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In October, 1967, Gordie Howe, the Detroit Red Wings great, contends with California Seals goalie Charlie Hodge and defenceman Bob Baun. (Preston Stroup/AP)
In October, 1967, Gordie Howe, the Detroit Red Wings great, contends with California Seals goalie Charlie Hodge and defenceman Bob Baun. (Preston Stroup/AP)

Fifty years ago, the NHL expanded – and pro hockey changed forever Add to ...

It was in the mid-1950s, in the midst of his college career at St. Lawrence University, when Bill Torrey first heard the term – NHL expansion – that would ultimately change his life.

St. Lawrence was playing a holiday hockey tournament in Boston, and Torrey, who injured his knee in the opening game, had to sit out the next night. The event was being played over Christmas, and the organizer, Walter Brown, the owner of the NHL Bruins and the NBA Celtics, held a reception for the teams.

Unable to play, Torrey stuck around and watched the game with Brown who, after asking Torrey about his career aspirations, gave him a memorable bit of advice: “If you like hockey, then stick with it – because it’s not going to be too much longer before we’re going to have to increase the size of this league; we’re going to have to expand it.”

“That’s the first time I ever heard the term expansion mentioned,” Torrey remembered.

Brown died in 1964 and did not live long enough to see his prophecy come true. But the seminal moment in the evolution of professional hockey occurred about a decade after Torrey’s conversation with Brown. Fifty years ago this month, on Feb. 9, 1966 – the day that changed everything for the NHL – the league’s board of governors met at the St. Regis Hotel in New York and voted to double the size of the league to 12 teams from six, a virtually unprecedented step in the history of professional sport.

NHL expansion opened up a whole new world of opportunities for eager young newcomers, many of whom likely would have taken far different career paths if the league had remained a closed six-team entity. Torrey, the architect of the New York Islanders’ dynasty teams, got his start in Oakland with the Seals. Scotty Bowman, who would go on to become the most successful NHL coach in history, began in St. Louis with the Blues.

So many new jobs were created. So many Hall of Fame careers were forged. Without expansion, who knows what alternate road they might have followed? “I probably would have ended up selling soap in Toronto,” Torrey said.

Torrey, it turns out, was on the verge of taking a job working for Lever Brothers in Toronto on the eve of NHL expansion. Instead, he opted to join the Pittsburgh Hornets of the AHL, soon after they’d been purchased by the Detroit Red Wings and designated as their primary farm team. In Pittsburgh, Torrey met Potter Palmer, one of the early Oakland owners, and Potter convinced him that the Seals needed his help.

“Halfway through that first season, he said: ‘Bill, we’ve got a mess on our hands in Oakland, and would you be interested in taking a look out there?’”

In Oakland, attendance was so bad that Torrey remembers answering the phone in the office one day when a woman called, asking what time the game started. Torrey answered: “When can you get here?”

“I’ll tell you how goofy that franchise was,” he said. “From the time I went there officially in April or May, to July or August, we had six changes in our ownership make-up. Everyone thinks Charley Finley was the only owner of the Seals. He was about the seventh or eighth. I mean, every month I was working for somebody new. I reported to a bankruptcy judge for about three months.”

Things were no less chaotic in St. Louis, which didn’t even make a formal franchise application, but was awarded a team provisionally anyway. In the end, an ownership group led by the Salomon family took on the team; if they hadn’t stepped in, Baltimore was waiting in the wings as the first alternate.

Bowman was coaching the Montreal Jr. Canadiens in 1966 when the NHL voted to expand, and had two young American players on his roster – Larry Pleau and Craig Patrick. Patrick’s father, Lynn, would come in occasionally to watch his son play. When Lynn Patrick was hired as the Blues’ first coach, he offered Bowman a chance to come in as his assistant, with the promise of promotion to the top job in Year 2.

Bowman was thought to be the heir apparent in Montreal to long-time coach Toe Blake, but the Canadiens had just won the Stanley Cup in 1966 and there was no sign Blake was going anywhere. So Bowman turned to his long-time mentor, Canadiens’ general manager Sam Pollock, for advice.

“I’d been with Sam for 10 years; he’d given me my first job in 1956,” Bowman said. “So we had a meeting and Sam said, ‘this is a hell of an opportunity. I don’t want to lose you, because Toe Blake’s not going to coach forever,’ but he also said, ‘there’s no change on the horizon; I hope he coaches another 10 years.’ So that’s how I got to St. Louis.”

It’s also how he got a big increase in pay. Bowman had been earning $5,000 to coach the Jr. Canadiens, but received a raise to $7,500 after Punch Imlach offered him a chance to leave Montreal and run the Toronto Marlboros junior team.

“When Lynn Patrick came to me, he said, ‘you’re making $7,500 and this job with us will pay you $15,000,’” Bowman said. “I was single at the time and thought, ‘wow,’ I couldn’t believe it.”

Bowman also recommended the Blues hire an old friend from his Montreal days, Cliff Fletcher, as a scout. Fletcher was working for Iron Ore Co. of Canada. Together, they started in the fall of 1966, scouting NHL teams ahead of the expansion draft.

NHL expansion teams cost their new owners a cool $2-million (U.S.) – small change compared with the $500-million (U.S.) the league expects to get in the next round of expansion – but it was a hefty sum in those days.

