Text by Steve Currier
Any coach will tell you that he doesn’t want his players to look like figure skaters out on the ice. Hockey players should look rugged and tough, and while I will be the first to admit that figure skaters, both male and female, are tremendously talented athletes, they would not stand a chance wearing those outfits in the NHL. Well, there was one, and only one team in NHL history, the California Golden Seals, whose owner thought differently.
“I know absolutely nothing about hockey,” the Oakland Seals’ new owner Charles Oscar Finley declared at his first press conference. Soon after, at a special “welcome back” dinner for the team, Finley announced he was rechristening his club the California Golden Seals, to the befuddlement of almost everyone in attendance, because this happened two games into the 1970-71 season. The team’s new name “sounds like a floor wax,” remarked Fremont-Newark Argus sports editor Rich Gohlke. This was just the beginning of Finley’s three-and-a-half year circus.
Before we get to the white skates, a little background is necessary. The Seals had qualified for the playoffs two of their first three seasons in the league, but their average attendance topped out at just 6,225 in year three. Translation: this team was a huge money pit. Ownership was a complete mess from Day One. The original owner, Barry Van Gerbig, tried to sell the team to a group known as Puck Inc, but in the end, they backed out. Then a company called Trans-National Communications came in, but it turned out they had more empty promises than dollars, so they backed out too, and ownership reverted back to Van Gerbig, who by this point, could not wait to dump the Seals. In the end, the team was sold to Finley.
As you can see by the picture above, the man knew something about baseball. In fact, his Oakland A’s were so good they won three World Series titles from 1972 to 1974, but that success came at a price, and it was usually Finley’s staff who paid the bill. Finley hired and fired managers on an almost-yearly basis. He signed star players well below market value. He was a notorious micromanager and he alienated almost everyone he did business with, including other owners, because of his boorish behaviour. Nevertheless, Finley knew talent when he saw it, which explains why his A’s were so good. When it came to hockey, well… let’s just say he didn’t know the difference between Reggie Jackson and Reggie Fleming.
Finley could not resist leaving his imprint on the Seals like he had so successfully done with the A’s. His hockey players were fitted in retina-burning “Fort Knox gold and Kelly green” uniforms, the same colours as his A’s, but the Seals were given a special fashion accessory: green and gold skates.
Bert Marshall, circa 1970-71
Things could have been worse, though. “Albino kangaroo skates are to be ordered as required uniform,” Finley declared, because, you see, regular old kangaroo skates just weren’t kitchy enough – he just had to go the freakin’ albino route! Thankfully, a few sensible voices in the organization persuaded Finley to forego the kangaroo leather, but he wasn’t done there.
After a disastrous 1970-71 season in which the Seals finished dead last with a 20-53-5 record, the Seals discarded fading veterans and brought in a slew of unwanted players from around the league. On opening day in October 1971, the roster was a patchwork of retreads, nobodies and what-ifs. If the previous edition of the team was able to win twenty games, this new bunch would be lucky to win half that. Or so it seemed. These Seals were surprisingly good, and many players, such as Ivan Boldirev, Walt McKechnie, Gilles Meloche, Paul Shmyr, Joey Johnston and Reggie Leach went on to have successful careers. In January, the Seals were comfortably sitting in a playoff position once again.
You’ve probably heard the expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? Well, old Charlie just couldn’t help pouring a little oil under the hood. Finley had forced his baseball players to wear green and gold uniforms and white shoes, and while that was a bizarre combination to say the least, white shoes on a baseball player don’t look all that bad. What would white skates look like on a rough and tumble hockey player? Well, on January 14, 1972, versus the Vancouver Canucks, everyone discovered the answer to that question. The all-white skates had been used in practices just to break them in, but this time the fancy footwear would be unleashed upon the entire world.
Green-and-gold skates are one thing, but this white skate idea was just plain silly. I mean, when one thinks of white skates this is the image that probably comes to mind…
Or perhaps this…
But definitely NOT this…
Yes, that right there is the legendary Reggie Leach. Thankfully, he is more known today as a Stanley Cup champion and Conn Smythe Trophy winner with the Philadelphia Flyers, and not as a white-skate wearing member of the California Golden Seals. And look at number 17, Stan Gilbertson, hanging his head in what looks to be shame. No wonder so many players jumped ship to the WHA just a few months later.
Even before the skates made their official debut, the jokes began. The Oakland Tribune’s John Porter got the ball rolling with this good-natured rib just hours before the Vancouver game: “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride has been the lament of the Oakland Seals (he never, ever called them “California Golden Seals”) and the rest of the expansion clubs in the National Hockey League. Tonight the Seals will don their wedding-gown white skates for their first game use.”
Reaction to the skates was exactly what you would expect. For the most part, the players hated them. For one thing, the skates had to be repainted constantly because of the inevitable scuff marks from pucks and sticks collected over the course of a game. Some players have even said that the many layers of paint made the skates heavier and heavier as the season wore on. Also, fans in other cities were always quick to remind the players how much the skates made them look like figure skaters. On television, it looked as though the players were skating on stumps because the skates matched the colour of the ice.
The Seals continued to use the white skates for two more years until Finley grew tired of losing money and sold the Seals to the NHL in February 1974.