That first season as a Mite for the Southern Illinois Ice Hawks wasn’t just Nic’s first season, but practically the first season for everyone on the team – and their parents. Each player was given two jerseys – one for home games, the other for when we played as the visitor. The jerseys had the Ice Hawks crest on the front and, on the back, there was the player’s number, and, just above the number, their last name, in all caps. Nic had chosen #10 – the number he’d used when playing soccer when we lived in Europe, and as a homage to the greatest #10 hockey player of all time, Guy Lafleur.
Having the names of each of the players on the backs of the team jerseys wasn’t just a nice addition to the jersey, either. It was a way for the officials, coaches and the spectators – to recognize the players easier. For many of our team’s parents, this was their first exposure to hockey – other than going to the occasional St. Louis Blues game, as everyone in the hockey community loved to do, so having the names on the back of the jerseys helped them see more clearly where their player was in relationship to the play, and how they interacted with the other players on their line.
In fact, we may never have had the names on the back of our jerseys if it hadn’t been for Charles O. Finley, the owner of the California Golden Seals, one of the six expansion teams that joined the NHL in 1967. Finley bought the team in 1970 and put some effort into marketing to try and boost revenues at the gate. He was a character, and some of the things he did made a big impact on the game – even if his team never did.
The team had already been through two name changes – from the California Seals to the Oakland Seals by the time Finley bought it. He briefly called them the Bay Area Seals, then two games into the regular season, they got another makeover. Now called the California Golden Seals, his hopes were that new name would appeal to the entire California marketplace, not just the San Francisco Bay area. As for the rest of the makeover, the colors now matched Finley’s MLB baseball team, the Oakland Athletics – Kelly green, gold and white.
With his team branding in place, Finley knew he needed to win games if he was going to bring in the sports-rich, Oakland spectators. Putting the names on the back of the jerseys was one way he hoped the California crowd could recognize his players better. Finley’s idea had been tried once before, back in the 20’s, but this time, names on the jerseys stuck, even if it took a while for the NHL to implement it league-wide – in the 1977-78 season.
Then, he tried to put on a show. He brought in celebrities, parading them on the red carpet laid down on the ice before a match would begin. This included his dashingly handsome, handlebar-moustachioed star relief pitcher, Rollie Fingers, and Oakland Raiders’ quarterback Ken Stabler, among others.
He also knew that having a better team would bring in the fans. The team he’d inherited was pretty good, after all, they’d made the playoffs the season before but lost out in four games straight against the Pittsburgh Penguins. But Finley was tough to work for and soon his front office was in disarray and he had a hard time keeping a coach. The team started losing, which wasn’t good for the box office. In fact, in the NHL, the only good thing about a losing team is, if you lose enough, you get the first crack at the incoming talent in the draft.
And that’s exactly what the Montreal Canadiens liked most about the California Golden Seals.
Before I get into the details into the part of the deal that has gone down as the worst trade in NHL history, I have another side story for you. Finley had a right winger by the name of Bill Hicke that came from my hometown. After his brilliant hockey career, he moved back to Regina, Saskatchewan, became a successful businessman, running a sporting goods store and owning and sometimes coaching, the Junior hockey team he’d played on years before, the Regina Pats. He said he picked up much of his acumen for business watching the antics that went on with the owners of the Seals.
Anyhow, Hicke wasn’t just a smart man with athletic talent. He was a talker. By the time Finley became the owner of the Seals, Hickey was already a team fixture, now lacing it up for the Seals for his third straight year. He had a younger brother, Ernie, who was now also in the NHL, playing left wing for, you guessed it, the Montreal Canadiens.
Whether it was Bill who planted the seeds in Finley’s head that the Canadiens had something that the Seals wanted, I can’t say. But the two teams got to talking and Bill got his brother in a trade that gave the Seals some cash and sent feisty defenceman François Lacombe back to his home province of Quebec. This part of the deal wasn’t so bad: Ernie Hicke racked up 22 goals and 25 assists that first season.
But there was more to that deal.
Hindsight is 20/20 Vision
Someone in the Canadiens organization privy to the negotiations between the Seals and the Canadiens apparently heard Finley admitting that he knew “nothing about this f*****ing game”, so I’m guessing he was easy prey for these seasoned negotiators. The Habs’ management team was under pressure: they’d just missed the playoffs for the first time in 23 years. For the upcoming draft, they had 4 slots in the first round: the Seals, having posted a divisional 4th place finish and a playoff spot for the first (and last) time in its history, wasn’t slated to get a pick until round 2.
So the Canadiens traded one of their first round picks to the Seals for the Seal’s first round draft the following season. Needless to say, the Hab’s General Manager, Sam Pollock, left the table with his fingers crossed that the Seals would keep being a basement feeder team and with that, the Canadiens would have the pick of next year’s litter with the draft.
It’s Time for Guy Lafleur to Enter the Story Once Again
Throughout the 1970-71 season, it was a three-way bottom feeding fest in the West Division amongst the Seals, Kings and Penguins and it looked, for a while, that the Seals wouldn’t end in last place. The Canadiens must have been on pins and needles awaiting the outcome because in their sights for the draft were two native sons – Marcel Dionne and Guy Lafleur. Finally, as expected, the Seals took last place and, with that, the Canadiens got the coveted first round pick. They chose Guy Lafleur, who chose to play with #10; Dionne went second to the Detroit Red Wings.
Hockey analysts say it was the worst trade ever made as Lafleur went on to become a scoring machine for Montreal. I say that hindsight is 20/20 vision because you never know what will happen with the players from the draft. And, in fairness to the Seals, Lafleur didn’t fly out of the blocks: it took “The Flower” three seasons before he started scoring 50 or more goals – which he did for six consecutive years, contributing to four consecutive Stanley Cups for the Canadiens. If Lafleur hadn’t become the Canadien’s first pick, the history of the NHL would certainly be different.
Now Back to Charlie Finley
Finley had some other ideas about hockey. He got his team to wear different colored skates to match the uniforms, including maintenance-intensive white skates that players complained made them look like “pansies” – but today, white skates are hot – sexy even. And pucks – he wanted the NHL to change the black pucks to orange, so they’d be seen better by the fans, including the fans watching tv. The league said no, but orange pucks, and balls, have their place in hockey today, as weighted practice pucks and for street hockey.
Finley wasn’t able to make his team last, and it eventually was moved to Cleveland, Ohio where it became the Cleveland Barons, which became swallowed by the Minnesota North Stars, which are the Dallas Stars today. But Finley’s brief involvement made an impact on hockey and lead to my son’s name being on the back of his jersey, as well as why he chose #10.