The following contribution comes from Steve Currier, author of The California Golden Seals: A Tale of White Skates, Red Ink, and One of the NHL’s Most Outlandish Teams (November 2017). Currier is a hockey historian and member of the Society for International Hockey Research. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario, is a proud member of the Seals Booster Club, and is the creator and moderator of the tribute site GoldenSealsHockey.com.
Hockey has had its share of bizarre tales over the years, but none compares to the fascinating story of the California Golden Seals, a team that remains the benchmark for how not to run a sports franchise. The California Golden Seals examines the franchise’s entire mismanaged—but always interesting—history, from its ballyhooed beginnings as a minor-league champion in the 1960s to its steep slide into oblivion in the late 1970s after moving to Cleveland. Through a comprehensive season-by-season narrative and a section of definitive statistics, Currier brings to life the Seals’ entire history with lighthearted anecdotes, personal interviews, and statistics about hockey’s most infamous losing team.
A Book Signing with the California Golden Seals
The question most people probably wonder when they pick up my book is, “Why in the world would you want to delve into the history of the California Golden Seals?” For those of you unfamiliar with the most maligned franchise in National Hockey League history, the Seals were the real-life equivalent of the Charlestown Chiefs from the classic Paul Newman film Slap Shot.
I think what initially attracted me to the Seals, and their successors the Cleveland Barons, was that unlike every other NHL team of the modern era, they are the only one frozen in time. When the Barons merged with the Minnesota North Stars in 1978, it ended the possibility of ever seeing any of the franchise’s records matched or broken. This was a team that would remain in its time period forever, much like Jimi Hendrix will forever remain in our minds the headband wearing, feedback obsessed guitar god. We will never know him as an old man, and we will never see him on tour again; we can only imagine what might have been had he not died so suddenly. The Seals and Barons are the NHL’s Hendrix, chock full of what-ifs, and still possessing some of the most loyal and loving fans.
When I was invited in May 2017 to participate in a special evening commemorating the California Golden Seals’ fiftieth anniversary, I happily accepted. The Seals/Barons Night took place in Toronto at St. Mike’s College and was a great evening of reminiscing with Seals players and fans.
It took careful planning and stressful evenings trying to figure out travel plans for the day of the big event. When the big day came in the end of October, I left Ottawa in the morning and traveled to Toronto by train. I wasn’t nervous at all on the train, probably because I was so immersed in my work. After getting to my hotel, I went out out for a quick bite at the pub next door. My nerves started to get the better of me once I arrived at St. Mike’s College arena for the event. I should have ordered a few shots of Tequila while I was at the bar!
Being the center of attention in a room full of strangers was a particularly weird feeling for me. I hadn’t even finished setting up my table when people started coming up to me asking to buy copies of my book and sign them. This was all new to me, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I broke out my invoice pad, and started looking for a pen, because of course, that was the one thing I forgot to bring to a book signing. I found a pen and quickly scribbled an invoice and as I tore it off the pad, a drop of sweat fell onto the paper. So that, folks, was my first sale! Not only does the guy get a signed copy, but a sweaty invoice too. Could be a collector’s item!
Once I got my table set up, and signed a few more books, I started to feel at ease and enjoyed the spotlight, no matter how microscopic it really was. I met writer Greg Oliver, who had just finished writing a book about goaltender Gilles “Gratoony the Loony” Gratton, and who asked to set up at my table. He and his son asked me a few questions for a short feature for the Society for International Hockey Research blog.
They always say that on your wedding day, you won’t even have time to eat a piece of your own cake. And that’s a little how my first book signing felt. There was pizza and soda to be eaten, but I was running around so much, shaking hands, signing books, talking to people, trying to make personal connections, that I never even got around to grabbing something to eat. It really is a lot of work, but a lot of fun, too.
I was asked to participate in a Q&A with the four other guests: former Seals Marv Edwards, Reggie Leach, Joey Johnston, and Wayne King. I never even thought to bring a copy of my book and place it on the table in front of me. Greg helpfully went to the back of the room, brought a copy over to the table and suggested, “You need to learn to shill more.” Point taken.
Marv Edwards was the first player introduced, and he stepped up to the podium to say a few words. At eighty-two years old, he looks and sounds great, and he’s still quick with a quip. He wanted to take the time to thank his wife of sixty years for going along on his hockey journey all those years. He said that together they had lived in twenty-eight different cities over the years, and as he thanked her for her love and support you could see how touched she was.
Joey Johnston, Reggie Leach, and Wayne King were then introduced one by one, and they each addressed the crowd for a few minutes. The players were asked how they felt about today’s players receiving millions of dollars to play hockey, while in the 1970s, they played for peanuts. To a man, they all believed today’s players get the money they deserve, but that back in the 1970s, and in the years before, they put up with low salaries because they loved the game, and they would have played it for free, if they had had to.
Then it was my turn to stand up and address the crowd of about forty people. I felt surprisingly at ease by this point knowing that these folks had actually come here to listen to me drone on about why I wrote my book. In my daytime job as a French as a second language teacher, I usually don’t prepare what I say in advance. I’m more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of guy. I usually know my material like the back of my hand anyway, so winging it has always felt right for me, and that’s what I did here too. I just spoke about why I had written the book, about how as an eleven-year-old I sent a letter to the NHL office in New York naively asking them to send me information about all of the defunct franchises from the 1970s. Someone at the league office took the time to photocopy the entire 1975-76 Seals media guide and send it to me. To this day, it is the greatest piece of mail I have ever received. I scoured the pages of that guide. I brought it to school for days and constantly read it over when I finished my work. I learned about these strange sounding players like Norm Ferguson, Dave Hreckhosy, and Joey Johnston. I had the Seals’ entire history in my hands, and I wanted to know more about them. Had that person at the NHL office sent me a media guide from, say, the Atlanta Flames, as I told the crowd, I probably would be in front of a bunch of Flames fans giving this same speech. It must have been fate that drew the Seals and I together.
After a short viewing of clips from Mark Greczmiel’s documentary about the Seals, there was a free-for-all autograph session, which was unusual for me because for the first time, I had people, including real NHL players, asking me to sign their copy of my book. It was also neat to ask Reggie Leach, Stanley Cup champion, for an autograph, and then have him ask to buy two more autographed copies of my book for his kids. He mentioned that his daughter had found his old California Seals ring he had received when he played for the team. I then showed him a picture of it in my book, and I mentioned that I had noticed his Philadelphia Flyers Stanley Cup ring while we were doing the Q&A. You can’t miss one of those bad boys, let me tell you.
The great thing was that it felt like I made personal connections with the players. They were all incredibly friendly—and turns out—are just regular people who have lived more interesting lives than most of us. And they will even buy your book.