SANTA MONICA, Calif. – Mark Greczmiel is still a fan of the California Golden Seals. It doesn’t matter that the team left the Golden State in in 1976 for browner pastures of Cleveland and eventually merged with the Minnesota North Stars. For Greczmiel, a former entertainment reporter and documentary filmmaker who lives in the Los Angeles area, there’s a story to tell.
It’s a story of a hockey team in Oakland that was loved, and loved one another mostly because it was doomed to fail from the beginning. From constant rebuilds to white skates to players ‘adopted’ by other team’s fanbases because of a last name and a losing acumen, Greczmiel has made it his solemn quest to tell the woefully wonderful tale of the Seals, the NHL’s ‘other’ California team from its second-six expansion.
“They had stories about being in Boston and buying all these lobsters and then being on the plane and letting the lobsters loose on the plane and terrorizing the passengers,” Greczmiel said.
There’s probably a movie about hockey players simply doing this. Though Samuel L. Jackson already co-opted the storyline one time in his career.
Greczmiel has gone from coast-to-coast to interview some of his childhood heroes “on a micro-budget” he said, to see this passion project, a documentary on the Seals, fulfilled.
“I’ve gotten players from different eras,” he said. “The beginning, the middle and the last two years when the NHL took over the team and they got a new owner.” And along the way, he’s found out new and interesting anecdotes about his favorite team as he tries to secure more footage and prepare the film for launch “early next year” he said. His hope is that it lands on a sports cable network.
“It has become a bit of an obsession for me,” he said with a laugh.
He’s noticed an interesting similarity with all the players. They talk and act like armed forces veterans about their time with the Seals. They’re products of another time, and Greczmiel wants to keep their stories alive.
“Some guys have passed away, some guys are in their 60s and 70s,” he said. “They’re just great stories.”
He’s still trying to secure old news footage of the Seals and old game footage.
“And if anyone does donate I have everything from stickers to replica jerseys to pennants. I’m hoping they’ll contribute,” he said.
We sat down with Greczmiel to pick his brain on the project, why he’s doing it and what he hopes to achieve with a documentary on the NHL’s most lovable of loser franchises.
Q: So tell us, who are you and why you decided to do this?
GRECZMIEL: I was born in Vancouver and I moved to the States (Bay Area) when I was 7, and I was about nine years old in 1967 when the Seals started playing in Oakland, so being Canadian, my dad took my brothers and I to games. Our very first game was against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and this was before the netting around the ends, and we caught a puck. We suffered through nine seasons of usually losing seasons. The Seals were always rebuilding and they would be on the verge of something good and then something terrible would happen. Brad Kurtzberg wrote a book about the Seals called “Shorthanded” and said ‘everything that could go wrong with this franchise did go wrong, and so after nine seasons they left and moved to Cleveland. It was very short notice. When I started my TV career I was in Edmonton when the Gretzky era was starting and I produced a couple of stories about the Seals then. When I moved back to the States in 1986 I did a story about the very first NHL hockey game to be held in the Bay Area since the Seals left. It was an exhibition game at the old Cow Palace between the Rangers and Flames. Then I did a story on the startup of the Sharks. Then when I came down here to LA, I wanted to do something about the Seals. When I read Brad Kurtzberg’s book I said ‘I should do something.’ So I talked to my wife, I work freelance now, and in between my downtime I needed to see if I could do this.
Last summer I called up all these Seals players and coaches and fans and what I started doing was if I had a shoot for another project I was working on, I’d try to do a shoot there. I’d go to the East Coast and do interviews.
I started interviewing players, I drove around Ontario and Quebec, Alberta and Arizona. So far it has been all my money. I’ve been doing it pretty cheaply and people have been very generous.
There’s a photographer who shot almost all the Seals games for nine seasons and he’s letting me use all his pictures for free.
I shot home movies with my Super 8 camera. I have a line on a lot of broadcast footage.
To interview the players is great because it was a different era. They’re telling me stories about when they signed with the Seals they were making $12,000 per-year in the late 60s and early 70s and I don’t know how many of the guys said, ‘the very first NHL game I saw in person was the game I played in’ so that was kind of wild. All these guys have wonderful stories because the Seals and Kings were the only teams on the West Coast.
So flying to interview the players, would you like … take a vacation and interview guys on the side?
No, my wife went with me in Arizona, and then I dropped her off and she went shopping (laughs).
