Published March 2, 2017
Viva Las Vegas!
Yesterday, it became official. The National Hockey League, already bursting at the seams, added its 31st team when the Vegas Golden Knights successfully completed their initiation and became a full-fledged NHL franchise.
The Golden Knights can now sign free agents, make trades and conduct all other league business as do the other 30 clubs.
For whatever reason, the Golden Knights dropped “Las” from their city’s name.
The expansion draft will be held on June 18-20, just past the 50th anniversary of the NHL’s first, ambitious effort to balloon in 1967.
The league was a six-team, rough-and-tumble fraternity, still traveling mostly by train, 50 years ago today.
A western trip meant a game in Chicago. Teams played each other 14 times a season. That meant plenty of opportunities for bad blood and feuds to fester.
That cozy little league was turned on its ear in 1967, when the NHL doubled in size. The draft was held on June 6, 1967.
The trains were idled. Planes became the new mode of transportation, because the NHL became a coast-to-coast entity.
Los Angeles and Oakland were added. The Midwest was further represented by teams in St. Louis and Bloomington, Minnesota. Pennsylvania got two new teams, in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Even the league’s color pallet exploded.
Before the ’67 expansion, NHL uniforms were various forms of brown, yellow, red and blue. That was it.
The new teams sported purple and gold and aqua and orange and baby blue and green.
Canadian hockey fans were annoyed because none of the new teams were based in their country, and hockey was Canada’s national game. Vancouver and Edmonton, especially, were seen as viable NHL cities because both towns had been longtime minor league franchises.
But it was the ownership in Montreal and Toronto who were partially to blame, because they were reluctant to cede any of their popularity in Canada.
The NHL put all of the new teams in their own division, guaranteeing that an expansion club would play in the Stanley Cup Finals. That decision wasn’t terribly popular.
The first 12 guys drafted from the existing NHL teams in 1967 were all goaltenders. The legendary Terry Sawchuk, 38 years old at the time, was the first name called, drafted by the Los Angeles Kings.
Some league observers worried that the NHL was biting off more than it could chew by doubling in size overnight. They feared a watering down of talent. The way baseball was expanding, i.e. gradually, was preferred by those folks.
The 1967 expansion started an avalanche of new teams in the NHL over the next seven years.
Vancouver—finally—was added in 1970, along with Buffalo. Long Island and Atlanta were added in 1972, and Kansas City and Landover, Maryland joined in 1974. The Original Six grew by 200 percent between 1967-74.
In retrospect, NHL’s fetish for expansion produced mixed results.
As expected, the 1968, 1969 and 1970 Finals were all won by Original Six teams, and also not surprisingly, all three series were clean sweeps.
The six new teams added in 1967 eventually batted .667 in terms of survival.
Los Angeles, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia all made it, but Oakland moved to Cleveland in 1976 and eventually that franchise merged with Minnesota in 1978, with the North Stars moving to Dallas in 1993.
The expansion franchises in Vancouver, Buffalo, Long Island (now Brooklyn) and Landover (now DC) all survived, but the Atlanta franchise lasted just seven years before moving to Calgary. Kansas City made it just two seasons before moving to Denver—which eventually moved to New Jersey in 1982.
In 1979, the NHL absorbed four surviving teams from the World Hockey Association (Hartford, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Quebec City) and only Edmonton remains in its original form.
Atlanta had two cracks at the NHL and failed both times. Winnipeg, Minnesota and Denver are all on their second tries. Quebec City wants another kick at the can, too.
The NHL isn’t alone in its checkered history of expansion and franchise movement.
The NBA has also been a league filled with vagabonds and teams that have planted stakes rather than roots.
For its part, Las Vegas has been targeted as an NHL city for several years. But so was just about every other city that’s been awarded a league franchise. And many of them couldn’t hack it.
The NHL now has two teams in the desert, one in Texas and two in Florida. Not to mention three in California. The Golden Knights will be placed in the Pacific Division.
Is the NHL wise to expand?
Historically, the league’s success rate in adding new franchises isn’t the best. But the warm weather climate cities continue to survive, although the Arizona franchise is on, ahem, thin ice.
Expansion rules of today make it easier for teams to cobble together competitive rosters than in the days of 1967, when the new clubs pretty much only had their choice of the Original Six’s scraps and aging veterans.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, last November, expressed confidence in Las Vegas as an NHL entity.
“It’s another opportunity to continue to grow the game. It’s a market of over two million people that has a high visibility. We’re getting a terrific new owner in Bill Foley and a state-of-the-art arena (T-Mobile Arena). I think it’s going to enhance the league’s presence,” Bettman said.
We’ll see. Heretofore, the best thing on ice is Las Vegas has been Scotch and soda.