Hockey has had an interesting history with the San Francisco Bay Area. While the San Jose Sharks are the most established hockey franchise in the Bay Area, they have only been around since 1991. Before the Sharks, there were several now defunct hockey teams located between Oakland and San Francisco. The most successful of those teams was the California Golden Seals who were the first NHL team to take residence in the Bay Area. This is their story.
The Golden Seals were born in 1961 when the WHL decided to expand to San Francisco. Former Vancouver Canucks owner Coleman Hall was awarded the franchise on condition that an ice surface would be installed in the Cow Palace. With that being done, they became the Bay Area’s first professional hockey team since the San Francisco Shamrocks folded in 1950. In order to gain local attraction, they were named after the San Francisco Seals, the long established minor league team which had left the city a decade earlier.
After several years, the NHL was looking to squash the WHL and decided to invite the Seals to the more established league. Recently purchased by Barry Van Gerbig, they were officially rebranded the Oakland Seals in 1967 and played in the newly built Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena.
As an expansion team, they were expected to be lackluster at best; they did not disappoint in that sentiment, finishing with a dismal 15-42-17 record. Head coach Bert Olmstead didn’t even last the full season, stepping down after 64 games. However, not all was lost as they were armed with several players who would be mainstays with the franchise. These mainstays included defenseman Bert Marshall and right wing Gerry Ehman. Right wing Bill Hicke led the team with 21 goals that year while Ehman came in second with 19 of his own. Charlie Hodge was their primary goalie in their inaugural season, giving up 2.86 goals per game.
Coming Back Stronger
The Seals were better in 1968-1969, winning 29 games. However, their defense was worse, with their best goalie, Gary Smith, giving up 2.97 goals per game. Center Norm Ferguson led the team with 34 goals while five others scored at least 20 goals. They even made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, but lost in the first round to the Los Angeles Kings in seven games.
The Seals weren’t as dominant in 1969-1970, winning just 22 games and barely making the playoffs. Hall of Fame defenseman Harry Howell joined the team that offseason and contributed four goals over the course of the season. The Seals didn’t score as much that year with just two players eclipsing 20 goals, center Earl Ingarfield and defenseman Carl Vadnais. They were even worse on defense, with Smith giving up 3.11 goals per game. Once again, they lost in the first round; this time in a four game sweep to the Pittsburgh Penguins. They would never reach the playoffs again.
Prior to the 1970-1971 season, Oakland A’s owner Charlie O. Finley purchased the Seals, renaming them the California Golden Seals. Despite wearing green and gold jerseys as well as memorable white skates for the season, the Golden Seals struggled to gain an audience as they finished at the bottom of the league with a 20-53-5 record. They would have had the first pick in the 1971 NHL Draft but had traded that pick as well as Francois Lacomb to the Montreal Canadians. The Canadians then drafted Guy Lafleur who would go on to a Hall of Fame career. Just like his ownership style with the A’s, Finley refused to pay competitive salaries to his players compared to the rival WHA and as a result, things went from bad to worse as five of their top ten scorers left for greener pastures.
Things didn’t get much better the next four years with the team winning in succession 21, 16, 13 and 19 games. Finley gave up on the team and finding no takers, sold the franchise to the NHL in February of 1974. With no owner other than the NHL, the Golden Seals days were numbered. Their last year was the 1975-1976 season with the team missing the playoffs by a full seven games, winning 27 games, the most they had won since 1969. Following that final season, the Golden Seals moved to Cleveland to become the Barons. After a series of mergers and moves, they are now known as the Dallas Stars.