Hockey fans have been treated to some remarkable documentaries during the past 18 months, including two takes on the Red Army-era Soviet national team and a harrowing look at the turbulent life of former Boston Bruins great Derek Sanderson. Next in line to get the feature-length treatment: the NHL’s lovable losers, the California Seals.
“I always thought the Seals story would make for a good documentary,” says filmmaker Mark Greczmiel.
The franchise joined the NHL as part of the six-team expansion in 1967 as the Oakland Seals and survived nine tumultuous seasons in the Bay Area. Although they experienced little success on the ice, only twice making the playoffs, they’re still fondly remembered for some colorful characters on the ice and some wild shenanigans off it. And now, with the 50th anniversary of their birth on the horizon, their history is ready for a loving second look.
Greczmiel, an industry veteran who made his mark with E! Network documentaries on Lindsay Lohan, Sandra Bullock and Pink, says this is the film he was born to make. A Canadian native who moved to the Bay Area with his family at age 7, he has fond memories of attending Seals games as a child. “The Coliseum only held 12,500 fans. It was not a big arena to begin with and some nights there were only 2,500 or so in the crowd, but it was always so noisy,” he says. “I went to games in Edmonton later and there’d be 16,000 people there and it’d be quiet. It was a different experience.”
With so many sports going on in the Bay Area, hockey tended to take the back seat on the local scene. But the Seals had a hardcore following, including Greczmiel who often brought his own camera to the rink to take home movies of his heroes in action.
Even after he moved back to Canada, the Seals were never far from his thoughts. While working at a television station in Edmonton, he put together a feature on the team’s history. But he dreamed of doing something bigger. After returning to California and completing a seven-year stint at E!, Greczmiel moved into freelance work. Finding himself with some time between gigs last summer, he began work on his dream project in earnest.
He began by tracking down former players and driving across North America to get their first-hand takes on what it was like to be part of the team. To date, Greczmiel has interviewed more than 30 former Seals on camera, including Gilles Meloche, Dennis Maruk, Charlie Simmer, Gary Smith (the goalie in the photo at the top of the page), Walt McKechnie, Gary Simmons, Ernie Hicke, Rick Hampton and Stan Weir, along with various staffers and adherents. To a man, he says, they’ve been thrilled to take part.
“The guys are surprised that someone wanted to talk to them, but they have all been great,” Greczmiel says. “They’ve opened homes to me and shared some great stories.”
Years later, the common thread these guys share is a sense of humor, he says. “This team wasn’t very good. They didn’t win a lot of games, but they made the best of it. Walt McKechnie told me a story about one time when they were playing in Montreal, back when the Canadiens were dominating the league. He was taking the face-off and he asked the linesman if he had an extra puck. The official asked him why. He said, ‘So we can have one to play with, too!’”
Then there was the time the Seals were flying back from a game in Boston where the boys had bought a bunch a live lobsters to take home ... and someone got the bright idea to let them loose on the plane.
“There was a real sense of togetherness,” Greczmiel said. “They went through a lot, not just with the losing, but they traveled more than any other team except Los Angeles. And they had to deal with all the Charlie Finley stuff.”
Finley, the iconoclastic owner of baseball’s Oakland A's, purchased the franchise before the 1970-71 season and immediately began impressing some of his unique ideas on the club. He changed the franchise’s name from Oakland to California, switched the team’s colors to green and yellow to match his ball club and insisted that the players’ skates be painted white. Off the ice, he made them wear green blazers and travel with green and yellow suitcases that one player said made them feel as though they were part of a circus.
Of course, Finley was also the first NHL owner to fly his players first class, so it’s not like all his ideas were bad.
While Greczmiel has most of his interviews in the can, he still has a couple of famous names on his wish list: Wayne Gretzky and Tom Hanks.
When the future Great One was taken to his first NHL game in Toronto by his grandmother, the visitors that night were the Seals. When he joined the WHA’s Indianapolis Racers at 18, his roommate was former Seals netminder Gary Smith, who remembers Gretzky asking plenty of questions about one particular incident from that game.
And Hanks? His well-known love of hockey took root when he was a youngster selling concessions at the Coliseum.
With the fun of the face-to-face interviews (mostly) out of the way, now comes the hard work. Greczmiel has to finish the script, which then has to pass muster with the NHL in order to gain permission to use league marks. “They’ve been very helpful to this point,” he said of the league. He’s also in the process of acquiring and licensing rare Seals footage, much of which hasn’t been seen since it was first used more than 40 years ago. That takes time and money.
“Finding that footage has been a challenge,” Greczmiel says. “There’s not much around. Not many home games were televised at the time. Boston and Chicago would televise road games and so I’ve got some of that. And I’ve managed to track down some old news footage that’s really amazing.”
Greczmiel has more news coverage on the way and says he’s “cautiously optimistic” that he’ll finish the film by next spring. To hit that mark though, he could use a little help from hockey fans.
“One thing I really need is more color pictures of the team,” he said. “If anyone took pictures, especially from road games and especially from the final two seasons, I’d like to see them.”
If you have Seals material to donate, or if you’d like to make a financial contribution to assist in the completion of the project, check out the documentary’s Facebook page.
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