In the near-century that the NHL has been in existence, 19 teams have skated off the ice never to return. That may seem like a low number in such a long time frame, but 10 of the 19 were in the last 35 years or so. Like any other business, a franchise can fail for a myriad of reasons:
War: (Hockey is not the most important thing.)
The Brooklyn Americans, already struggling financially for many of their 17 seasons, saw a large portion of their active roster go overseas to fight the Nazis.
Prior to their eighth game in the NHL's first season the Montreal Wanderers' (who existed in the NHA for 14 fire-free seasons) arena burned down. The 1-5-0 team was left homeless. With a name like the Wanderers one would think that they'd be okay with playing the rest of the schedule on the road. Not so much, as the team folded in 1918.
Global economic crisis: (Can't see the puck when the power gets shut off.)
The Great Depression claimed not only unsuccessful startup teams such as the Pittsburgh Pirates (who lasted one more season as the Philadelphia Quakers), but also established clubs such as the Montreal Maroons and Ottawa Senators (who spent one more futile season as the St. Louis Eagles).
Labor unrest: (Quitters never win.)
The franchise that began as the Quebec Athletic Club lasted for one season there before becoming the Hamilton Tigers. The Tigers folded when their players went on strike, 42 years before the formation of the NHLPA.
"Financial struggle": (A Chronology of expansion, absorption, relocation, contraction, failure.)
The basic failure to generate revenue is the primary culprit in the modern era.
The tale of expansion is interwoven with the tale of franchise failure.
When the NHL expanded in 1967, potential television sponsors insisted on two west-coast teams. The Chicago Blackhawks franchise insisted on a team in St. Louis. Two teams in Pennsylvania and one in Minnesota seemed logical. Thus were born the "Class of '67," the California Seals, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Minnesota North Stars. The League added two more teams in 1970, both of which seemed like logical hockey spots: the Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks.
Throughout both of these expansions, several cities were jilted in their bids to secure NHL franchises, and so two gentlemen by the names of Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson decided to capitalize on that. They formed the World Hockey Association (WHA) as a rival league to put franchises in cities that were not accepted into the NHL and, in some cases, to exist as an alternative in established NHL cities. This prompted the NHL to hastily add two more teams in 1972, essentially to keep the WHA away from large untapped markets. Thus were born the Atlanta Flames and New York Islanders.
The WHA lured star players from the NHL with higher salaries, securing stars like Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe and Gerry Cheevers. Even Wayne Gretzky, at the time not old enough to play in the NHL, got his start in the WHA. For one hot minute it was a real rival to the NHL, far beyond the rivalry today posed by the KHL in Russia.
In 1974, perhaps in another attempt to thwart WHA dominance, the Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts were added. Both leagues battled for a thin dollar for 7 years. The WHA saw numerous clubs fold, relocate and merge in that time, and only 3 of the eventual 30 teams to have a WHA charter existed for the entire 1972-9 run of the league. Four of those teams never even managed to play a single game.
Erstwhile, the NHL wasn't just sitting back and laughing at the misfortunes of their increasingly comedic upstart rival. They had issues of their own. The great idea of having two teams in California turned out to not be so great. The Kings managed to pay the bills, but the Seals did not. Frequently changing arenas and names (at various times being known as the California Seals, Oakland Seals and California Golden Seals), the team eventually left for Ohio and became the Cleveland Barons in 1976. The Barons fared no better, lasting until 1978 when they merged with another struggling expansion team, the Minnesota North Stars. The Barons ceased operations and the North Stars continued on for a while. In the meantime, continued financial failures killed the Kansas City Scouts in 1976, and they relocated to Denver to continue as the Colorado Rockies.
When the WHA finally decided to give up in 1979, they accepted a merger agreement with the NHL. Of the 8 teams to start the last WHA season, the Indianapolis Racers and Houston Aeros packed it in before the season's end. This is significant because the Racers sold (yes, sold) rookie Wayne Gretzky to the Edmonton Oilers. The NHL agreed to absorb 4 of the 6 remaining franchises, contingent at the WHA's insistence that the 3 remaining Canadian franchises be included.
A season removed from the Cleveland Barons failure the NHL dissolved the Cincinnati Stingers. Seeing no point to the continued existence of a team in the hockey hotbed of Alabama, the Birmingham Bulls were also dissolved. As such, the Edmonton Oilers (with that Gretzky guy), Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques were welcomed into the NHL for the 1980 season, along with the Hartford (nee New England) Whalers.
All was not right with the hockey world just yet though. Prior to that 1980 season the Atlanta Flames burned their way northwest to Calgary, creating an instant rivalry with their fellow new-arrivals in Edmonton. In 1982 the Rockies' mounting financial struggles caught up with them and they became the New Jersey Devils. For the next 7 seasons things went smoothly. All 20 franchises seemed stable.
The Islanders franchise was coming out of the dynasty years and from 1984-1990 a Canadian club won the Stanley Cup every year. From 1983-1990 an Alberta-based team was involved in the Finals every year. Franchises in Los Angeles, Washington and St. Louis were still, to a degree, considered nontraditional markets. Curiosities, even. Nobody dreamed of hockey in swamps (except New Jersey) or deserts.That all changed on August 9, 1988.
It was unprecedented. Unheard of. Unthinkable. Unreasonable. Impossible.
Where were you when JFK was shot? When Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon? What were you doing when the World Trade Center fell? It was one of those moments. Where were you when Wayne Gretzky was traded...to the Los Angeles Kings?
Nearly a quarter-century after the fact it is hard to relate to the significance of that moment, particularly to Canadian hockey fans.
In any other major sport there is debate over who was the best-ever: Babe Ruth or Ted Williams? Joe Montana or Brett Favre? Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant? In hockey there is only one: The Great One. And he was traded. Not only traded, but traded to a team that many felt no business being in the league. Not only in Edmonton, not only in Alberta, but all across Canada there was a sense of shock and a feeling of betrayal. Ask any Canadian old enough to remember. They'll know where they were at that moment, August 9, 1988. Oilers owner Peter
Pocklington was burned in effigy. The Canadian federal government tried to legally intercede and prevent it. But it happened. Suddenly people in Los Angeles knew that they had a hockey team. That moment helped forge the NHL we know today. (continued in part 2)
©2012 Chad McGinn & Black Out Risk.