The New Jersey Devils, as a National Hockey League franchise, have their start not in the Garden State in the early-1980s, but rather in the Show Me State in the mid-1970s. So, as we look ahead to the 2014-15 Devils season, let’s start our journey right where it began: with the 1974-75 Kansas City Scouts season.
Prior to 1967, the NHL was a very exclusive club, consisting of only six cities: Montreal (Canadiens), Chicago (Blackhawks), Detroit (Red Wings), Boston (Bruins), Toronto (Maple Leafs) and New York (Rangers). In 1967, the NHL doubled in size, adding Los Angeles (Kings), Pittsburgh (Penguins), St. Louis (Blues), Minnesota (North Stars – now known as the Dallas Stars), Philadelphia (Flyers) and Oakland (the California/Oakland Golden Seals/Seals – later moved to Cleveland, then merged with the North Stars). Expansion was an almost immediate hit in the cities the teams were granted and another round was planned for 1970. That year saw Buffalo (the Sabres) and Vancouver (Canucks) join the league. Vancouver was a particularly interesting choice, as they had been snubbed during the 1967 expansion process due to Montreal and Toronto’s unwillingness to share Canadian television rights. Expansion in 1972 was a preemptive strike against the World Hockey Association, a rival outfit looking to get a foothold in many of North America’s modern arenas. Two of those arenas the WHA coveted were the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York and The Omni in Atlanta. In trying to keep the WHA out of those buildings, the NHL would add the Islanders and the Atlanta Flames. Rounding out expansion in the late-60’s/early-70’s was Washington, DC (the Capitals) and the Kansas City Scouts in 1974. Expansion was also planned for 1975-76, which would have placed teams in Seattle and Denver, but this was scrapped due to economic problems experienced by some of the previous expansions (most notably the Oakland franchise and the Kansas City Scouts).
The Scouts existence was very short and tumultuous and things got off to a rough start. They were originally to be nicknamed the “Mohawks,” owing to Kansas City’s place on the Missouri-Kansas border, as the team wished to pull fans from both states (the legend is that “MO” came from the postal abbreviation for Missouri and “hawks” comes from the traditional nickname for people from Kansas, “Jayhawks”). This nickname was immediately protested by the Chicago Blackhawks. The Kansas City franchise would then take on the nickname “Scouts” as an homage to the statue in Kansas City that would be featured in their logo. The Scouts lasted two years in Kansas City’s Kemper Arena, amassing only 27 wins against 110 loses with 23 ties. In those two years, they finished last in the Smythe Division both seasons.
With the Scouts failing to gain a foothold in the Kansas City sports landscape, a season ticket drive failing and facing $1 million in debt, the team was sold to Jack Vickers, a Denver, Colorado oilman following the 1975-76 season. Vickers would immediately pull up stakes and move the team to the brand new McNichols Sports Arena in Denver. Nineteen seventy-six was a rough year for the NHL: as the Scouts were busy becoming the Colorado Rockies, the California Golden Seals were also moving to Cleveland, Ohio to become the Cleveland Barons, these being the first franchise relocations in 41 years.
During their years as the Colorado Rockies, the franchise would fare slightly better in the standings, but not much better financially. Starting their tenure in Colorado, the Rockies finished the 1976-77 season with a 20-46-14 record, good for last place in the Smythe Division again. Their record, worse in 1977-78, would land them in second place in a weak Smythe Division: at 19-40-21 and with 59 points was good enough for a playoff berth that year (by contrast, Montreal, who won the more competitive Norris Division, finished with 129 points, first overall in the NHL). The Rockies had made the playoffs for the first time in their history (and the last time until 1987-88) but were bounced in the preliminary round by the Philadelphia Flyers. In 1978-79, the team would finish with 42 points and a 15-53-12 record. The next year (1979-80) saw a last place in the Smythe Division, a 19-48-13 record and 51 points. This was the season that saw the famous billboard “Come to the Fights and see a Rockies Game Break Out” and Don Cherry’s only season as coach of the team. Cherry would feud with management all season and would not return. The 1979-80 season also saw the Winnipeg Jets, Hartford Whalers, Edmonton Oilers and Quebec Nordiques join the NHL in a merger with the WHA. With only the Oilers being somewhat competitive, the Rockies were able to finish ahead of the Winnipeg Jets in 1980-81 with a 22-45-13 record and 57 points. By now, the Smythe Division had improved greatly (St. Louis would win the division that year with 107 points) and the Rockies finished well out of a playoff berth.
Starting in 1978, rumors began to surface that the team would be sold to New Jersey trucking executive Arthur Imperatore, Sr. Once the sale went down, Imperatore made his desires known: he was to move the franchise east to New Jersey to play in the Meadowlands Sports Complex. Unfortunately for Imperatore and New Jersey hockey fans, the building that was to become known as the Brendan Byrne Arena would not be completed for another three years and with no NHL-suitable rink for the team in New Jersey in the meantime, Imperatore would hold off the move and sell the team to Peter Gilbert in 1980. Gilbert also wished to move the team to Jersey, but his move would initially be blocked due to the NHL giving the first right to use the Meadowlands Arena to the New York Rangers (the team’s parent company, Madison Square Garden Corporation, was in a battle with New York City at the time over financial aid regarding real estate taxes and labor costs). The Meadowlands fell within the Rangers’ 50 mile radius (sort of a “sphere of influence”) and, thus, they would not need league approval to move to the arena, while the Rockies, who would be moving more than 50 miles to say the least, would.
During this time, the franchise was a sought after commodity, a group of Seattle investors claimed to be putting together an offer in February 1982 that would move the team to Washington state; the Canadian capital city of Ottawa coveted the team as well. The Ottawa mayor at the time, Marion Dewar claimed to have hammered out a deal with Gilbert to move the team to the Ottawa Civic Centre, which would have made “psychological and financial sense” since the Rockies would be playing each night in a filled 10,000-seat arena, instead of playing in a mostly empty, much larger McNichols Arena. Those deals, however, never materialized and Gilbert and the Rockies were losing money, to the tune of $70,000 a home game. Enter Dr. John McMullen in the spring of 1982. Like Imperatore, McMullen was a native New Jerseyan (having been born in Jersey City and residing in Montclair) who wanted to move the franchise to the Meadowlands. McMullen was very well-versed in sports ownership, having been part of the group that bought the New York Yankees from CBS (this group would also include George Steinbrenner, leading Dr. McMullen to famously quip that “nothing was more limited than being a limited partner with George Steinbrenner”) and later moving on to own the Houston Astros outright. His group buying the hockey team would include the man for whom their new arena was named, former New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne, as well as John C. Whitehead. This group would purchase the Colorado Rockies for $9 million in May of 1982 and immediately seek approval to move it to northern Jersey. The collateral damage was a fee of $7 million to be split up between the Rangers, Flyers and the Islanders as indemnification fees for “invading” their territorial rights and some of the $7 million would go to the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for the Jets move from the Norris Division to the Smythe Division. This realignment would allow the Rockies to join the Patrick Division out east. McMullen and the Rockies were able to make the move due to the Rangers giving notice to the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSEA) not only that they would not be moving across the Hudson River to play their games (they had settled their dispute with the City of New York and would stay at MSG) but, most importantly to McMullen and company, that they would not block the move of any team into the Meadowlands to play their home games. The Rockies, who had just finished up a basement dwelling 18-49-13 season out west, would now be playing just eight miles from the New York Rangers. The closest geographical proximity of any two teams in the NHL.