Seals won the next two contests to force a climactic seventh game.
Before a WHL record 12,404 fans, the Seals, as usual, fell behind 2-0 in the second period, but Duke Edmundson and Mo Mantha drew the Seals even before the buzzer sounded. Danny Belisle put Frisco up 3-2 at 5:09 of the third, but Seattle’s Jim Powers tied it up just a minute later, forcing overtime for the fourth time in the series.
Throughout overtime, the lively crowd stomped its feet, and absolutely bananas when the Seals’ Orland Kurtenbach scored the winner at 4:09. “Danny Belisle shot the puck,” recalled Kurtenbach. “It hit [a] Seattle defenceman and bounced over to Larry McNabb. He shovelled it over to me. I shot from 10 feet out and it went in. I heard a ‘pl-ing’ as it bounced off the inside of the post.” (1)
The crowd’s reaction to Kurtenbach’s goal could best be described as euphoric. Teammates hugged and kissed San Francisco’s newest sports hero, as about a hundred fans poured onto the ice. Radio colour man Bill King pointed out that “there’s a lady out there – she can’t be a day under 65 years of age — in high heels, and she came skidding and sliding on her posterior 20 feet.” (2) On the air, the noise from the jubilant crowd was deafening.
If ever there had been a case for San Francisco’s entry into the NHL, it was made throughout the 1963 playoffs. Attendance regularly reached 10,000, which was an impressive figure for a minor-league team, let alone one from California. For years after the team had gained admittance into the NHL, fans, players, and historians would refer to the Seals’ minor-league fan support as evidence the team should have remained there instead of moving to Oakland.
Welcome to the Big Leagues
October 11, 1967: Philadelphia Flyers 1 at California Seals 5
The Seals won a second Patrick Cup in 1964 and continued to draw big crowds to the Cow Palace. In 1966, majority owner Barry van Gerbig decided to move the Seals across the bay to Oakland where the club would play its final WHL season at the brand new Oakland Alameda County Coliseum as the California Seals. The NHL had accepted San Francisco as an expansion city, but did not believe the Palace was an acceptable arena due to its poor sightlines and minor-league ambiance. The place also smelled like, well… cows. Van Gerbig believed San Francisco fans would simply drive across the Bay Bridge to attend games at the beautiful Coliseum. He was wrong; the longer the Seals played in the NHL, the longer that bridge became to fans.
On October 11, 1967, in the first game in the history of the NHL Seals, former Toronto Maple Leaf Kent Douglas scored the franchise’s first regular-season goal at 3:23 of the first period, while Philadelphia’s Bill Sutherland scored the first goal against the Seals at 10:07 of the second. California outshot Philly 33-25, while Douglas, Bill Hicke, and Gerry Ehman each picked up three points.
For one night, the Seals actually had the highest winning percentage of any team in NHL history, but a disappointing crowd of just 6,886 attended the game; over 9,000 fans had been expected. The small crowd did nothing to deter Van Gerbig from showering his team with naïve praise. “I think it is unbelievable to have this kind of game played by a new team,” he said. “It’s the best coached team for this early in the season that I’ve ever seen.” (3)
The Seals’ first NHL game foreshadowed all sorts of problems the club would endure the next nine years: poor attendance, clueless owners, and false hope. The soon-to-be-renamed Oakland Seals finished the season a pitiful 15-42-17. Coach Bert Olmstead skated his players ragged and eventually resigned. When attendance plummeted, Van Gerbig tried to move the team to Vancouver, but the league balked, giving him no choice but to sell the team.
January 15, 1968: Oakland Seals 2 at Minnesota North Stars 2
The event that most marked the Seals’ inaugural season was the untimely death of Minnesota North Stars’ rookie Bill Masterton. The 29-year-old Masterton had been passed over numerous times by NHL clubs, but he never gave up his dream, and finally, after years of toiling in the minors, he made the Stars’ opening day roster. At the time of his death, Masterton had recorded four goals and seven assists while playing on a line with Dave Balon and Wayne Connelly.
According to the Winnipeg Free Press, during the first period, Masterton “had led a rush into the Oakland zone when he was hit by one or two Seals defenders.” Seals left wing Wally Boyer was also there and recalled years later that Masterton “came across the blue line and I moved out of the way. Ronnie Harris hit him when his head was down and he fell backwards onto the ice. It was not a dirty check; it was just the way he fell that caused the injury.” (4)
At Fairview-Southdale Hospital near Bloomington, Minnesota, a team of five doctors, including two neuro-surgeons, could not save his life. Masterton died without regaining consciousness at 1:55 a.m., January 15, 1968. (5)
Every year since 1968, the league has awarded the Bill Masterton Trophy to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance and dedication to hockey. The award has been won by players such as Saku Koivu, Cam Neely, and Bobby Clarke, who have refused to let illness, injury, and personal tragedy stop them from continuing their hockey careers. As for helmets, it was not until 1979 that all players entering the NHL would be forced to wear them.
