The Seals’ disastrous inaugural season laid the shaky foundation for the team’s future, as early mistakes by team owners and general managers became too difficult to overcome. In 1966, the Seals, who were known at the time as the San Francisco Seals, decided it would be best to relocate the team to Oakland, where the luxurious 12,089-seat Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum would be built. It was obvious early on that moving the team away from its dedicated fan base was a bad move. Attendance plummeted during the now-California Seals’ 1966-67 season, and the early returns in their first NHL season were hardly encouraging. San Francisco fans refused to cross the bridge to Oakland, and Oakland already had very few hockey fans, therefore attendance was abysmal. After just 25 games, the team became known as the Oakland Seals in an effort to attract more local fans, but the Seals still ended up dead last in attendance, a dubious feat that would be repeated each and every subsequent season.
At the 1967 expansion draft, it seemed as though the Seals had selected a stellar roster. The Seals drafted several players with Stanley Cup titles under their belts, including former Vezina Trophy winning goaltender Charlie Hodge, defensemen Bobby Baun and Kent Douglas (who had won been the NHL’s rookie-of-the-year in 1963), and forwards Bill Hicke and Billy Harris. California was expected to finish first in the NHL’s new West Division, and early on the Seals lived up to expectations, winning their first-ever game, 5-1, against Philadelphia, and recording the expansion division’s first shutout, 6-0 over Minnesota, in game number two. It was all downhill from there. Bill HIcke ended up leading the Seals in goals with just 21 (in just 52 games), and Gerry Ehman led the team with just 44 points. Overall, the Seals scored just 153 times, an average of barely two goals per game.
California Seals logo, circa 1967
Coach and general manager Rudy Pilous was fired shortly after the expansion draft, setting the stage for years of upheaval and turmoil. New coach and general manager Bert Olmstead clashed with key players and members of the media as the club crashed to a league-worst 15-42-17 mark. Olmstead made most players miserable due to his ridiculously high expectations and overall moodiness. “Everybody was on pins and needles and you were scared to do anything,” remembered Tom Thurlby, one of the few WHL Seals to make the transition to the NHL. “Yeah, it was a nightmare. Actually, I was glad when they sent me back to Vancouver. So was my wife.” Olmstead’s practices were torturous, and they did nothing to improve morale. “He’d lock ‘em up and close the doors to the arena,” remembered public relations man Tim Ryan, “and make them skate laps when they lost or after a losing streak. Guys would be throwing up on the ice.” Olmstead also couldn’t understand why his players were not rejoicing at expansion rescuing them from the clutches of minor-league obscurity. “The biggest lack that Bert had was communication,” said Ryan. “He didn’t know how to communicate the Bert Olmstead style of hockey to his players. And not only that, he expected, unrealistically, that they should all be like Bert, and they weren’t going to be, and a lot of them didn’t want to be.” Olmstead was so miserable as coach that he promoted assistant coach Gordie Fashoway to the top spot behind the bench. The Seals finished 5-10-6 under Fashoway, and at the end of the season, both he and Olmstead were gone.
The Seals believed Kent Douglas would play a big role in the team’s success, but he was shipped off to Detroit in mid-season in a trade for Ted Hampson, Bert Marshall, and John Brenneman
The Seals also played a part in undoubtedly the NHL’s greatest tragedy: the death of Minnesota North Star Bill Masterton. On January 13, 1968, Masterton was checked by California’s Ron Harris, then fell awkwardly and hit his head on the ice. It was a routine play, but since Masterton was not wearing a helmet, the damage to his head was irreversible. Masterton was taken to hospital where he remained in a coma until passing away on January 15. It is the first and only time a player has died as a direct result of injuries suffered in a NHL game.
Charlie Hodge, who finished the season with an excellent 2.86 goals-against average and three shutouts, stretches out to make a save as Bill Hicke (9) comes in to help
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. Other photos found on Google Images.