Why Baltimore Failed to Land an NHL Franchise During the Expansion Era

When the NHL doubled in size in the late-1960s, it appeared certain that Charm City would be awarded a team. But it didn't quite play out like that.

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Mar 10 2017, 7:24pm

Photo by AP

Fifty-two years after the National Hockey League signalled its bold plans to double in size and expand to 12 clubs, Baltimore is still waiting for its NHL team.

While the Vegas Golden Knights have officially become the league's 31st franchise, the NHL has yet to arrive in "Charm City." Despite being earmarked as an early favourite for expansion, way back when the league first drafted plans for six new squads on March 11, 1965, Baltimore was unable to wrangle a team.

Even before the NHL had committed to expansion in 1965, it had been kicking the tires on the subject for years, and Baltimore was an ideal location that had always been tossed around. In early 1963, Jack Adams, former longtime coach and general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, came out in support of the NHL expanding, convinced that the league needed to reach Los Angeles and San Francisco. At the time, North America's other major leagues had already grown, and the NHL was the only organization without a West Coast representative. Less than two weeks after Adams' comments, Toronto Maple Leafs president Stafford Smythe shared his own vision for expansion, and it was one that didn't include California. For him, according to the Globe and Mail, Pittsburgh ranked the highest among potential expansion locations. "Baltimore, St. Louis and Cleveland also rate ahead of the west coast cities," Smythe said.

Two years later, when the NHL unveiled its blueprints for expansion, Baltimore was still high atop the list for consideration. Although Los Angeles was now the clear frontrunner to land a team, other ideal locations included Pittsburgh, San Francisco, St. Louis, and, of course, Baltimore.

Leading the charge to bring the NHL to Charm City were Jake Embry and Zanvyl Krieger. The former was the president of Baltimore's American Hockey League (AHL) team, the Clippers, and the latter was a major figure in the Baltimore sports scene. Krieger was the majority owner of the Clippers, a significant shareholder of Baltimore's Major League Baseball club, the Orioles, and had previously been an integral investor in the city's National Football League team, the Colts.

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The teams that joined the NHL during the league's big expansion. GIF via YouTube

Early into the bidding process, there was a lot that was actually working in Baltimore's favour. For starters, it was already home to three major league teams: the Orioles, the Colts, and the Bullets. As Krieger noted, "Baltimore is big league in other sports and we think it should be in hockey too."

In addition, at the time of the 1960 census, Baltimore was the sixth-largest city in the United States, just shy of one million people. More importantly, much like the other applicants, the city had a hockey presence. Although the AHL had only been in Baltimore for just a few years, Embry had boasted that it led the league in gate receipts for two of those seasons, attesting to the growing popularity of the sport. Moreover, the Clippers' arena, the Civic Center, already had a larger seating capacity than facilities in Pittsburgh. And there were plans to upgrade the arena, to sweeten the deal for the NHL. Embry told the New York Times in February 1966 that the Civic Center could be expanded to accommodate an additional 1,400 seats, which Baltimore's mayor Theodore McKeldin assured would be "well-upholstered viewable seats." In addition, the Civic Centre's chairman, Nathan Jacobson told the Sun that, "it behoves the city of Baltimore to spend any reasonable amount of money in an effort to bring major league hockey here."

Things were looking good for Baltimore. By October 1965, the NHL had tapped Los Angeles, St. Louis, Vancouver, and San Francisco-Oakland as acceptable cities for expansion, while Baltimore was still in serious contention for one of the final two spots. According to the Globe and Mail, "Baltimore and Pittsburgh appear to have the best chances of being accepted."

Screenshot via Newspapers.com

When the NHL's Board of Governors met on Feb. 9, 1966 to iron out the details, the Baltimore group was brimming with confidence. Going into the meetings, Embry reportedly said that, "I can't see how they can resist our bid." The Globe and Mail's Dick Beddoes reported that the early rumblings favoured Baltimore. "There are indications that two territories, Baltimore and San Francisco-Oakland be granted admission immediately," he wrote. With the final decision just hours away, many assumed that it would signal that the NHL would be coming to Baltimore for the 1967-68 campaign.

It didn't quite play out that way. The next day, in a stunning move, it was announced that Baltimore was not part of the NHL's plans. Instead, franchises were awarded to Los Angeles, San Francisco-Oakland, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. Krieger, the seasoned sports businessman, was flabbergasted. "I'm shocked our know-how in professional sport didn't impress the governors," he said. According to Maple Leafs president Stafford Smythe, who long favoured Baltimore as an expansion destination, it came down to facilities.

"The Baltimore Civic Center, which Kreiger proposed to renovate, is not suitable for hockey because it is built so that many spectators can't see the goal. The building is the worst for hockey in North America," he was quoted as saying in the Globe and Mail.

Screenshot via Newspapers.com

But there was more to the story. The curious part about St. Louis' acceptance was that no formal application had been filed with the league. Rather, the NHL had tagged the future home of the Blues because of its "geographical location and the fact it has a suitable building," and assumed a potential suitor would be found before April 5, 1966. If the league didn't find a satisfactory partner by that date, Baltimore would be awarded the franchise. However, it just so happened that the St. Louis Arena was owned by James Norris, who was also part owner of the Chicago Black Hawks. The building was dilapidated, and Norris was looking to rid himself of the costly, crumbling infrastructure. Part of the conditions for operating a team in St. Louis would be to purchase or rent the arena from him. Although "the Gateway to the West" would've merited expansion consideration on its own, additional pressure from Chicago's ownership group gave St. Louis an advantage at the expense of other viable locations.

Despite the raw deal, Mayor McKeldin took the news in stride, and urged the same of his constituents. "I note that we just barely missed out this time and were, in fact, next in line of consideration. I choose to take the view that this setback in the case of the National Hockey League is also temporary, and that Baltimore eventually will win the coveted franchise," he said in the Sun.

NHL president Clarence Campbell (center) shakes hands with George Flaherty (left) of San Francisco and Gordon Ritz (right) of Minneapolis-St. Paul after they were awarded franchises in 1966. Photo by AP

Baltimore circled back to the possibility of landing an NHL team again during the league's next round of expansions in the 1970s. In 1970, the year that Buffalo and Vancouver were awarded franchises, Baltimore reportedly submitted an application, but withdrew it a week before the deadline, citing that the $6-million price tag was too high. After Long Island and Atlanta were given teams in 1972, Albert Fischer, a writer for the Sun, suggested that maybe the city was approaching its last chance of landing a club. "It's no secret that the NHL would love to have a team in the Baltimore-Washington area, but not primarily in Baltimore," he wrote. His words proved to be prophetic.

When the Washington Capitals joined the league in 1974-75 and started playing out of Landover, Maryland, that all but ended the dream of an NHL team in Charm City. Who knows how different the hockey landscape would look like today had Baltimore not narrowly missed its shot at NHL expansion in 1967-68. One thing we do know is, even though it was runner-up to St. Louis, Baltimore still has just as many Stanley Cups as the Blues.