Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Who Wore Them First?

The legend of the Oakland Seals wearing white skates, as seen to the left, is well-known in hockey circles. Whether they were white due to paint, the colour of the leather, or shoe polish is a debate that hasn't been put to rest, there has always been one question that has bothered me about the skates. It's a rather mundane question when you think about it, but the historical ramifications of the answer could be huge. In saying this, I've always wondered which Seals player was the first to skate out on the ice wearing the white skates?

This information would require some painstaking research to pour through all the game rosters and moments of the Oakland Seals to determine when the skates were first worn and who wore them first, and for all we know those records may not exist. Thankfully, there are some from that era of painted skates who were part of the Seals organization, and an answer was found today!

Bill Torrey, a man who is associated with the building of the New York Islanders dynasty, actually got his start in the NHL as the Vice-President of the Oakland Seals, and his work over four years with the Oakland club saw its share of ups and downs. Torrey most recently has been working with the Florida Panthers, and he sat down today for a Hockey Reddit AMA as one of the greatest hockey minds answered a ton of questions including which player wore the white skates on the ice for the Seals first! To say I was excited as I read this would be a major understatement as the legend of the Seals white skates only grows with this new information!

The question posed by Reddit user ZuliaVZ was, "What were some of the most outrageous pranks or stunts that you dealt with as part of the Oakland Seals organization (besides polishing white skates)? (My Dad taught me about hockey at those games.)"

Now, ZuliaVZ was looking for some behind-the-scenes prank stories, but Mr. Torrie took the answer in an entirely different direction as he told a story about the white skates that I'd bet few know! I've cut a few spaces out of the response to make his answer more blog-friendly, but Mr. Torrie replied,
The white skates, I've read and heard a lot of stories about them, but when I was there, we didn't wear white skates... in league games.

Charlie Finley was the owner of the team, and he had the A's baseball team, which was the first in baseball to have white spikes, which he thought was a beautiful thing to see. I told him "you're putting white skates on white ice," while baseball players were wearing white spikes on green grass, which is why they looked so good.

As soon as he bought the team, he ordered white skates, so in the middle of July my secretary told me I had a package, and it was Charlie's white skates. The next day, I called the trainer in and told him to put them in the locker room and forget about them. So then, we had training camp up in Oshawa, and we had six or seven exhibition games with NHL teams. I hadn't heard from Charlie the rest of the summer, and we were playing an exhibition game in St. Louis, and I was up in the press box, and halfway through the first period, I had a note to me that a Mr. Charles Finley was downstairs and wanted to see me.

So, at the end of the period I went down. He looked at me and said "Bill, where are my white skates?"

So I told him, "Charlie, we're in training camp, we're on the road, I don't know if the trainers put the white skates in the trunks."

He said "Bill, I came all the way from Chicago, I want to see my white skates."

I went to the coach and said "Charlie's here, and he wants to see someone wearing white skates this period." So the coach said "You go in there and tell them, I'm not telling them."

Our trainer went in the back room and came back and he had the white skates - he'd put them in the equipment trunk - so I went into the locker room and I said to the boys "The man who signs your paychecks is out in the hallway and has come all the way from Chicago, and he wants to see somebody wearing these."

So, I went out in the hall, and talked to our coach for a few minutes. Our trainer came back out and said "I don't think anybody's going to put them on."

I went back in and said "Let me just remind you that Mr. Finley's signature will be on your paycheck at the end of the month, and there may not be paychecks if someone does not volunteer." And I turned around and walked out and held my breath.

Our coach turned to me and said "If that doesn't get their attention, nothing I can say will."

Gary Jarrett, left winger, volunteered to put them on, and he came out and wore them. That's the first time the white skates were ever seen in the NHL. So, after the game was over, I went down and saw Charlie and asked if he liked the white skates.

"No," he said. "You were right. White on white isn't the same as white on green."

We never wore them that year. Charlie got a hold of CCM and convinced them that the white skates were no good, but the new uniforms were kelly green, wedding gown white and sunny California yellow. He said "Make up colored skates."

So, what eventually happened, a year later, the Seals wore a green boot with a yellow toe and white trim. The funny thing, everyone kind of laughed when Charlie did that. But soon, the Maple Leafs wore blue skates with a white toe, St. Louis had light blue skates, the Red Wings had red skates... they lasted about two years in the league. The trainers didn't like them, because the pucks would scuff them with black marks. I don't know how many people remember that, but that's the actual history. The Seals did wear white for a while, but Charlie liked the green ones better, so he got rid of them himself.

He never did get a yellow puck. He had that idea, too.
Your trivia answer is none other than Gary Jarrett! Jarret was 26 years-old and had arrived in a trade with Detroit on May 27, 1968 that saw the Red Wings ship Jarrett, Doug Roberts, Howie Young and Chris Worthy to Oakland Seals for Bob Baun and Ron Harris. Ironically, Jarrett had his best NHL season in 1968-69, scoring 22 goals and adding 23 helpers in just 63 games. Maybe it was the work of the skates? Wait, that can't be since Bill Torrie stated above that they never wore white skates in league games. In any case, Jarrett was the first Seals player to wear the white skates on the ice in any NHL game, including the preseason!

When people ask me why I love hockey history, it's stories like the one that Bil Torrie told above. Despite everything we've been told and may have read, there's always some part of a story or a deeper story that we don't know. Ain't history great?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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