The moment that gave Pittsburgh the transcendent talents of Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby, and the euphoria of four Stanley Cups, was not a fortuitous draft decision, contract negotiation or carefully assembled team-building blueprint; it was a three-day, behind-closed-doors meeting at a five-star hotel wedged at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street in midtown Manhattan.
It was then, at a gathering of the NHL board of governors in February 1966, that the most ambitious and potentially risky expansion plan in the history of major North American professional sports was permitted. The Pittsburgh Penguins and five other hockey franchises were born, and the league they were joining would never be close to the same.
The NHL’s expansion from six teams to 12 in the 1967 season gave birth to the Penguins, but on a larger scale, it forever altered the complexion of the world’s top hockey league, transforming it from a largely regional sport with pockets of popularity in the northeast, upper Midwest and Canada into a national commodity that would only continue to swell in size.
“The lasting impact of it was they finally got themselves out into areas of the country where they could push a national product,” former Penguins commentator and hockey historian Bob Grove said. “They could sell it to TV and to fans much more broadly. It set the table for them to have a discussion that, yes, this is Canada’s national game, but there are pockets of huge popularity in the United States. You can’t start telling that story and making it real until you’ve got enough teams spread around the league.”
Key dates in Penguins history
Franchise is born
The Penguins become more than a pipe dream, as the NHL awards an expansion team to Pittsburgh. They pay $2.5 million for entry and $750,000 in other startup costs. Civic Arena's capactiy grows to 12,500 to meet the NHL's requirements.
Michel Briere dies of severe brain injuries at age 21 after a single-car crash in Val-d'Or, Quebec. Multiple brain surgeries can't save Briere, who spent 11 months in a coma. Briere, whose No. 21 was never worn again and became officially retired in 2001, plays just one NHL season.
As sharp and drastic as the change was, it was a product of several years of deliberations and conversations.
Beginning in 1942, when it shrunk due to World War II and the Great Depression, the NHL had just six teams — the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings — the so-called “Original Six.”
That sextet remained for 25 years, but toward the end of that stretch, the anti-expansion sentiments began to thaw, largely because of external forces. In 1960, after its agreement with CBS expired, the NHL, unlike the NFL and MLB, didn’t have a TV contract and was told it wouldn’t be able to secure such a deal unless it expanded and reached a broader, national audience. There was pressure from the success of the Western Hockey League, a minor league with franchises in several major cities such as Vancouver, Seattle and Los Angeles. The WHL, to some, was seen as a viable threat to the NHL’s supremacy and popularity. The infusion of new, more progressive ownership within the NHL, from David Molson in Montreal to William Jennings in New York, also gave the league an internal push to grow.
In 1965, NHL president Clarence Campbell announced the league intended to expand, and one year later, after considering bids from 14 different ownership groups, the league announced the creation of a second six-team division that would include the Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars and California Seals.
Even in some of the markets that received teams, the news came as a bit of a jolt.
“There was nothing in the papers in Philadelphia about the expansion plans of the National Hockey League,” said late Flyers owner Ed Snider in a documentary on NHL expansion. “As far as the papers here [were concerned], the National Hockey League didn’t even exist.”
With the move came certain fears. Even expansion proponents worried about the league doubling in size virtually overnight. There was also concern the league’s talent pool would be diluted, that there weren’t enough quality players to fill every roster.
“The decision by the National Hockey League to embrace six United States cities has a happy omen for scores of hockey players now down in the minor leagues or on the junior farm,” Hal Walker of the Calgary Herald wrote in response to expansion. “This means a lot of the skaters who had little or no chance of making the current six-team NHL will be absorbed by the new teams and their salaries will be at the major league level.”
The transition didn’t come seamlessly. The Penguins were in the process of being sold before their first season was even complete. The North Stars, despite being located in hockey-mad Minnesota, struggled to consistently draw large crowds. Most humorously, part of the Spectrum’s roof in Philadelphia was blown off in 1968, forcing the Flyers to play their final month of games on the road.
Those early shortcomings translated to the ice, as well, but didn’t persist for too long. By 1974, the Flyers became the first of the six new teams to win a Stanley Cup and the following year, the Stanley Cup final featured two non-Original Six teams.
The new franchises were met with varying levels of success. The Seals moved to Cleveland in 1976, where they became the Barons before eventually merging with the North Stars in 1978. The North Stars were in Minnesota until 1993, when they moved to Dallas, where they exist today as the Dallas Stars. Four other teams remain where they were when established and, with the exception of the Blues, have each won multiple Stanley Cups.
The NHL’s bold first step had a quick and pronounced ripple effect. Just three years after the expansion of 1967, the NHL added two more franchises, and by 1979, it had ballooned to 21 teams. The NHL’s initial expansion foray turned a league that once didn’t stretch beyond Chicago into one that had multiple teams on the West Coast. That move was precursor for the league’s efforts to insert franchises in major markets where it wasn’t previously popular, work that continues even today with the announcement in June of an expansion team in Las Vegas.
Of the 25 additions since 1967, 16 remain in their original cities. In Pittsburgh, the Penguins survived unstable ownership, fears of relocation and multiple bankruptcies to win four Stanley Cups and become a fixture in a sports-mad city. Today, they stand as what many consider to be a model franchise and a symbol of the good that can come with expansion.
“It’s a very complicated and kind of crazy story when you look at it as a whole,” Grove said. “But the story that it tells is when you have faith with a market and stick with a market, you can really make things happen.”
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