Meloche Shocks the World
October 28, 1971: California Golden Seals 2 at Boston Bruins 0
The stakes may not have been high, but this may be the most famous game in Seals’ history for a number of reasons. For one thing, it marked Gilles Meloche’s debut in a Seals uniform. He would become the player most associated with the California Golden Seals. What makes this game truly special is that the Seals actually beat the Boston Bruins in Beantown. How huge a feat was this? In the teams’ six previous meetings, the Bruins had outscored the Seals 33-7. Besides, Boston was gearing up for their eventual Stanley Cup win just a few months down the road, and had not been shutout in nearly a year.
Even though the Bruins outshot the Seals 15-5 in the first period, California had a 1-0 lead on a goal by Norm Ferguson. Defenceman Dick Redmond then scored at 6:26 of the third to put the Seals up 2-0. The Bruins pressed, but Meloche turned everything aside, including twelve shots in the third period. When the final buzzer sounded, Meloche had stopped 34 shots to earn his first career shutout. Coach Stasiuk was so excited by Meloche’s performance that he kissed the young rookie after the game. “He was great, he was fantastic, he acted like he’d been in the league 10 years,” Stasiuk beamed. (6)
Today, former Seals captain Joey Johnston believes it is the most memorable game he played in as a member of the Seals. When asked to describe the game, Johnston did so in four simple words: “Two nothing. We won!” he responded emphatically, and then chuckled, still amazed the Seals actually beat the Bruins on their own turf. (7)
The Boston Debacle
February 23, 1972: Boston Bruins 8 at California Golden Seals 6
The 1971/72 Seals had shown tremendous improvement throughout the season thanks to the strong showings of players like Gilles Meloche, Gerry Pinder, Bobby Sheehan, and Dick Redmond. They had already shut Boston out earlier in the season and fans felt confident their ailing franchise had finally turned the corner. Attendance was up, and the team had sat in third place most of the season, but a late-season slump put the Seals’ playoff dreams in jeopardy. To shake things up, general manager Garry Young traded disgruntled star defenceman Carol Vadnais and forward Don O’Donoghue to Boston for Reggie Leach, Bob Stewart, and Rick Smith. It just so happened these two teams were scheduled to meet that night.
Redmond scored twice in the first period, and the rest of the Seals skated rings around the dumbfounded Bruins. Fred Stanfield lit the lamp at 17:37 to make it 2-1, but Gary Croteau responded with a goal at 19:52. Wayne Carleton, Craig Patrick, and Croteau again, scored before the second period was half over, putting the Seals up 6-1.
Nothing seemed to be going right for Boston until Wayne Cashman finally scored at 14:36 of the middle period. Not long after, Stanfield was awarded a penalty shot, but Meloche made a huge save to preserve the Seals’ four-goal lead. When play resumed, Bobby Orr delivered a crisp pass to Stanfield that sent him alone on Meloche once again, but this time the puck went in. In the third period, with the Bruins down 6-3, Orr scored on a screen shot from the blue line to make it 6-4, and Stanfield completed his hat-trick at 5:59, after receiving yet another gorgeous pass from Orr, to make it 6-5.
As time wound down, Phil Esposito skated in on Meloche’s right, picked an airborne Ed Westfall pass out of the air just in front of the net and sent the puck past the goaltender at 14:31 to tie the score, 6-6. Just a few minutes later, Cashman took a weak shot from the lip of the face-off circle near the boards to the right of Meloche, and Esposito was positioned in front of the net to tip it in. The Bruins had just taken the lead for the first time.
With the game now completely out of the Seals’ control, Meloche pulled for an extra attacker. With time running out, Derek Sanderson skated into the Seals’ zone and took aim at the empty cage. Redmond skated backward hoping to defend the Seals’ net, and managed to block the shot, but Sanderson picked up the rebound and scored. Redmond viciously slashed his stick against the post, upset the Seals had just blown a five-goal lead. (8)
If there was one game that perfectly summed up what it was like playing for the California Golden Seals, it was this one. They should have won it, just like they should have won so many others before. They had enough talent to take a five-goal lead against the eventual Stanley Cup Champs, yet the result was another loss. Fleeting moments of greatness buried under a series of gaffes, leading to frustration and ultimately, failure; the very definition of the California Golden Seals.
