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Changing the Game

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Changing the Game: A History of NHL Expansion celebrates an often-overlooked aspect of hockey history. The book provides comprehensive coverage of the NHL’s spread across the North American market in the 1920s along with the memorable expansions that began in 1967. Relive some great and painful moments from the debut seasons of forgotten teams such as the Montreal Maroons and California Seals along with fan favorites like the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. Every first-year NHL roster is covered and nearly 100 players share their memories of playing for hard-luck clubs.

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The Original Expansion Era

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THE ORIGINAL EXPANSION ERA

Many fans know that the National Hockey League began play in the 1917–18 season, but few realize that the league was created as a way for a group of previously established National Hockey Association teams to cleanly break away from Eddie Livingstone, the troublemaking owner of the Toronto Blueshirts. Because the other clubs could not, according to the National Hockey Association’s constitution, vote him out, they did the next best thing.

The Ottawa Senators, Quebec Athletics (otherwise known as the Bulldogs) and two teams from Montreal — the Canadiens and the Wanderers — got together to form their own loop, effectively leaving Livingstone in a league by himself and causing years of headaches for both sides. The Bulldogs were unable to drum up enough capital for the first season and their players were loaned to the other clubs. However, the NHL also decided to sell a temporary franchise to the Toronto Arena Company, enticing many Blueshirts players to jump ship. Unofficially called the Arenas, the team went on to capture the Stanley Cup in its first season and became a permanent fixture after the 1918–19 campaign before eventually changing its name to the St. Patricks.

 

The Original Six

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THE ORIGINAL SIX

When the Brooklyn Americans shut down after the 1941–42 season, the NHL was reduced to a roster of clubs that will forever be known as the Original Six — the Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs. For 25 years, these teams were at the pinnacle of the professional hockey world and their owners controlled the game with iron fists.

The early part of this era was marked by the fact that many players were going off to fight in World War II. But at the same time, a new generation of stars was coming to the forefront and the NHL continued to grow in popularity through radio and newspaper coverage. The league brought in Clarence Campbell as its new president in 1946.

Throughout the rest of the 1940s, the rivalry between the Canadiens and Maple Leafs intensified, and it was this rivalry that brought the game to new levels among Canadian fans. The Habs, who often featured the best players out of Quebec, had icons like Maurice Richard heading the charge, but Syl Apps (and later Teeder Kennedy) ranked among the most popular Toronto players. Once the NHL expanded to a 70-game schedule, the two teams met 14 times during the regular season. The intensity spilled off the ice as players did not even acknowledge each other outside of the rink.

 

1967: The Year That Changed Hockey Forever

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1967

The Year that Changed Hockey Forever

Most professional sports leagues in the United States in the 1960s grew tremendously, but the National Hockey League was comparatively slow to expand beyond its beloved Original Six teams and gain a greater market share.

One of the biggest hurdles the game faced in the early 1960s was that it lacked a national television contract in America. In Canada, there was little problem getting air time on radio and television. But at the time, the NHL was regional and simply did not appeal to audiences west of Chicago. Local minor league teams had strong followings, however, and the Western Hockey League was considered a major threat on the west coast.

Team owners were finally convinced by William M. Jennings that to head off a catastrophe, they needed to double their membership to 12 teams. Clarence Campbell announced these intentions in March 1965. Some of the cities deemed acceptable or potential sites for new clubs included Vancouver, San Francisco-Oakland, Los Angeles and St. Louis. Less than a year later, the NHL was presented with 14 different applications — five from Los Angeles, two from Pittsburgh and one each from Philadelphia, San Francisco-Oakland, Baltimore, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Buffalo and Vancouver.

 

The Expansion Era

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THE EXPANSION ERA

Successes and Failures

Once the first expansion season was over and the grand experiment considered a success for the most part, it was only natural that the NHL would look to the future and continue to bring big-league hockey to more North American markets.

The seeds for future expansion were sown during the 1967–68 campaign when the troubled California Seals were being shopped around by Barry Van Gerbig. A move to Vancouver or Buffalo was heavily rumoured early on but was shot down by the NHL Board of Governors. Both cities had been shut out in the first round of expansion, but their persistence meant that the league approved both locations (and avoided a potentially costly legal bill or two) when the league was ready to grow to 14 teams at the start of the 1970–71 campaign.

Both communities had a very strong minor league presence with the WHL’s Canucks and the AHL’s Bisons and received a great deal of support from local hockey fans from the start — even if the on-ice product needed some time to become a success. The Buffalo Sabres, who had former Toronto Maple Leafs coach and general manager Punch Imlach running the show, became a contender sooner than the Canucks and made the playoffs for the first time in 1972–73 with young stars Gilbert Perreault, Richard Martin and Rene Robert forming the legendary French Connection line.

 

Two Leagues Find Peace

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TWO LEAGUES FIND PEACE

Seven seasons of war between two rival hockey leagues helped define the sport in the 1970s, but it was a conflict that caused a great deal of collateral damage for both the NHL and the WHA. Although player salaries finally increased to a respectable level for the era, the on-ice product began to suffer and there was a frenzy of franchises shifting and going under.

There were several attempts at striking a compromise throughout the decade, but it often seemed as if they were merely talk instead of serious negotiations. The WHA’s first attempt to discuss the idea came in 1977, and they proposed that six member clubs (Cincinnati, Edmonton, Houston, New England, Quebec and Winnipeg) join the NHL, bringing their membership to 24 teams. The NHL Board of Governors discussed the idea internally, but it was turned down flatly.

A year later, talks began again without the soon-to-fold Houston Aeros and the WHA faced rejection again. Out of desperation, ownership in Houston attempted to come in on their own as an expansion team and even offered to buy an existing team with the intention of relocation. Once again, the NHL balked, since they were already dealing with an internal merger of the Cleveland Barons and Minnesota North Stars.

 

A New Era of Expansion and Relocation

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A NEW ERA OF EXPANSION AND RELOCATION

Once the Colorado Rockies became the New Jersey Devils in 1982–83, the NHL experienced the calmest era of its post-expansion years, and there was no team movement of any kind for nearly a decade. It was a time that saw the end of the four-year stranglehold on the Stanley Cup by the New York Islanders and the rise of the Edmonton Oilers, who won five championships over a seven-season span.

Not long after the end of the 1987–88 season, the most significant trade in hockey history took place when Wayne Gretzky was sent to the Los Angeles Kings on August 9, 1988. The deal was regarded as the best thing for the NHL’s hopes of expanding, as the Great One was exposed to a whole new audience in California and the game began to garner interest in non-traditional markets.

At the time, the NHL was drafting up some long-term plans to expand its membership from 21 teams to 30 by the end of the 1990s. While specific locations were not named, there were certainly hopes that some of these new clubs would come from warmer locales.

 

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