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50 years later: A look back at the NHL’s first expansion draft

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Two weeks shy of the latest expansion draft, the League celebrates a major milestone in its history

NHL: NHL Draft Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Today the National Hockey League celebrates the 50th anniversary of their first expansion draft, which welcomed six new teams to the League in 1967.

Since 1942, the National Hockey League consisted of six teams, dubbed the “Original Six”: the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, and Toronto Maple Leafs.

These teams were hardly the first teams, despite the nickname, as the League went through many iterations before that point, However the League grew steadily under the stability of these six teams, hence the reverence towards this grouping. In fact, the League had reached its previous largest size in 1926 when it was made up of ten teams.

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With stability achieved under the Original Six, President Clarence Campbell wanted to double the size of the League by adding a second division, mainly to reap the financial rewards found in TV licensing deals that have become primary economic drivers for other sporting leagues in the country.

Interest from groups looking to be awarded an expansion franchise came from various sources, including 17 expansion submissions representing 11 different cities that the NHL would have to evaluate.

There were no less than five different groups representing Los Angeles, one from San Francisco-Oakland, two from Pittsburgh, and one each from Minneapolis-St.Paul, St. Louis, Baltimore, Buffalo, Cleveland, Louisville, and Philadelphia. Vancouver was the lone Canadian city represented. The target start date for the new teams was to be the 1967-68 season. The expansion fee would be $2,000,000 for franchise and player rights, plus a guarantee of a further $3,500,000 for costs of operation.

A meeting of the NHL Board of Governors over three days in February 1966 at the St. Regis Hotel in New York heard presentations from each group, of which six were selected to be part of the new division, announced on February 9th, 1966:

  • Los Angeles, led by Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the LA Lakers of the NBA, and minority owner of the Washington Redskins of the NFL. His group was chosen over four other suitors in the Los Angeles area. “I don’t think I could be any happier”, said Cooke. “Hockey should prove to be very popular in the Los Angeles region as there are some 567,000 Canadians who are permanent residents.”
  • Pittsburgh, fronted by Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney and Pennsylvania Senator Jack E. MacGregor. “I am very happy that the League granted us a franchise. We presented our case quite clearly, and we had confidence to be among the chosen,” said MacGregor.
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  • Philadelphia, led by Philadelphia Eagles owner Jerry Wolman and William Putman stated that “We think the promise of building a new arena considerably helped our cause. I wouldn’t go as far to say that we were overconfident, but we had to convince the League that Philadelphia could support a hockey team.”
  • San Francisco-Oakland, fronted by famed American crooner Bing Crosby along with George Flaherty, the owner of the San Francisco Seals of the Western Hockey League and of the Ice Follies.
  • Minneapolis-St. Paul (who would play under the Minnesota monicker) was led by Bernard Ridder, a newspaper magnate, and spokesman Harold McNeely Jr who claimed delight saying that the area was the greatest producer of hockey talent in the United States.
  • St. Louis received a conditional franchise after numerous issues with their bid, including defaulting on payment, no suitable application, and no actual representation at the meeting. This decision raised many eyebrows as a result. The St. Louis group had two months to meet certain demands otherwise Baltimore would be awarded the franchise. St. Louis was deemed geographically preferable, hence why the leniency towards their candidacy, and in fact preferential treatment. The franchise was eventually granted to a group led by financier Sidney Salomon on April 6th, who branded the team the St. Louis Blues.

The decision by the League to ignore Vancouver, the only Canadian bidder, was largely met with criticism from around the country, from politicians to press. The league cited a poor presentation from the group that led to their decision to not grant them a franchise. (Note: It wouldn’t be the last time that Vancouver would be snubbed by the League for expansion either.)

Buffalo’s failure was also considered another major disappointment seeing how quickly the sport of hockey was growing there, but the application was blocked by Maple Leafs President Stafford Smythe on the grounds of its proximity to Toronto.

New arenas would be built in Philadelphia (15,000 seats), Oakland (12,500), Los Angeles (15,000), and Minneapolis-St. Paul (14,500), while existing facilities will be reused in Pittsburgh (12,000) and St. Louis (14,000) with some minor renovations required.

These attendance figures compare favourably with the existing facilities in Chicago (16,666), New York (15,925), Toronto (15,721), Montreal (15,278), and Detroit (15,154), and Boston (13,909).

Montreal Canadiens General Manager Sam Pollock was tasked with coming up with the expansion draft format, with the guiding requirement from President Campbell being that each new team will need a core of established NHL players without depriving current teams from all their talent. The six existing teams is the East Division counted 454 players under contract, plus another 60 players on their negotiation lists. In addition another 200 players were listed on reserve lists, as well as the rights to 692 junior-aged players. Pollock had to parse through all that to come up with the correct formula.

The final rules were ratified at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal on January 18th 1967.

350 players would be made available for the draft, excluding first-year professionals on minor league teams and junior-aged players. Each existing team will be able to protect 11 skaters and a goaltender from their core 20-man rosters. Then, as a player is picked another name would be added to the protection list after the first, second, fifth, and subsequent rounds. The formula was rather convoluted in terms of eligibility as well as order of the draft. The draft would go on until new teams in the West Division had picked 18 skaters or existing teams had lost 18 skaters.

The rules appeared slanted towards protecting existing teams, which would create an imbalance between divisions. However Red Sullivan, head coach of the new Pittsburgh Penguins saw things glass half-full, saying “It took the NHL 50 years to build up to what it is. The expansion division can’t expect to match it in one jump.”

And so, on June 6th, 1967, an expansion draft was held in Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel, where the Los Angeles Kings, California Seals, Minnesota North Stars, St. Louis Blues, Philadelphia Flyers, and Pittsburgh Penguins would build the teams that would go on to compete the following season in the brand new expanded twelve-team National Hockey League. Terry Sawchuk became the first player picked by the Los Angeles Kings from the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Canadiens lost goaltender Charlie Hodge to the California Seals in the first round.

But the story doesn’t end there, as Sam Pollock used the formula that he concocted to his benefit, to protect the interests of the Montreal Canadiens, specifically ensuring that hot prospect Claude Larose remain with the team despite not being on the protection list.

Read about Sam Pollock’s maneuvering and the impact of the expansion draft on the Canadiens here.

Click here to check out the results of the 1967 expansion draft.


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