The NHL will award Seattle an expansion team next week, but still isn't sure whether it will launch in 2020 or 2021. Given some of the league's past expansion flops, it's hardly surprising to see it proceeding with caution amid arena and labor uncertainty.
Inside the NHL
Our city will finally be awarded a National Hockey League expansion franchise next week, after which the owners can simply sit back and ring in the profits, right?
Well, not exactly. Not every NHL expansion story ends up like the Vegas Golden Knights. They don’t all win consecutive Stanley Cup titles like the Philadelphia Flyers in their first decade and become marquee franchises.
In fact, NHL expansion since the “Original Six’’ era ended in 1967 has been all over the map. For every long-term success such as the Flyers, San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators, there is enduring Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators mediocrity.
Not to mention, tales of outright disaster.
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That’s a big reason the expansion-draft rules were recently changed to favor the Golden Knights, as they will Seattle’s franchise. It’s why the league wants arena deals finalized before awarding new teams. And generally gives those teams a run-up of two years to implement marketing plans.
It’s also why NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly keeps hesitating about whether Seattle will launch in 2020 or 2021. “Certainly, the goal would be getting the team playing in the National Hockey League as soon as possible and that should be the ’20-21 season,’’ Daly last week told Sportsnet 650 radio in Vancouver, B.C.
But Daly also mentioned that having KeyArena completed for the 2020-21 season remains open-ended and could delay things to 2021-22. Daly also agreed the potential for a September 2020 lockout of NHL players could impact Seattle’s launch as well.
“That’s obviously a discussion we’ll have to have with the (Seattle) ownership group,’’ Daly said. “Ultimately, once they’re approved, it’s as much their decision as it is our decision as to what the right timetable is for coming into the league. So, that’s a relevant consideration for sure.’’
Daly is correct, regardless of whether the arena or the league’s labor situation is to blame for any future delay. After all, the NHL has a painful history of poor expansion planning — we won’t even get into the shoddy mid-1990s relocation efforts in Carolina and Arizona — nobody wants repeated.
The last thing needed is for Seattle to launch in October 2020 if KeyArena remains under construction. Or, to have a planned 2020 opening scuttled by a lockout weeks prior.
Want to know what happens when expansion safeguards aren’t implemented?
You won’t find much worse than the California Seals expansion team from 1967-68, which featured onetime Seattle Americans goalie Charlie Hodge as their netminder. They won their opener, then lost 13 straight and eventually went a laughable 182-401-115 over nine seasons. They made things even worse by relocating and becoming the Cleveland Barons — the last team from North America’s four major pro sports leagues to fold.
The Seals — tell me where you’ve heard this before — originally wanted to play in San Francisco, but couldn’t get an arena deal and got stuck in Oakland. Their entire existence was spent trying in vain to head across the bay.
Meanwhile, they quickly dropped “California’’ from their name and became the Oakland Seals. Athletics baseball owner Charles O. Finley soon bought them and changed their name to Bay Area Seals to start the 1970-71 season — only to change it again two games later to California Golden Seals.
No matter what they were called, nobody went to see the team play.
The front office was as bad as the team, in May 1970 dealing its first pick in the 1971 entry draft to the Montreal Canadiens along with defenseman Francois Lacombe. In return, the Seals received journeyman Ernie Hicke and the Canadiens’ No. 1 pick in 1970, which, given how good Montreal was, became an unremarkable low-end selection named Chris Oddleifson.
Now, the player Montreal received, Lacombe, was a decent guy, mainly because he later gave me car rides to cover road games for the Montreal-area Midget AAA team (15- and-16-year-old elites) he coached in 1990 while I was in college writing for a weekly newspaper. But the gem of the trade for the Canadiens was the No. 1 pick they got, which, after a horrid 1970-71 Golden Seals season, became the top overall selection and was used on a guy named Guy Lafleur — arguably one of the top-10 NHL players ever.
That California trade is considered one of the worst in NHL history. And, yeah, Lacombe and I had laughs about it two decades later driving around in his car.
With the franchise floundering, the Golden Seals relocated to Cleveland, a city with a proud minor pro hockey history. Problem was, they moved just six weeks before the start of the 1976-77 season.
With no advance marketing, few Cleveland fans knew the renamed “Barons” existed. They drew sparse crowds and had a 47-87-26 record over two seasons, punctuated by missed payrolls and threatened player strikes over said missed pay.
Perhaps the best thing going for the Barons was a Cleveland Plain Dealer hockey beat writer named Rich Passan, whose son, Jeff Passan, later became one of the country’s best baseball writers for Yahoo Sports and is now a weekly 710 ESPN Seattle radio guest.
After two seasons, the Barons folded and merged players into the Minnesota North Stars, another expansion franchise from 1967-68 going nowhere. The North Stars, lacking a premium arena, would later relocate as the Dallas Stars in 1993.
Just like the expansion Kansas City Scouts would move to Colorado in 1976 to become the Rockies and, later, to New Jersey in 1982 to become the Devils. Or, like the expansion Atlanta Flames moving to Calgary in 1980. Maybe like the expansion Atlanta Thrashers moving to Winnipeg in 2011 as the revived Jets franchise?
This isn’t just a problem from 50 years ago. It was only a year or two ago that talk of moving the expansion Panthers finally slowed. The problem cases usually involve first-time NHL markets suffering from prolonged losing, the lack of a completed arena, inadequate marketing, sports oversaturation in their cities, or all four.
Seattle, as a first-time NHL city with the Seahawks, Mariners, Sounders and Huskies football, isn’t immune from market saturation. So, KeyArena has to get done and the team must conduct a full-on marketing blitz that isn’t interrupted by a labor dispute.
Sure, Seattle’s team launching a year later in October 2021 would be disappointing locally.
But the alternative is worse if the expansion gets rushed or botched. Better to have a franchise launching in 2021 instead of 2020 than the modern equivalent of a team starting as the California Seals and ending as the Cleveland Barons.