Expanding the NHL: 1970-1972

In the first article in this series, we looked at the NHL’s 1967 expansion, when the league doubled in size. 1970 brought the addition of two new NHL teams, and the divisions were shuffled. The Chicago Black Hawks (the name change came in 1986) moved over to the West, making space in the East division for the new boys.

1970

Vancouver Canucks

The history of the Vancouver Canucks effectively starts in 1945, but ice hockey in BC’s largest city goes back much further than that. The Millionaires (later renamed The Maroons) represented Vancouver in the PCHA and WCHL for 15 years, and in that time brought home the Stanley Cup. A feat that to date, has not been repeated in Vancouver. In 1915 the winners of the PCHA and NHA competed for the cup, the Millionaires defeated the NHA’s Ottawa Senators (the original Senators) to lift the cup for the first and only time. In 1926 the team folded.

Fast forward 19 years and hockey returned, the Vancouver Canucks were formed, ‘canuck’ being a slang term for a Canadian and a foe of spellcheckers everywhere. Seven years in the PCHL led to 18 years in the WHL. When expansion came a-knocking in 1967, the Canucks applied but were rejected. 1970 was different, and along with the Buffalo Sabres, Vancouver was accepted into the NHL. The team picked up future coach and General Manager Pat Quinn in the 1970 expansion draft.

The early NHL seasons did not go well for the Canucks, in 1971/72 the team lost a whopping 50 of 78 games. After a nibble in the mid-70s, the team would go into become a regular playoff presence. 1982 brought the Canucks’ first Stanley Cup final. After seeing off the Calgary Flames, LA Kings and Chicago Black Hawks in convincing fashion, Vancouver faced the New York Islanders in the final. Unfortunately the Isles were unstoppable in the early 80s, and the Canucks were swept aside.

The mid-80s were so-so, and in 1994 the team made the finals for the second time. Captained by Trevor Linden and aided by Pavel Bure, the Canucks took the New York Rangers to a game seven decider. The game may have played at Madison Square Gardens, but when the Canucks lost 3-2, fans back home rioted, looted and generally got themselves arrested. So let’s quickly move on.

Later the team moved to Rogers Arena and drafted twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Mark Messier joined the team in 1997 but the less said about that, the better. There was also a lockout but that was more Gary Bettman’s fault.

In 2011, the Canucks were good again and pushed past the Blackhawks, Predators and Sharks to conquer the west and make the Stanley Cup final. Boston and Vancouver took the series to game seven, and after the Bruins won 4-0, Canucks fans rioted and looted again. Over 100 people were arrested. Since 2011 the Canucks have made the playoffs three times but never really progressed to pose a meaningful challenge for the cup.

Buffalo Sabres

Unlike the Canucks, the Buffalo Sabres didn’t exist before the expansion, although Buffalo does have a proud history of hockey. The Bisons played in the AHL for 30 years before the arrival of the Sabres called time on the team’s reign. The Sabres picked first in 1970’s expansion draft, picking future hall of famer Gilbert Perreault. Punch Imlach was hired as head coach.

Times were good, in the Sabres first 15 seasons, the team made the playoffs 12 times, 11 of those consecutively. There was even a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 1975, but the Philadelphia Flyers won that series 4-2, and the Sabres wouldn’t make it to the finals again until 1999. Most of the early success came with head coaches Imlach and Scotty Bowman at the helm. Both of whom have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.

It’s not just head coaches that made it, despite zero Stanley Cups, plenty of Buffalo’s players were good enough to become Hall of Famers. Including Dale Hawerchuk, Tim Horton, Dominik Hasek and the aforementioned Perreault. Those big names of the past have been and gone, and recently success has been hard to find. The Sabres have failed to grab a playoff place for the last five consecutive seasons, and at time of writing, are seven places outside of a wild card slot. Previously the team’s longest playoff-free streak was three seasons.

Buffalo’s fall from relative grace started around the same time current owner Terry Pegula purchased the team. Whether or not that’s linked is for future generations to decide, but right now the Sabres are one of the NHL’s more frustrating teams. Capable of beating much better competition, but incapable of maintaining it. It’s not all doom and gloom though, head coach Dan Byslma is respected and recent addition Jack Eichel is proving to be one of the better young centers in the league.

At the same time as Vancouver and Buffalo joined the league, the Oakland Seals became the California Seals. Again.

