Text by Steve Currier
The Western Hockey League Years (1961-67)
One can trace California’s hockey roots back to a 1917 three-game exhibition series in San Francisco between the Montreal Canadiens and Seattle Metropolitans. The Canadiens beat the then-defending Cup champs two games to one. In 1927, the California Hockey League was born and teams sprang up everywhere from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, but in 1933, the league went belly-up. A few California teams played here and there in various minor-pro leagues over the next few decades, but hockey did not catch on until the San Francisco Seals were added to the Western Hockey League in 1961. The Seals, who played out of the Cow Palace in Daly City, were an immediate hit, attracting 194,530 fans (an average of 5,558) their first season in the league. The legendary Seals Booster Club, which still exists to this day, was founded in 1962. The Seals enjoyed an impressive first season, finishing 29-39-2, and qualifying for the playoffs, but Spokane bounced them out in a two-game sweep.
Undaunted, the Seals reloaded, and with the help of newcomers Orland Kurtenbach, Ed Panagabko, and goaltender Jim McLeod, the Seals finished second overall in the 1962-63 regular season. The team became known as “Adversity on Ice” for its ability to play its best hockey when its back was against the wall. In the second round versus Portland, the Seals found themselves down 3-1 in the series, but they roared back to win it in seven games. In the Patrick Cup final, the Seals fell behind 3-1 once again, but they clawed their way back to even the series 3-3. An all-time franchise record 12,404 screaming fans crammed into the Cow Palace for the final game, which was decided in overtime on a goal by Kurtenbach, and gave the Seals their first Lester Patrick Cup.
Despite an up-and-down 1963-64 season in which coach Norman “Bud” Poile handed the coaching reigns to star left winger Nick Mickoski, the Seals went on a tear in the playoffs. First, they disposed of second-place Portland in five games, and then beat Los Angeles in six to become the first WHL team to win consecutive championships.
San Francisco Seals logo
Led by the intimidating Kurtenbach and snipers Nick Mickoski, Len Haley, and Charlie Burns, the Seals were one of the meanest and most talented clubs in the WHL. Defenceman Tom Thurlby believes the Cow Palace was an intimidating place to play “just because of the size of it compared to some of the other rinks. And it was a small ice surface there too, and we had a big team; we had a lot of big guys on that team, and I think we just dominated at home. Teams coming in there were kind of shocked, I guess, at the amount of people that was there the first time they played there, and we always played well at home.” Attendance at the cramped Cow Palace was something to behold. “We had great support in San Francisco,” said former Seal Larry Lund. “We were drawing eight, nine, ten thousand. There was sort of a carry-over from the year before, from the championship win there, so people, when the playoffs came around, especially the  finals against Los Angeles, people really got involved, the media was involved, and the fans, so it was a great atmosphere.”
Dependable Tom Thurlby played more games (414) with the WHL Seals than anyone else
Playing hockey in San Francisco during the salad years was a real treat. “We drank champagne right on the steps of city hall with the mayor,” remembered Thurlby. “We had a parade. Oh yeah, the fan support was unreal, you wouldn’t believe it, and we filled that old Cow Palace all the time. The fan support, it was unreal there, even though it didn’t matter where we were in the standings.” The Seals qualified for the playoffs in five of six years played in the WHL, the only exception being 1964-65, but they never again won the Lester Patrick Cup despite strong efforts from future NHL stars such as Wayne Connelly, Gary Dornhoefer, Ron Schock, and Dallas Smith. Meanwhile, the NHL decided to include Los Angeles and San Francisco in its ambitious 1967 expansion. Young millionaire Barry Van Gerbig was granted the San Francisco franchise. He then bought the Seals, moved them to the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, and renamed the club the California Seals. The Seals finished their final WHL season in fourth place with a 32-30-10 record, but they were eliminated in the first playoff round.
Next page: Early NHL Troubles (1967-68)
Thanks to Chris Creamer of Sportslogos.net for graciously allowing me to use the Seals and Barons logos featured on this site. Please visit his excellent and fascinating site at http://www.sportslogos.net.
Also, thanks to George Kloepping for sending me the photos of Charlie Burns and Tom Thurlby from their San Francisco days. Other photos found on Google Images.