“When money got tight tight tight with Trans-National, Whitey Ford would hop on a plane with a bag of cash and fly out so they could meet the payroll,” Len Shapiro, the Seals’ former public relations director, said.
The Seals had four ownership groups in less than a decade, along with a period of league control and a disastrous move to Cleveland in 1976. (The Cleveland Barons folded two years later.)
Even in Philadelphia, now a financially robust hockey market, a procession to welcome the team in 1967 had a woeful turnout of around 30 fans.
“We had more people on the float than we had watching us,” said goalie Bernie Parent, who played for the Flyers and the Philadelphia Blazers of the World Hockey Association.
Flyers defenseman Joe Watson recalled that the mayor did not show up to a planned meeting with the team later that day. Further calamity befell the Flyers when the roof of their arena deteriorated and they had to play the final 14 games of their inaugural season away from home.
But hockey would soon take off in Philadelphia as the Flyers developed both talent and a bellicose identity as the Broad Street Bullies.
“The great story about this is that seven years later, we won the Stanley Cup and we had two million people at the parade,” Parent said.
The Flyers were the first 1967-68 expansion team to claim an N.H.L. championship, but the Penguins have since won five Stanley Cups and the Kings two. The Stars, who moved to Dallas in 1993, hoisted the Cup in 1999.
The 1970s: An Outside Threat
The N.H.L. embraced expansion after a rival league, the World Hockey Association, began in 1972. The N.H.L. added the Buffalo Sabres and the Vancouver Canucks in 1970, the Islanders and the Atlanta Flames in 1972, and the Washington Capitals and the Kansas City Scouts in 1974.
More franchises and a competing league led to the first seven-figure contracts for stars like Bobby Hull and Derek Sanderson.
“The six owners, they had a lot of control before,” Watson said. “You could see a player who won the Stanley Cup go in and ask for a new contract, he might get, maybe, a $500 or $1,000 raise.”
But the N.H.L.’s expansion teams struggled to gain prominence. The Capitals won eight games in their first season, which remains the league’s single-season low. When Washington won its only road game (against the Seals, in fact), the team skated around the ice with a mock Stanley Cup — a green garbage can. The Scouts, with 15 wins, were respectable by comparison.
Of the teams added in the early 1970s, the Islanders found their stride early, making the playoffs in their third season and winning four consecutive championships from 1980 to 1983. The Scouts and the Flames lifted the Cup only after relocating. The Scouts moved to Colorado and later New Jersey to become the Devils. The Flames moved to Calgary in 1980.
1979: The W.H.A. Merger
Financial losses eventually vanquished the W.H.A. and led to the Edmonton Oilers, the Quebec Nordiques, the Hartford Whalers and the Winnipeg Jets joining the N.H.L. in 1979.
The W.H.A. was a run-and-gun league that sold itself on star power. Some of its marquee talents were former N.H.L. stars lured by huge raises.
“The average salary at the time in the early ’70s was like $25,000; the World Hockey Association came in and the average salary started going up,” Parent said. “You could get paid like 120 or 150 grand a year. That changed the whole approach financially.”
Other W.H.A. attractions were young stars in the making because its draft age was 18 rather than the N.H.L.’s 20 at the time. Future legends like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Rod Langway, Mike Gartner and Michel Goulet were among the players to cut their teeth in the W.H.A.
The Oilers went on to become an N.H.L. dynasty, winning four Stanley Cups with Gretzky from 1984 to 1989 and another after his departure. The Nordiques got a pair of titles after moving to Colorado in 1995. The Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997 and the N.H.L. champions in 2006. As for the Jets, well, it’s complicated.
The 1990s: Boom Times
The ’90s were a period of economic and geographic growth for the four major North American pro sports leagues, and the N.H.L. was hardly an exception, growing to 30 franchises from 21 between 1991 and 2000.
A more successful Bay Area team, the San Jose Sharks, arrived in 1991, followed by the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Ottawa Senators the next season. The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the Florida Panthers joined the league in 1993. The Nashville Predators came in 1998, and the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild in 2000.
And those the Winnipeg Jets? They became the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996. Then the Atlanta Thrashers, who joined the league in 1999, became the Winnipeg Jets in 2011.
A deeper pool of talent, particularly from Europe, made rapid expansion more sustainable.
“The Iron Curtain players started to move in during the late ’80s,” Scotty Bowman, an N.H.L. coach during all four expansion periods, said. “The Czechs and the Russians, then they made agreements with Sweden. After the 1980 Olympics, when the U.S. won the Miracle on Ice, the advent of U.S.-born players. The U.S.-born players and European players made quite a difference in the league.”
Forward Tom Fitzgerald played for Florida and Nashville in those franchises’ early years.
“I knew I wasn’t setting myself up for a Stanley Cup, but I was O.K. with that,” he said. “Those other things meant so much to me, building, being part of the grass roots of something special.”
The first six expansion teams from this period have reached the finals at least once, with Tampa Bay winning the Cup in 2004 and Anaheim in 2007.
Most people around hockey agree that the Golden Knights, playing in a parity-filled, salary-cap era, are in the best position of any other expansion team to date.
“They got a lot of assets that the other expansion teams didn’t get,” Bowman said. “But the St. Louis Blues paid a $2 million franchise fee and these guys paid $500 million, so they deserve to get something.”