1972

New York Islanders

For four years in the early 1980s the Islanders were the best team in the NHL, but it wasn’t always that way. After losing their opening game to the Atlanta Flames, the Islanders would go on to win just 31 games in their first two seasons. Phil Goyette‘s tenure as the Islanders’ first head coach lasted just seven months. The 1973-74 Islanders failed to make the playoffs, but 1973’s first overall pick Denis Potvin made a good start to his Hall of Fame career, leading the team in points and assists. Potvin’s impressive perfomance earned him that season’s Calder Trophy.

Al Arbour also took over behind the bench in 1973, a role he would hold until 1986. After a disappointing first season in charge, Arbour led the team to five consective playoffs, including four semi-finals, two division and two conference championships.

The 1979-80 regular season wasn’t as strong as previous seasons, the Islanders made the playoffs but failed to win the conference or division. Fortunately the stepped up a gear for the playoffs, the LA Kings, Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres all fell to the Islanders paving the way for New York to meet the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup final. After winning a game each, the Islanders took the series to 3-1. The Flyers fought back and won another, but game six went to overtime and the Islanders won, lifting their first Stanley Cup. Bobby Nystrom scoring the winning goal.

The next three seasons were equally spectacular. The Islanders beath Minnesota’s North Stars, the Vancouver Canucks and the Edmonton Oilers to win their second, third and fourth Stanley Cups. With that fourth win, the Islanders joined the Montreal Canadiens as four-time consecutive winners, and in 1984 defeated the Habs in six games in their race for for their fifth Stanley Cup. The dream was not to be though, and despite reaching their fifth final in as many seasons, the Islanders fell to Wayne Gretzky‘s Edmonton oilers.

In 1986 Arbour stepped down, replaced by Terry Simpson. Two years later, Arbour, now Vice President of Player Development replaced the sacked Simpson on the bench. A position he would hold until 1994. Arbour was unable to reignite the fire that brought Stanley Cup success and the Islanders made the playoffs in just three of the six seasons of Arbour’s second tenure. In their attempt to bring back cup-winning success, the Islanders went through a number of head coaches. Lorne Henning and Mike Milbury both had two stints behind the bench while Rick Bowness, Bill Stewart and Butch Goring only got the one.

After seven playoff-free seasons, former Boston Bruins assistant coach Peter Laviolette got the big job, and in his two seasons with the Isles, took his team back to the playoff. Albeit only to the first rounds. Steve Stirling managed the same, only to be fired the following season. The continued lack of cup success brought a big rebuild in the latter 2000s. Millbury stepped down as GM and the team tried a few more head coaches. Current coach Jack Capuano has been with the team since 2010 but hasn’t brought much success.

In October 2015, the Islanders played their first game at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, where free wifi allows fans to watch the game on their phones, because actual views of the ice are known for being somewhat obstructed. Dennis Potvin, Clark Gillies, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Bob Nystrom and Billy Smith‘s numbers all hang from the rafters, having been retired by the organisation. Current superstar John Tavares will surely join them if he ever retires.

Atlanta Flames

The history of the Atlanta Flames is a short one, lasting just eight seasons before the team upped and relocated to Calgary. With the NHL looking to expand south, the Flames franchise was awarded to the owner of basketball’s Atlanta Hawks, Tom Cousins. Both teams would play their home games at Atlanta’s premier rust box, the Omni Coliseum.

Having plundered well in the expansion and amateur drafts, head coach  Bernie Geoffrion was able to mold an inexperienced group into a team that missed their first playoffs but made it to the quarter-finals in their second season. After 208 games in charge Geoffrion was fired, replaced by Fred Creighton. Under Creighton the Flames would make the playoffs in four of five attempts, only to lose in the quarter-finals each time.

The Flames may never have set the hockey world alight, but a number of players were recognised. Pat Quinn, the Flames’ second captain was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Eric Vail and Willi Plett both won the Calder Trophy. Bob MacMillan won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy.

Despite six visits the playoffs, the Flames only won two playoff games, one against the LA Kings, and one against the New York Rangers. This level of performance, alongside dwindling fan attendance was unsustainable, with the club up for sale a consortium of Calgary business men purchased the team for $16 million. The 1979-80 season would be the last the team would play in Atlanta.

Next time we’ll be taking a look at the Washington Capitals and the Kansas City Scouts so stay tuned.

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