One can argue that the California Golden Seals were born well before the National Hockey League chose to expand West. Hockey was an almost unknown sport in the early years of the 20th century, but that would soon change. As World War I raged in Europe, the 1917 Stanley Cup finalists, the Montreal Canadiens and the reigning Cup champs, the Seattle Metropolitans, played a three-game exhibition series at San Francisco’s Winter Garden in March and April of that year. The Canadiens won bragging rights, defeating the Metropolitans two games to one, but Seattle went home with the Stanley Cup. This short series was the seed that would later grow the tree that would become California hockey.
Throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, the California Hockey League had several teams in the Bay Area and in the Los Angeles area, but the circuit did not survive the Great Depression. Other California-based teams came and went in various minor leagues, but none of them lasted more than a few years. It wasn’t until the minor-pro Western Hockey League decided to place teams in San Francisco and Los Angeles that the roots of hockey became firmly entrenched in the state’s sporting culture. The new Bay Area outfit would be called the San Francisco Seals, which was a welcome decision considering someone had actually suggested the name “Yekcoh” in a name-the-team contest.
The Seals were an immediate hit in the Bay Area, winning over a large number of fans, even though the Seals’ season-opener was an embarrassing 8-3 loss to Seattle. The club averaged 5,558 fans per game that season, which was considerably higher than in many other traditional hockey markets in the WHL. Coach Max McNab led the Seals to a fourth-place finish thanks to a 29-39-2 record, but they were swept by Spokane two games to none in their first-round series. The following year, there would be no sweeps in San Francisco.
The 1962-63 edition of the Seals was undoubtedly the best team Seals fans ever saw. Big goal scorers like Nick Mickoski (95 points), Len Haley (36 goals), Gary “Duke” Edmundson (76 points), Eddie “Can of Tobacco” Panagabko (78 points), Danny Belisle (70 points), and Ray Cyr (64 points) made sure that when you skated onto the Cow Palace ice, you had better bring your A-game along. The best of the bunch may have been former-and-future NHLer Orland Kurtenbach, one of the toughest players in the WHL. He finished the year with 30 goals, 87 points, and 94 penalty minutes, and would play a key role during the playoffs. On defense, the Seals had the dependable Tom Thurlby, and the flashy Moe Mantha, who scored 19 goals that year. In goal, the Seals were blessed to have Jim McLeod, who played in 67 games and won 43 of them. Overall, the Seals finished the season in second place with a 44-25-1 record.
In the playoffs, the Seals dispatched the Los Angeles Blades 2-1 in round one, then the Portland Buckaroos in round two, setting up a championship series with the Seattle Totems. The series took seven games to decide, and the final contest stretched into overtime until Kurtenbach scored the game-winner for San Francisco. In just their second season, the Seals were Patrick Cup champions.
The following year, despite a less-than-stellar 32-35-3 record, the Seals defeated Portland in the first round of the playoffs, and then defeated Los Angeles in the championship series to become the first Western League team to win back-to-back titles. Unfortunately, the good times would come to an end soon after, and they would never return except for short, fleeting moments here and there.
The 1964-65 Seals stumbled badly, repeating the previous year’s up-and-down regular-season. This time, however, the Seals would miss the playoffs by two points. By this time, the big stars from the back-to-back championships had moved on. Goaltender McLeod was replaced by Bob Perreault for the second championship, and then Perreault was replaced as lead goaltender by former U.S. Olympian Jack McCartan. Overtime hero Orland Kurtenbach made a triumphant return to the NHL, where he would remain for the next 11 years. Nick Mickoski became the Seals’ playing coach just in time for the 1964 playoffs, and he led the team to their second straight championship. When the Seals got off to a poor start the next year, however, he was replaced by Norman “Bud” Poile, the man Mickoski had replaced the year prior!
After the Seals’ championship years, several future NHL stars from the parent club Boston Bruins cut their teeth with San Francisco, notably Wayne Connelly, Gary Dornhoefer, Dallas Smith, Ron Schock, George Swarbrick, Stan Gilbertson, Joe Daley, Forbes Kennedy, and Gerry Odrowski. The best of the bunch was undoubtedly Connelly, who scored a team-record 45 goals in 1965-66, helping the Seals reach the playoffs once again, despite a lackluster 32-36-4 record. While the club scored 12 fewer goals than the previous year, the defense was much stingier as well, allowing 35 fewer goals. The Seals held their own against the powerful Victoria Maple Leafs, but ultimately lost the series in seven games.
In the meantime, the Seals were bought by Barry van Gerbig and his group of investors. Van Gerbig had acquired the rights to the NHL’s new Bay Area entry, which would begin play in October 1967, so he bought the Seals, which was a shrewd decision since he would be starting his NHL club with a solid minor-league roster at his disposal long before the expansion draft would even take place. Two not-so-shrewd moves were to 1) change the team’s name to California Seals, alienating San Francisco’s hockey fans in the process, and 2) choosing to build a new state-of-the-art rink in Oakland, hoping San Francisco fans would make the trip across the Golden Gate Bridge to watch the Seals. They didn’t, and that would become quite evident once attendance started to decline as the Seals moved to the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum mid-way through the 1966-67 season.
Heart-and-soul player Charlie Burns, one of the few to wear a helmet during the 1960s, became the Seals’ player-coach during the 1965-66 season, and led the team to the playoffs, but the following year, he returned to wearing just one hat (two, if you count his helmet), as former Chicago Black Hawks coach Rudy Pilous took over behind the bench. The decision for Pilous to coach the team was a curious one, since he would spend a good portion of the season scouting NHL teams in preparation for the 1967 expansion draft, and would be unable to dedicate much time with the Western League Seals. Pilous and Burns would each spend considerable time coaching the Seals, but Burns’ 22-13-3 record far exceeded Pilous’s 10-17-7 mark. Perhaps sensing the club was better off in Burns’ hands, Pilous handed him the reins for the playoffs, but the Seals fell in six games to the Seattle Totems, putting an end to the Seals’ six-year Western Hockey League run.