Saturday, November 11, 2017

Review of "The California Golden Seals"

This franchise had a very colorful history and very poor record on the ice, yet it had one of the most memorable gimmicks in hockey - white skates for the players.  They had a colorful history that should be told and passed down to future generations of hockey fans, and this book by Steve Currier does just that.  Here is my review of "The California Golden Seals"

“The California Golden Seals: A Tale of White Skates, Red Ink, and One of the NHL’s Most Outlandish Teams” by Steve Currier
Ice Hockey, professional, history, Seals
Publish date:
November 1, 2017

496 pages

5 of 5 stars (Outstanding)
In 1967, the NHL doubled in size from six teams to twelve. Dubbed “The Great Expansion”, the league wanted to place teams in markets where they could be successful.  The San Francisco Bay area had supported its minor league Seals team in the Western Hockey League and as a result, the area was awarded one of the six expansion franchises.  The colorful history of this NHL franchise, with all of its ups and downs, is captured in this wonderful account by Steve Currier.

The Seals never had a winning record in their 11 years of existence, which includes the last two seasons as the Cleveland Barons. There were flashes of great play, such as in the team’s second season when they posted their best record, finishing second in the West Division (that consisted of all six expansion teams) with 69 points and making the playoffs. They followed that up with another trip to the playoffs in 1970, getting swept in the first round. The team was also in playoff contention for the 1971-72 season but failed to make the playoffs and never made it back. This lack of success on the ice translated into poor attendance, as the Seals were dead last in attendance every season of their existence.

The reasons for this lack of success are many and varied. Currier leaves no stone unturned when writing about why this happened, as he interviews former team officials, broadcasters, players and long-time suffering Seals fans. One theory for the club’s poor attendance is that they played their games in Oakland, which many in San Francisco considered a second class town. Poor marketing throughout the entire history of the team is also frequently mentioned.  The revolving door of ownership didn’t help either, but as many players and historians do, Currier saves the worst of his criticism for one particular owner, Charlie O. Finley.

After purchasing the floundering hockey team in 1970, he proceeded to try to use some of the same gimmicks that made his baseball team in Oakland a success. The Athletics had some of the most colorful uniforms in baseball and Finley tried to copy that formula over to the Seals. He had the players wear white skates, which was a disaster. Currier writes rich stories, especially from the players, about those skates.  It was noted that often the skates had to be painted white and each coat of additional paint added to the weight of the skate.  One player felt the skates weighed “fifty pounds.” 

The stories about the skates overshadowed the ultimate problem for the franchise – the lack of funds.  Finley was one of only several owners who had this issue but he received the most attention about this in the book as well as in the press.  His penny-pinching ways are blamed for the Seals losing 11 players to the new World Hockey Association in 1972, breaking up what was a promising team on the ice.  After Finley sold the team in 1974, the happier days were never found, as the team was run by the NHL for stretches at a time.  The days in the Bay Area ended in April 1976 as the Seals moved to Cleveland after George and Gordon Gund invested in the team but even in Cleveland, it was more of the same results – many losses and few fans.  The franchise ended its history by merging with the Minnesota North Stars in 1978.

Of course, Currier writes about many of the players who played for the Seals and Barons and many of whom are fondly remembered to this day by some of the team’s fans.  Players like Jay Johnstone, Denis Maruk, Gilles Meloche, Gary Simmons (nicknamed “Cobra” for his artistic goalie mask), Ted Hampson, and Bill Hicke are only a small fraction of the many players who wore the green and gold sweaters of the Seals. Their stories are a joy to read, mostly funny and always entertaining.  Most of them speak fondly of the few hearty fans who came out to the games, but speak not so well about owners, especially those who played for Finley.

While the Seals were not a success on the ice or on the business pages, they left their mark in hockey history and their story is one that should be told.  Currier does this in an entertaining manner and any hockey fan who wants to learn anything about this franchise should read this book.

I wish to thank University of Nebraska Press for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

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  1. Interesting! The only thing I hear about the Seals these days are those white skates. Must have been interesting to watch them.

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