Despite an impressive increase in attendance, another serious ownership crisis in the summer of 1970 put the Seals’ future in jeopardy. The boorish and controversial Charles O. Finley bought the team and brought many wild ideas to the table, such as green-and-yellow skates, garish yellow uniforms, and live seals as mascots. He even hinted at giving his team kangaroo-skin skates. Finley, who must have been some sort of leprechaun in a former life, had some sort of strange fetish for green and gold uniforms. He dressed his Oakland A’s baseball club in his favorite colours, and he decked his Seals in the same motif. He left the A’s alone when it came to their name but he couldn’t resist rechristening his hockey team, which would now be known as the California Golden Seals, which as one reporter commented, kind of sounded like a brand of floor wax. “He was a lot of talk, like a used car salesman,” recalled Seals captain Ted Hampson. “He was full of ballyhoo, whatever you call it. And we felt like the used cars.” Booster Club member Cathy White was not at all a fan of Charlie Finley. “I think for those of us that were real fans, we didn’t like his buying the team at all. He made us resent hockey.”
Charles O. Finley holding up a picture of how he envisioned himself in an Oakland Seals uniform. Note the adorable white skates cartoon Finley is wearing.
Finley had rightly earned the reputation as an eccentric micro-manager. “Without having a lot of knowledge, both with his baseball team and with the Seals, he would call managers, general managers, staff people at any time of the day or night, whenever it suited his whim to do so,” recalled Seals play-by-play man Joe Starkey, “and [he] didn’t worry about their personal lives or anything else. He just didn’t care, he just wanted to get answers on what was going on and he’d chew you out for anything of significance at all or insignificance, and that’s just the way he ran things.” He was such a difficult person to work for that general manager Frank Selke Jr. quit just after Finley bought the team. Selke’s replacement, future Hall-of-Famer Bill Torrey, couldn’t stand working for Finley either, so he also quit. That left Fred Glover as the one person who could possibly run the club, which he did while also coaching it and acting as its executive vice-president.
The team may have been golden in name, but it was anything but that on the ice. Finley’s gimmicks failed to generate any excitement at the box office, and the team floundered after a decent first half. Youngsters Dennis Hextall, Gary Croteau and Ron Stackhouse led the offense while aging veterans were phased out at the end of the season.
Despite the team’s monumental struggles on the ice and at the gate, the 1970-71 Seals will forever be known as the team that blew the opportunity to draft the legendary Guy Lafleur. Why didn’t the Seals draft him, you ask? After all, the Seals had finished dead last, and rightfully “earned” the first overall pick in that year’s amateur draft. Unfortunately, the previous summer, the Seals foolishly traded their 1971 first-round pick, and defenseman François Lacombe, to Montreal in exchange for Ernie Hicke and Montreal’s first round pick in 1970. It seemed like a fairly innocent trade, but Montreal general manager Sam Pollock knew better. He knew there was a good chance a weak team like the Seals would finish last or somewhere near the bottom, so Pollock orchestrated several trades of this type. He also traded Ralph Backstrom to Los Angeles to make the Kings stronger in the hopes they would finish ahead of the Seals. They did. By a mile. And Pollock giddily snatched up Lafleur with the Seals’ first-overall pick, and as they say, the rest is history.
California Golden Seals logo, which was used from 1970-74
After sputtering to a dismal 20-53-5 record in 1970-71, Finley hired former Boston Bruins scout Garry Young as the Seals’ new general manager. Fred Glover was replaced by former Philadelphia coach Vic Stasiuk just three games into the season, and the results were astounding as the Seals moved into third place early in the season. The crafty Young acquired prospects like Joey Johnston, Walt McKechnie, Ivan Boldirev, and Craig Patrick to replace several over-the-hill veterans. The club’s subsequent improvement astounded fans around the league. Attendance even improved to over 6,000 fans per game. Rookie goaltender Gilles Meloche stole more than a few games, while unheralded newcomers Bobby Sheehan, Gerry Pinder and Dick Redmond led the resurgent Seals offensively during an exciting playoff race. Unfortunately, the 1971-72 Seals are more known today as the team that were forced to wear Charlie Finley’s ill-conceived white skates. “I thought they were alright,” explained former Seal Wayne King, “but it was a pain for the trainers, ‘cause every game they had to paint them, ‘cause they’d get the black tape marks and puck marks, and they had to be looking good on the ice. Actually, they got heavy ‘cause they got layers of paint on them. Keep putting a coat of paint on everything, it’s going to get heavy.”