January 3, 1973: Vancouver Canucks 3 at California Golden Seals 11
“They could have been a dynasty, I’m not kidding you,” says Seals Booster Club member Larry Schmidt about the star-crossed 1971/72 Seals. “They had some great players. They had Bobby Sheehan, Gerry Pinder, Wayne Carleton, Tom Webster, Ron Stackhouse, Carol Vadnais. God, they were the team of the future.” (9) That is, until the World Hockey Association came along and convinced the Seals’ best players to defect. The team never recovered from the mass exodus.
The 1972/73 season was shaping up to be one of the Seals’ worst. Some days it was probably difficult to even find a reason to get out of bed in the morning. In fact, on January 2, 9 players were late for practice one morning at Berkeley’s Iceland; they thought coach Fred Glover had scheduled it for 12:45, when it was in fact at 10:45. “They said it was a misunderstanding in times,” Glover growled. “It’s a funny thing. Some of them found out the right time.” At the end of practice, Glover made it clear he was angry at his troops. “There will be a skate for everybody at 11:30 tomorrow,” he said. He then looked up at the clock on the wall, banged his stick against the ice and went to the dressing room. Interestingly, at the end of the practice, one observer commented, “You would think that the Seals would feel guilty enough to make sure they win tomorrow night.” (10) Boy, did they ever feel guilty!
The tiny crowd of 2,702 witnessed an absolutely extraordinary contest. Not only did these folks see the Seals play arguably their best game ever, they were actually witnesses to one Charles Finley taking in one of his handful of hockey games since buying the club three years earlier. The Seals took a 5-3 lead into the third, but then exploded for six more on poor Bruce Bullock to win the game 11-3. Pete Laframboise became the first Seals player to score four goals in a game. The one game Charlie Finley decided to attend and his Seals won the most lopsided game in team history. With such a result, he probably never understood why the people of Oakland came to the Coliseum in such small numbers.
Blood Feud, Part 1
December 2, 1973: California Golden Seals 1 at Philadelphia Flyers 5
In the mid-1970s, if there was one team with which the Seals had a blood feud, it was the Philadelphia Flyers, and it all originated December 2, 1973. On this night, the Flyers were leading the Seals 2-1 midway through the second period when all hell broke loose. Bobby Clarke inadvertently struck the Seals’ rookie Barry Cummins under the eye with his stick. In retaliation, Cummins skated towards Clarke, and swung his stick baseball-style at the Flyer captain’s head opening up an 18-stitch gash. Since the unwritten rule at the time stated that no one ever hit Bobby Clarke without paying a price, the Flyers’ Bill Flett immediately charged at Cummins to avenge the fallen captain. Soon after, Bob Kelly joined the melee, and the Seals’ bench flooded the ice. By this point Cummins was buried under a mountain of Flyers. He emerged with a bloody face and was helped to the dressing room.
The Seals’ Hilliard Graves and Flyers’ Dave Schultz went at it on and off for about ten minutes following the Cummins-Clarke encounter. Eventually, the Flyers’ Ed Van Impe, Saleski, and Schultz, as well as the Seals’ Graves, were thrown out and fined $100 each. Cummins was handed a game misconduct as were Kelly and Flett for having left the bench. Cummins was later suspended three games and handed a $300 fine.
Cummins immediately regretted his actions: “Clarke had cut me under the eye with his stick. I was mad and didn’t have time to think. It was an impulse action that I regretted a second after it happened. I’m sorry – you always are when you hurt somebody.” The next day, Cummins called Clarke and apologized. “He was really sick about what happened,” said Clarke. “It takes a little courage to make a call like that.” (11) Clarke and Cummins may have buried the hatchet, but the Seals and Flyers would have many nasty encounters before the decade was up.
The Montreal Miracle
March 2, 1974: California Golden Seals 4 at Montreal Canadiens 3
The Seals never enjoyed much success against Montreal, but there was one night when the stars were perfectly aligned. At that point in the 1973/74 season, the Seals were 11-42-8 and dead last in the league; the Habs were 37-16-8, and the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Despite the solid record, the Habs hadn’t been quite the same that season. Ken Dryden had taken a year off to practice law, leaving the Canadiens’ crease in a weakened state, but the team still boasted a formidable line-up including eleven future Hall-of-Famers.
