By Rob Ficiur
Fifty years ago, on February 9, 1966, the National Hockey League voted to expand from six to twelve teams. The new teams would begin playing a year later, in the 1967-68 season. The National Hockey Legue would never be the same as it went from regional hockey league to eventually have teams across North America.
From 1932-1936 the NHL consisted of nine teams. Eventually the Ottawa Senators (who moved to become the Philadelphia Eagles), the New York Americans and the Montreal Maroons ceased operations. From 1942 until 1967 the NHL consisted of the six teams we now call the “original six” teams.
Talk of expansion was brought up after World War 2. Even by 1966 not all of the owners were in favor of expanding the league. There was concern that the talent pool would be depleted if there were twice as many players. (What would those worried about diluted talent think about a 32 team NHL?)
By the early 1960’s the NHL did not have a national television contract in the United States. It was felt that they never would have a deal until there were teams in other areas of the United States besides the North East. When the NHL did get an American television deal one of the conditions was that there be two expansion teams in California.
The Western Hockey League had seven teams in Western Canada and Untied States. If they chose to expand into areas such as Los Angeles and San Francisco some NHL officials feared this professional hockey league might someday provide competition for the six team NHL. I have heard some people say that this Western Hockey League had many players who were nearly as good as NHL players. If there was a fraction of truth to this, a well-run Western Hockey League could have out marketed and out maneuvered a very stagnant NHL.
Where to Expand?
It was determined early on that the NHL expansion would include two teams in each of the Pacific, Central and Eastern time zones. There was competition for these teams when as many as twelve cities wanted to be in the 1967 NHL expansion. There are some interesting stories about why some cities were and were not chosen for an expansion team.
-Vancouver was seen as a sure thing to be part of the 1967 expansion. However when city turned down a bid by the owners of the Toronto Maple Leaf owners to build an arena for that new team the NHL put off Vancouver’s entry into the league. Prime Minister Lester Pearson was outraged that a hockey loving Canada did not get another team.
-The St. Louis Blues were accepted as a 1967 expansion team even though no ownership group had come forward and proposed team for that city. NHL expansion required the unanimous approval of all six existing owners. James Norris, the owner of the Chicago Black Hawks, owned an arena in St. Louis that met the minimum requirements for a new team. He insisted that the new St. Louis team would need to purchase the St. Louis arena if /when they bought the team.
-Baltimore, Buffalo, Louisville Kentucky and Cleveland were among the other cities that showed some interest in getting a team.
How well did the 1967 expansion work?
-The San Francisco franchise was supposed to play in a brand new arena. This arena was never built. While the Western Hockey League team was drawing many fans in the San Francisco area, it was they never drew fans in Oakland. The book Shorthanded: The Untold Story of the Seals: Hockey’s Most Colorful Team described how mismanagement on and off the rink lead to the team moving to Cleveland after eight unsuccessful seasons. The team merged with the Minnesota North Stars two years later.
-The six expansion teams played in their western division the first three seasons. The idea was the shelter the expansion teams from the more established (and more talented) existing teams. In the playoffs the Western Division champion played the Eastern Division champion for the Stanley Cup. The real Stanley Cup final became the Eastern Division final. In those three years the Eastern Champion won each of the league finals in four straight games.
-Four of the 1967 expansion teams won at least one Stanley Cup. The Minnesota North Stars had moved to Dallas by the time they won their championship. The St. Louis Blues, the Stanley Cup finalist the first three years, have never been back to the championship round since.
The NHL has more than doubled since the 1967 expansion. Today the NHL is considering expanding to Quebec City and Las Vegas. The 1967 expansion fee was $2 million per team. New expansion teams are looking at paying $200 million; one hundred times what was paid fifty years ago.
Expansion teams create excitement and big money no matter the year.