June 6, 1967. If you are an old-time hockey fan, or a purist, that date is a day of infamy. If you are of the more modern generation, you likely think of it as the day that the Original Six became 12. No matter how you view the date, it is the day on which the National Hockey League changed forever. Like it or not, it was a natural step in the evolution of the league.
The Great Expansion of 1967
With the NHL’s announcement this week that another expansion process has begun, we will look at the grand-daddy of all expansions, the Great Expansion of 1967.
On March 11, 1965 the NHL announced it would double in size by way of expanding the league to 12 teams. The six new franchises were to play in a separate division, with an interlocking schedule providing limited competition with the six established teams.
Twelve Cities Wanted NHL Teams
The league went through a difficult process to determine where the six new clubs would be located. Twelve cities immediately expressed interest in joining the NHL fraternity. Vancouver was a leader in making very public statements about joining the league. However, the west coast city had turned down a bid by Toronto Maple Leaf owners Stafford Smythe and Harold Ballard to build an NHL-quality arena in downtown Vancouver. That effectively ended any chance for a franchise in Canada’s west, although that fact was never publicly admitted.
The league ended up granting franchises to Los Angeles, the bay area of San Francisco – Oakland, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and St. Louis. The curious fact about this list was that St. Louis had no ownership group apply for a franchise. The granting of a franchise to a city without a qualified owner contravened the acceptance conditions the NHL itself had put forth. But, as always with the NHL Board of Governors, there was more to the story.
No St. Louis Application
James Norris Jr., the principal owner of the Chicago Black Hawks, had a great deal of interest in having a club in St. Louis — Norris owned the arena in St. Louis.
It was an older facility but did barely meet the minimum requirements as set out by the NHL for an expansion arena. Norris also knew that for expansion to be finally approved, the league constitution required a unanimous vote in favour by the governors.
Norris wanted to be rid of the albatross that was the St. Louis Arena and simply informed the other governors that they would approve a St. Louis franchise and make it a condition that the new owners must purchase the St. Louis building from him at a previously stated price. It was either that or he would veto the league’s expansion project.
With no recourse, the other governors approved Norris’ plan and St. Louis became an NHL city.
Expansion Fee: $2 Million
The NHL meetings in June 1967 was the occasion where the franchises would receive formal admission to the league. On June 5, 1967, each expansion team would issue a check for $2 million, payable to one of the established teams. For example, Philadelphia signed over their $2 million expansion fee to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The bulk of that day was taken up with firming up the expansion draft process. Established teams had until 5 pm that afternoon to file their protected list of 11 skaters and one goaltender. The draft was to be held the very next morning.
Draft Order Picked From the Stanley Cup
The next morning began with Clarence Campbell determining the order of drafting. Goalkeepers were to be drafted first, the order determined by Campbell, who drew the names of the teams from the Stanley Cup.
The order drawn by Campbell would be the order of selection for that first round, and the order would change for every subsequent round. The idea was to give every team the first pick in a round.
Kings First – Sawchuk Their Man
The first team drawn by Campbell was the Los Angeles Kings. A beaming Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the club, did not hesitate and announced that Terry Sawchuk would be the first player chosen in the expansion draft. The teams would select two goaltenders before moving on to the skaters.
Some very big name goaltenders were selected. Bernie Parent, a highly touted youngster with one pro season under his belt, went second to Philadelphia, from the Boston Bruins. Chicago great Glenn Hall was next, to St. Louis. Other goalies picked in that first round were Cesare Maniago by Minnesota, Joe Daley to Pittsburgh and Charlie Hodge by the California Seals.
North Stars Took Dave Balon (?!)
The skater portion of the draft was where the real drama took place. Wren Blair, the North Stars general manager held the first pick. Blair surprised almost everyone present by announcing the name of Montreal left winger Dave Balon as his first pick. It would later be revealed that Blair and Montreal GM Sam Pollock had worked out a side deal before the selections began in which Blair agreed to take Balon so that Pollock could freeze forward Claude Larose. After the draft was over, the North Stars announced they had acquired several minor league players from Montreal.
Kelly to Coach Kings
The other piece of high drama involved the Toronto Maple Leafs and Los Angeles Kings. Three weeks earlier, Toronto forward Red Kelly had announced that he was retiring from the playing ranks and that he had been offered the position of coach with the Kings. Punch Imlach, Toronto’s general manager, held Kelly’s rights and informed the Kings that they would have to draft Kelly with their first skater pick, or Imlach would freeze him when the opportunity arose.
Cooke felt this was grossly unfair and simply refused. As the draft started, Imlach offered to trade Kelly to the Kings if they would draft Boom Boom Geoffrion from the New York Rangers. Leafs would take Geoffrion in exchange for the rights to Kelly. The Kings did not draft either Geoffrion or Kelly.
Imlach waited until the 10th round. After minor-league defenceman Daryl Edestrand was taken by St. Louis, Imlach filled with Kelly. Cooke was at first dumbfounded, then livid. Kelly, who was in the back of the room observing the proceedings, was visibly upset.
“I’m shocked” Kelly said to those sitting near him. “I’m going to see the Prime Minister about this.”
Cooke said he had a pre-arranged agreement with the Leafs that he could take Kelly at any time during the draft. Imlach said that no such deal existed and he was simply exercising his rights under the draft rules.
Toronto president Stafford Smythe was even more blunt when responding to Cooke’s complaints:
“If Cooke thinks he can come into this league and push everybody around, he’s got another thing coming. What does Cooke think I am, a nincompoop? Kelly belongs to us and Cooke’s got to learn that we are accustomed to getting paid for what we give up. We had no moral obligation or legal agreement or any tape-recorded statements of any deals or commitments of any kind with Cooke.”
After the draft, Toronto offered Kelly and a young goaltender in their organization to the Kings for Sawchuk. Cooke would not even dignify the offer with a reply.
Imlach left Cooke and Kelly twisting in the wind for a couple of days. The Leafs finally relented, accepting defenceman Ken Block from Los Angeles in a trade for Kelly’s rights. Block would never play for Toronto.
The drafting was completed by late afternoon with all participants claiming to be overjoyed with the results. Immediately after the draft was finished and over the next couple of days several player trades were announced but none involved household names.
Minnesota’s Blair announced he had acquired Andre Boudrias, Mike McMahon and Bob Charlebois from Montreal for “other considerations”, ostensibly the extending Montreal the courtesy of not taking Larose with that first pick.
St. Louis, who had taken defenceman Rod Seiling from the Rangers, immediately traded him back to New York for four players – Bob Plager, Gary Sabourin, Tim Ecclestone and Gord Kannegeisser.
Pittsburgh, who had taken Larry Jeffrey from Toronto, flipped him to New York for four minor leaguers, none of whom would distinguish himself in the NHL.
Early assessments had the Seals and Flyers having done the best jobs of drafting, with the Kings being the absolute worst – Milt Dunnell of the Toronto Stars said “The Los Angeles Kings are clowns.”
At the end of this momentous day, the NHL landscape had changed forever. Was it successful? The answer to that question is still subject to debate some 48 years later. That’s a discussion for another time.