The Seals arrived in Montreal on a 24-game road losing streak. “When we went out there,” remembered Seals defenceman Bob Stewart, “the comments in the paper were something like, ‘We’re on a winning streak and Oakland’s coming to town.’ They figured we were an easy win and it pumped us up real good.” (12)
Montreal had four breakaways in the first period, but Gilles Meloche stopped them all. Claude Larose eventually beat Meloche on a rebound at 10:45 to put Montreal up 1-0. Thirty seconds later, the Seals’ Ray McKay and Joey Johnston sent Reggie Leach in alone on goaltender Michel Plasse. Leach rifled a good, hard shot from the lip of the right faceoff circle, and tied the game 1-1.
The Canadiens pressed harder in the second taking a 3-1 lead on goals by Larose and Jacques Lemaire. Montreal dominated the Seals, but Hilliard Graves gave California some life with a lucky goal at 19:49. Graves made a pass to Ivan Boldirev in front of the Canadiens’ net, but the puck bounced off Guy Lapointe and trickled past Plasse to make it 3-2. As every hockey fan knows, those last-minute goals are killers.
In the third period, fate intervened to turn the game in the Seals’ favour. With the Seals still down a goal, Hil Graves unleashed a howitzer that hit Plasse square in the face. Plasse immediately dropped to the ice as Stan Weir poked in the rebound. The Habs protested, but to no avail. The famous Forum ghosts must have been in the bathroom at that moment; the goal stood. (13)
The ghosts must have stopped in at the concession stand for a few beers on the way back from the bathroom because Gary Croteau scored at 12:15 against replacement goalie Michel Larocque to give the Seals a 4-3 win. Despite being outshot 41-25, Meloche held down the fort, ending the Seals’ lengthy road losing streak. (14) Ray McKay summed up his teammates’ feelings best when he said, “Beating Montreal in Montreal: that was our Stanley Cup right there.” (15) Did the humiliating defeat affect the Habs? It’s hard to say, but the fact is Montreal was outscored 15-2 in its next two games, limped through the last month of the season, and was later bounced out in the first playoff round.
Blood Feud, Part 2
October 25, 1974: Philadelphia Flyers 1 at California Golden Seals 4
During the 1973/74 season, before the Seals’ final game versus Philadelphia, Hilliard Graves told Dave Schultz it was on! “I’m not afraid of him,” Graves said “I beat him twice before and I’m ready to do it again if I have to.” Graves also claimed the Flyers took liberties with the Seals, something Philadelphia never did with the league’s tougher squads. “Philadelphia likes to run around against us, but they don’t play that way against Boston,” he claimed. “We’ve beaten the Bruins more than they have in the last four years,” which was actually true. (16)
The following season, Graves was playing for Atlanta, and many of the players who had been significant contributors to the Seals had been traded away for prospects. When the Flyers arrived in Oakland on October 25, 1974 for the teams’ first meeting of the 1974/75 season, the Broad Street Bullies were greeted by a Seals squad loaded with rookies who had only heard about the Flyers’ nasty reputation.
Surprisingly, California was up 4-0 when the Flyers’ Orest Kindrachuk and the Seals’ Mike Christie got into a skirmish. Kindrachuk was given an extra minor penalty. Several eyewitnesses said Don Saleski tried to goad Christie into taking an extra two-minute penalty by getting the Seals’ defenseman to jump back onto the ice, but Christie would have none of it. Kindrachuk then skated past Saleski to the Seals’ penalty box to get at Christie. Bob Kelly joined Kindrachuk and Saleski, and the three men laid a beating on Christie while other Flyers kept the Seals players at bay. Did the Seals’ youth and inexperience make them a tad passive? Possibly.
“It was just awful,” said goaltender Gary Simmons. “It was embarrassing… Poor Mike, he really got waylaid that night and I don’t remember him getting much help.” Simmons also said Christie “just worked his butt off… he was the guy that always was the third man in when one of our guys was getting beat up; it was always Mike. If everybody had Mike Christie’s heart, we would have done a heck of a lot better.” (17) It was a very difficult time for the franchise. For years, the players had been embarrassed by white skates, bright yellow uniforms, and owners who didn’t give a damn. The Seals’ pride hit its nadir in this game and it would not be easy instilling a positive attitude in the players.
April 4, 1976: Los Angeles Kings 2 at California Golden Seals 5
In the 1975/76 season finale, the Seals gave their 6,442 home patrons something to cheer. For once, the Seals had enjoyed a rather successful season, ending up 14th out of 18 clubs instead of their usual last place, and set over 25 club records. The team boasted real talent with future NHL stars Dennis Maruk, Al MacAdam, Charlie Simmer, and Gilles Meloche in the line-up.