She has been very supportive of this. I went to Canada by myself. I cashed in my frequent flier miles and would try to go on weekends and things, so I think the longest trip has been three days. I flew to Toronto and did four or five interviews in two or three days. Then I drove to Quebec I interviewed Gilles Meloche. I flew to Seattle and interviewed Bert Marshall who was with the Seals their first season. I also interviewed Dennis Maruk in Toronto. I’ve gotten players from different eras – guys who were there at the beginning, because there were three distinct eras. The beginning, the middle and the last two years when the NHL took over the team and they got a new owner.
What was it like for you as a young fan when they moved to Cleveland?
That was hard because my whole growing up was going to Seals games. My dad had partial season tickets, so we would go and the tickets were cheap. I looked at my old ticket stubs and where we sat the tickets were $5, and I got in for I think it was half price, and that was 14-or-under until I was 16 or 17. It was a cheap night out. You look at the prices now what they are, they’re incredible.
And it’s not like you can still really follow the Seals, since they basically died shortly after the move to Cleveland
It wasn’t like the Cleveland Seals. And when the players moved, they did not want to go. They had all settled in. They had bought houses. They were in California. In Cleveland, they weren’t getting more fans. The building looked even emptier. There were these huge traffic jams to get to the arena. They weren’t very happy.
What was the most interesting fact you’ve uncovered about the Seals in your research?
The guys, they really bonded in California because they felt they were almost like outcasts. They were in California. Sometimes they found they were being ridiculed by the NHL press, and so people weren’t always taking them seriously.
There was a lot of drinking. They would go golfing, go to bars together. Charles Finley was very thrifty as an owner. He didn’t want to pay more money and that was how the Seals kept taking a couple of steps back. When the World Hockey Association started, he wouldn’t up the salaries, so the Seals lost more players to the WHA so they had to rebuild again.
But he was the first owner to fly his team first class when they would go places, because now they go charter. Back then, they would fly coach. They would tell stories about being on the East Coast, flying to another city and they would be on a commercial flight with an NBA team and the Seals had so much travel to do, and he said, ‘look we’re going to fly first class.’
Back then when they introduced the Boeing 747 and they had a lounge on the upper part of the plane. And guys would tell stories about being on the plane and drinking and one guy, this one 6-foot-4 player being passed out next to the cockpit door, and the pilot couldn’t get out of the cockpit because the player was passed out against the door.
They had stories about being in Boston and buying all these lobsters and then being on the plane and letting the lobsters loose on the plane and terrorizing the passengers.
The thing with the travel was interesting. I didn’t realize the first class thing. And the amount of money they were making … they weren’t getting rich or anything.
All these guys, they still get three or four letters per-week from people with a self-addressed envelope with hockey cards asking for signatures. I interviewed a goaltender named Gary Simmons. His nickname was ‘The Cobra’ and he was with them the last two seasons. He was one of the first guys to paint his goalie mask. I shot him signing pictures.
A lot of times the letters saying ‘this is for my dad’ and he signs them and a week later they’re on eBay being sold.
The Seals have quite the cult following. Why is that?
Because they were in California and had those green and yellow uniforms. There was a fascination with them, and the fact that they were always not doing well added to that.
There was a player on the seals named Morris Mott, and for some reason the New York Rangers fans adopted him. I don’t know if they felt sorry for the Seals, but they formed a Morris Mott fan club in New York. They had banners in Madison Square Garden. He would meet his fans after or before the games. The team bus was driving out of Madison Square Garden and there was a sign saying ‘Madison Square Garden welcomes Morris Mott and the California Golden Seals.’
They would toast him with Mott’s apple juice.
What was it like for you personally meeting your heroes?
I went to see Gilles Meloche, he was the Seals’ standout goalie. He was the guy these people all say, if he played most of his career with another team, he probably would have been in the Hall of Fame. But he’s still a goaltending coach with the Penguins, but I went to his house outside of Montreal. It was great. We did the interview, and he was like ‘do you want to use this as a background’ and he had a small replica Stanley Cup, I didn’t know you get a little replica when you win.
Afterwards I was sitting with his wife talking and so we were talking about Stanley Cup rings, so he brought out his Stanley Cup rings to see those.
Though this is a passion project, you probably want people to see this. Do you worry that the Seals are too niche of a topic?
When you look at some of these other teams that are having problems. The whole thing about the Seals and how they did everything wrong, at so many points if they had gone left instead of right, things would have been different, and it was sort of like a comedy of errors. One of the best stories about these guys bonding. One story, three players told me the story, they had lost a whole bunch of games in a row and they would knock off a real powerful team. It was Montreal or Boston. They were in last place, they came in the dressing room, they picked up the trash can with all their old tape and marched around it like it was the Stanley Cup.
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