A largely "sink-or-swim'' approach by the NHL to its expansion and merger franchises since 1967 has seen nearly a third relocated from their original cities. But new draft rules and stricter arena requirements are there to provide fledgling teams a greater shelf life.
Tom McVei didn’t actually coach the Washington Capitals during their horrific debut season 44 years ago, but nonetheless got a firsthand view of their expansion turmoil.
They’d already gone through three head coaches and a general manager when owner Abe Polin asked McVei for help partway through their second season in 1975-76. After a franchise-worst 8-67-5 record the prior year, they were in the midst of 37 consecutive road defeats when McVie took over behind the bench.
“It was awful, believe me,’’ said McVie, 83, the former Seattle Totems minor-leaguer and a longtime resident of Camas, Wash. “It was just brutal to get pounded every night.’’
The Capitals won only 11 times that second season, providing a future showcase for why National Hockey League expansion rules eventually changed. The Vegas Golden Knights making the Stanley Cup final last season came after a half-century of a mostly sink-or-swim approach to expansion franchises.
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“To see what happened with Vegas is just unbelievable,’’ McVei said. “They gave them some players that can play. They didn’t give us any. We didn’t have any players that could play for a good team like Montreal back then.’’
McVie said Polin was prepared to give the franchise back to the league until the Caps improved slightly, winning 41 games the next two seasons combined before McVie was fired.
He became a coach of the Winnipeg Jets and GM of the New Jersey Devils and continues to scout for the Boston Bruins, earning his first Stanley Cup ring with them in 2011 — seven years before the Capitals won their first championship.
NHL fans typically view expansion as what happened following the “Original Six’’ era — which began when the 1942 demise of the Brooklyn Americans left the league with just the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers and Bruins the next 25 years.
Finally, in 1967-68, NHL owners undertook the biggest expansion in pro sports, doubling to 12 teams. It vaulted professional hockey to new prominence and the league will grow to 32 teams when Seattle launches in 2021.
But expansion hasn’t always gone smoothly.
Of 22 expansion franchises since 1967, five relocated and one of those later folded. Four teams also were added through a 1979-80 “merger’’ with the now-defunct World Hockey Association — the Hartford Whalers, Edmonton Oilers, Jets and Quebec Nordiques — and only the Oilers haven’t relocated.
With nearly a third of NHL expansion and merger franchises failing in their original markets, prospective owners now demand more favorable rules to compete faster. After all, they’ve had 50 years of trial and error to learn from.
Philadelphia Flyers, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins, California Seals and Minnesota North Stars added
Upon this first expansion foray, the NHL split the league into two divisions — allowing one to consist entirely of first-year teams — and had the winners of each meet for the Stanley Cup. This created the dubious scenario of an expansion team, the Blues, coached by up-and-comer Scotty Bowman and featuring ex-Seattle Totems star Noel Picard on defense, reaching the final their first three years.
But the Blues went 0-12 in finals games, were outscored 43-17 and caused the NHL to change its Cup qualifying format.
The Flyers were this expansion’s success. With former Seattle Ironmen defenseman Fred Shero as coach and ex-Totems coach Keith Allen as GM, the brawling “Broad Street Bullies’’ won two Stanley Cup titles in the mid-1970s and have since made the finals six more times.
“Playing there was the biggest honor of my career,’’ said Aberdeen, Wash., native Wayne Hicks, 81, a member of the debut-year expansion Flyers coached by Allen and the franchise’s first U.S.-born player. “You felt like a pioneer at times. Everything we did was about selling the game, and the fans really responded well.’’
The Penguins have four Stanley Cup titles — two more than the Flyers — and lost another final. But it took them 23 years to win a championship after staving off bankruptcy and relocation rumors.
The terrible Seals relocated to Cleveland as the “Barons’’ in 1976 before folding and merging players into the North Stars. Minnesota’s franchise nearly folded before the 1978 merger, then made the final in 1980-81 and 1990-91, before relocating to Dallas in 1993 when it couldn’t secure a new arena.
Finally, the Los Angeles Kings saw ex-Seattle Totems winger and current Washington resident Howie Hughes score their first goal at The “Fabulous” Forum in January 1968. But they didn’t reach the Cup final until their 25th season in 1992-93 after importing Wayne Gretzky in 1988 in the biggest trade in NHL history. They finally won the Cup in 2011-12 and in 2013-14.
“It’s one of my proudest moments,’’ said Tim Leiweke, the Kings president for their first championship and now heading the Oak View Group company conducting the KeyArena renovation for Seattle’s incoming team. “That one was a long time in coming.’’
Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks added
This expansion worked well, though neither team has a championship in nearly 50 years of play. Buffalo made the final in Year 5 in 1974-75 behind its “French Connection” line of Gilbert Perrault, Rick Martin and Rene Robert. The Sabres lost the 1998-99 final to Dallas on a Brett Hull “in-the-crease’’ triple-overtime winner in Game 6 — the most controversial non-penalty-call in NHL history.
The Canucks picked ex-Seattle Totems stalwart Orland Kurtenbach as their first captain and weren’t known for much until surprisingly making the final against the dynastic Islanders in 1981-82. They’ve since participated in two memorable seven-game championship series against the Rangers in 1993-94 and Boston in 2010-11.
New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames added
The Islanders under GM Bill Torrey reached the playoffs their third year and won four consecutive Stanley Cup titles starting in 1979-80 with six future Hall of Fame players and coach Al Arbour. After reaching their fifth consecutive final in 1984, they’ve never been back. Beset by financial woes, they left Long Island, N.Y., for Brooklyn in 2015. They plan a 2021 move into a Belmont Park Arena project in Elmont, N.Y., that Leiweke’s Oak View Group is partnering on.
Flames’ fans gave a standing ovation for the first icing call of the team’s 1972 home opener. It was all downhill from there support-wise despite the Flames making the playoffs in their second season and six of eight campaigns. They relocated to Calgary in 1980.
Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts added
Their years-long expansion woes well-documented, the Capitals became a perennial playoff team by the 1980s. They reached their first Stanley Cup final in 1997-98 and two decades later captured their first championship over the Golden Knights.
Kansas City relocated to Colorado after two seasons. The Rockies, equally disastrous, moved to New Jersey after the 1981-82 season and became the Devils.
San Jose Sharks added
Bolstered by 15 players from the Minnesota North Stars after an owner swap, they still won an abysmal 28 games their first two seasons. But they made the playoffs their third and fourth campaigns under future Everett Silvertips junior coach Kevin Constantine and have missed the playoffs only four times the past 24 years — albeit making the Cup final just once in 2015-16.
Among the franchise’s greats is former Seattle Thunderbirds junior star Patrick Marleau.
Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning added
Ottawa adopted the name of the city’s perennial Stanley Cup team from decades earlier, but went 10-70-4 their debut season and won just 33 games its first three years — 10 fewer than the expansion Caps that same time frame. The Senators made the Stanley Cup final in 2006-07, but are an ongoing small-market concern in terms of competitiveness.
Tampa Bay missed the playoffs nine of its first 10 seasons, but won a championship in 2004 before teetering financially. New owner Jeff Vinik and CEO Tod Leiweke turned the business around and got the squad back to the final in 2015.
Florida Panthers and Anaheim Mighty Ducks added
The Panthers had the best first season ever at the time, going 33-34-17, and made the Stanley Cup final their third year. But they’ve made the playoffs only four times in 22 years since and have been an ongoing relocation candidate.
Anaheim’s franchise, built off a popular Walt Disney Co. movie starring Emilio Estevez, was considered a gimmick team after making the playoffs just twice their first nine seasons. But they reached the Stanley Cup final in 2002-03. After a sale of the team by Disney to Henry and Susan Samueli, the “Mighty” part of its name was dropped ahead of 2006-07 and the Ducks beat Ottawa for their first Cup title that season.
Nashville Predators added
The Predators missed the playoffs their first five seasons, but took off as the city of Nashville exploded business-wise. The Predators missed the playoffs only three times the next 14 years and reached their first Cup final in 2016-17.
Atlanta Thrashers added
The Atlanta expansion mistake from the 1970s was repeated, with the Thrashers again playing to empty seats. Went just 14-57-7 their inaugural season and reached the playoffs once in 11 seasons before relocating to Winnipeg in 2011.
Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets added
Current Seattle team CEO Tod Leiweke was president of the Wild its expansion year when GM Doug Risebrough hired former Montreal teammate Jacques Lemaire as coach. “We knew we were going to end up with a team that’s not what we would consider the best, so we needed a fantastic and experienced coach,’’ Leiweke said of Lemaire, who’d coached New Jersey to a title in 1995.
Lemaire got the Wild into the conference championship his third season, helping fans reconnect with the NHL, though the team has yet to go that deep again.
Columbus didn’t make the playoffs until its eighth season, going to the conference final. The Blue Jackets have had only three playoff appearances since, though they did have two in the past two years and a 50-victory campaign in 2016-17.
Vegas Golden Knights added
With a favorable expansion draft and shrewd trades by GM George McPhee, the Knights stunned the sports world by reaching the Cup final before losing to Washington. Their off-ice exploits saw them play to packed houses at their main arena and practice facility.