In the first period, rookie Bob Murdoch, standing behind the net, grabbed the loose puck and flipped it over a confused Rogie Vachon’s head and into the crease where a hungry Maruk was waiting for his 29th goal. The Kings’ Gary Sargent evened the score two minutes later, but Maruk scored a power play goal two minutes after that to put the Seals up 2-1. From that point on it was all Seals.
The Seals had come a long way since Mike Christie was pummelled by the Philadelphia Flyers. Players were proud to be playing in Oakland. According to centre Larry Patey, tossing the Seals’ sweater to the ground was considered a crime. “Your sweater, when you took it off, it never hit the floor,” he said. “In other words, if you’re upset, you made a mistake, you lost the game… you never take your sweater off and throw it on the floor. You take it off and you hang it up.” (18)
The Seals may have won their last NHL game easily, but it was a simple gesture by classy veteran Gary Sabourin that puts this game on the list of significant moments. Sabourin had undergone an appendectomy just six days earlier, but he wanted to play in what was an inconsequential game. Sabourin did not see any ice time that night but his dedication to the team did not go unnoticed. “The most significant thing we’ve accomplished this season is developing a pride in the uniform,” said general manager Bill McCreary. “Look at what Gary did. He didn’t have to do that, but that’s the kind of players we want.” (19)
The pride that had been lost during the Charlie Finley regime had finally been restored. Things should have remained as they were; the Seals were on a real upswing and finally had some real talent on their roster. Had owner Mel Swig been able to strike a deal with San Francisco city council to build a new arena, the Seals would have had a new home in the city where they should have been since Day One. Instead, they were off to Cleveland, Ohio, and eventually, oblivion.
(1) McDonald, Hugh. “Record Crowd Sees Seals Do It,” San Mateo Times (May 7, 1963), p. 11.
(2) Quote taken from a radio clip of Game 7 vs Seattle, KFRC San Francisco, donated to the Bay Area Radio Museum by Len Shapiro: http://bayarearadio.org/people/storey.shtml
(3) Baun, Bobby and Anne Logan. Lowering The Boom: The Bobby Baun Story (Toronto: Stoddart, 2000), p. 190.
(4) Kurtzberg, Brad. Shorthanded : The Untold Story of the Seals. (Authorhouse: Bloomington, Indiana), 2006, p. 54.
(5) ”Minnesota Centre Dies After Injury In Game.” Cornwall Standard-Freeholder. (Jan. 15, 1968).
(6) Barrett, Frank Jr. “Goalie frustrates B’s,” Lowell Sun (Oct. 29, 1971), p. 21.
(7) Personal interview with Joey Johnston, May 4, 2012.
(8) McDonnell, Chris. The Game I’ll Never Forget (Firefly Books: Toronto), pp. 102-3; Description of game based on television highlights found on YouTube.
(9) Personal interview with Larry Schmidt, Sept. 10, 2013.
(10) Porter, John. “Get Seals to Rink on Time,” Oakland Tribune (Jan. 3, 1973), p. E37.
(11) Fleischman, Bill. “Cummins Regrets Near Tragic High-Sticking of Flyers’ Clarke.” The Hockey News (Dec. 21, 1973), p. 2.
(12) Kurtzberg, Brad. Shorthanded : The Untold Story of the Seals. (Authorhouse: Bloomington, Indiana), 2006, 209.
(13) According to The Professional Hockey Handbook, published in time for the 1973-74 season, NHL rule 19(f) states, “When a player is injured so that he cannot continue play or go to his bench, the play shall not be stopped until the injured player’s team has secured possession of the puck,” meaning Weir’s goal was perfectly legal.
(14) Porter, John. “Seals Rally, Win On the Road, 4-3,” Oakland Tribune (Mar. 3, 1974), p. 19.
(15) Kurtzberg, Brad. Shorthanded : The Untold Story of the Seals. (Authorhouse: Bloomington, Indiana), 2006, p. 230.
(16) Porter, John. “Seals Square Off Against Broad Street Bullies,” Oakland Tribune (Jan. 25, 1974), p. 37.
(17) Personal interview with Gary Simmons, July 2, 2011.
(18) Personal interview with Larry Patey, Jan. 26, 2012.
(19) Porter, John. “Anatomy of the Improved Seals,” Oakland Tribune (Apr. 6, 1976), p. 38.