Each of the new clubs was told to write a cheque directly to one of the existing franchises. The Philadelphia Flyers, who had as part of their bidding group the treasurer of the Philadelphia Eagles, Ed Snider, wrote theirs to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Snider – who remains with the Flyers today as chairman and governor – recalled in the book Full Spectrum that Maple Leafs owner Stafford Smythe’s greatest concern was that the cheque might bounce. It didn’t – though financial issues dominated many of the early expansion story lines.

“I remember in July of 1967, the trainer and I were going around getting ready for the first season and the only thing we were told was, anything we needed to buy, the owners had to approve,” Bowman said. “Even the contract for tape – I remember we went to a tape manufacturer and said, ‘the most we can pay is 28 cents a roll,’ and he said, ‘what are you worried about? The Salomons own the team.’ But we told him we were on a budget and we couldn’t spend more than this much.”

Bowman took over as the Blues’ head coach 16 games into their first season, and one of his first moves was to promote a trio of minor-leaguers – Terry Crisp, Frank St. Marseille and Gary Sabourin. Crisp had been chosen by the Blues in the eighth round of the expansion player draft, plucked out of the Boston Bruins’ organization, where he’d been playing for their minor-league team in Oklahoma City.

“I have always maintained that the telling of the expansion story was the quietest thing you could imagine for such a monumental decision,” Crisp said. “To go from six teams to 12 – and we hardly heard anything about it. They announced it, but all the details were hush-hush. People wondered: ‘Is it going to happen? Maybe it won’t.’”

Until that point, Crisp said his career resembled a perpetual Groundhog Day existence – he would make the Bruins out of training camp, and a month into the season he would get farmed out again. Frustrated by that cycle and thinking his NHL dreams would never be realized, he considered quitting the summer before expansion. Newly married that year, Crisp said his wife Sheila talked him out of it.

“She told me: ‘I don’t want to hear, for the rest of our lives, that you could have been in the NHL, but got married and had to give it up.’ So I went back to Oklahoma City and, lo and behold, that’s the year the expansion came along – and the rest is history. Expansion gave us all a chance to play – and show what we could do. We got lucky. It was being in the right place at the right time.”

As opposed to Crisp, Jack Ferreira turned out to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when expansion first came along. An all-American goaltender at Boston University in the mid-sixties, Ferreira received a free-agent invitation to the first Flyers’ training camp, but had to decline because he’d been drafted into the U.S. Army. It was “the first and only time I’ve ever been drafted in my life,” he says now, with a laugh.

According to Ferreira, he had completed basic training and was on his way to Vietnam, when he was called into the commanding officer’s office and told he’d received new orders – he was being sent to the West Point military academy, where he would be an assistant coach for the hockey team for three years. Ferreira was one of only two soldiers to get a deferment because of hockey, but at West Point he crossed paths with all sorts of future sports greats, from tennis champion Arthur Ashe to NFL football coach Bill Parcells, all of whom received similar orders that spared them a trip to Southeast Asia.

For Ferreira, expansion opened the door for a generation of Americans to go into the hockey business. “In those days, the NHL didn’t look at Americans,” said Ferreira, who didn’t make it to the league as a player but is now in his 44th year of working in pro hockey, and eventually became a key figure in the NHL’s Southern California expansion. “It never even occurred to me until then that I could make hockey a career, until expansion came along.”

After five years in St. Louis and one year playing for Torrey’s Islanders, Crisp eventually was traded to the Flyers, where he won the Stanley Cup in 1974 and ’75. After retiring, he coached the 1989 Calgary Flames to the 1989 championship. Since 1951, only five men – Blake, Crisp, Joe Primeau, Tom Johnson and Jacques Lemaire – have won the Stanley Cup as both a player and a coach.

Now a TV commentator in Nashville, Crisp was asked: How might his path have been different had it taken another 10 years or more before the NHL expanded?

“It would have totally changed my life,” he said. “I would have probably gone back home, been a high-school teacher, and I would probably be retired now and never have known the life my wife and I had through hockey – the cities we visited and saw, the friends we made. You look back upon it now and think about what could have been and what was, it’s interesting. Who would have ever heard of Terry Crisp, the high-school teacher in Parry Sound? I’m thankful I was fortunate enough to be there and get picked when expansion happened.”

Bowman eventually landed back in Montreal in 1971, replacing Al MacNeil as the Canadiens’ coach, and won the first of his nine Stanley Cup championships as coach in 1973.

“To go from six teams to 12, it was a hell of an experience, when you think about it, a really exciting time,” Bowman said. “I was 33 years old. I’d been in hockey nine or 10 years, but I didn’t dream of being in the NHL, even though I was coaching junior. In those days, in the fifties and sixtie, junior coaches did not go to the NHL. It was either an American League coach or an ex-player.”

Torrey, meanwhile, was living in New York and working for NBC when his life came to that memorable crossroads predicted by Walter Brown. He came close to giving up his hockey dream altogether.

“All my family was in Canada; and my brother had a connection with Lever Brothers and there was a sales position open in Toronto,” Torrey said. “They had said they would offer me a job, but I needed to come within the month. I had thoughts of making a living in hockey. I had to take a pay cut to go to Pittsburgh, but I thought it would be fun – and I was young.

“But I remember, my father was so pissed off that I turned down the Lever Brothers job. He said: ‘What kind of a job is that – with a minor-league hockey team?’” Torrey paused and allowed himself a small chuckle. “I’m now in my 48th year in this league – and I’ve fooled them this long. It’s been great.”

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