Gilles Meloche enjoyed an outstanding rookie season with the Seals, winning The Sporting News’ West Division Rookie-of-the-Year award
After 52 games, the Seals were 17-25-10, but the team went into a 4-14-8 tailspin to finish the season, perhaps due to the weight of the painted skates. Nevertheless, the Seals were still in playoff position throughout most of the debacle, but important points were lost in key games here and there, none of which more damaging than an 8-6 loss to Boston on February 23. The Seals had just traded star Carol Vadnais to Boston for a package that included Reggie Leach, Rick Smith, and Bobby Stewart. The Seals seemed rejuvenated early on as they built up a commanding 6-1 lead over the befuddled Bruins. Then everything fell apart as Bobby Orr and company went to work. Slowly but surely, the Seals’ seemingly insurmountable lead disappeared and the Bruins came back to win. The Seals never recovered from the loss, even going winless their last eight games of the season. All of the games were against teams in their own division. In the end, the Seals missed the playoffs by six points.
The arrival of the World Hockey Association in 1972 decimated the Seals’ roster and set the team’s development back several years. In all, seven regulars left the team for the fledgling league. Young decided not to resign Stasiuk, so Finley told his general manager he would also have to coach the team. After just thirteen games, Young stepped down from behind the bench only to be replaced by Fred Glover. As for Young, his season would only get worse. First, he gave star defenseman Dick Redmond a rich new deal to keep him away from the WHA, but Finley refused to pay up, believing Redmond was worth much less money. Consequently, Young and Finley became embroiled in a bitter war of words over the lucrative contract, and Finley replaced him with Glover, who would continue to coach and manage the team as long as Finley was owner. As if the Seals did not have enough problems, attendance plummeted in the first half of the season forcing Finley to cut ticket prices in half. The team never managed to get in gear despite 20-goal seasons from Joey Johnston, Reggie Leach, Craig Patrick, and rookie Hilliard Graves. The Seals finished second-to-last overall with a 16-46-16 mark.
Just when it seemed the Seals could not get any worse, they did. Johnston, McKechnie, and Leach continued to shine on a line together, but 13 wins and 36 points were all the club could muster. The ghastly figures surprised few people considering the Seals’ defense corps consisted mostly of minor-leaguers and rookies. Moreover, goaltenders Gilles Meloche and Marv Edwards missed significant time due to injuries, which forced the club to use two journeymen, Bob Champoux and Ted Tucker, in their place. Embarrassing 7-0 and 8-1 games were the norm rather than the exception, but a late-season change in ownership gave everyone hope for the future. “We were delighted,” laughed fan Cathy White. “It was the best news we had ever had. It didn’t matter who bought [the Seals] just so Finley was out. He tried to run the team as though it was a baseball team, and you can’t do that. He understood baseball; he didn’t understand hockey.” Finley sold the club to the NHL for $6.585 million, virtually making the Seals orphans since they were technically owned by all the other teams in the league. Glover immediately resigned from the Seals and gave way to Marshall Johnston, who had decided to hang up his skates to coach the team. Who would replace Glover as general manager? Why, that would be the same Garry Young who was fired for supposedly mismanaging player contracts a year earlier. This time, however, Young would be given the title of Director of Hockey Operations, because since the Seals were an NHL property, he would need the league’s approval before making any deals.
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.