Column

California Seals documentary is one you don't want to let slip away

It all seems to come back to the white skates, and hockey fans’ fond fascination with a team that had three names — and more owners than names — in its nine-season existence.

One of six teams admitted to the NHL in the 1967 expansion, the California Seals — later known as the Oakland Seals and California Golden Seals — have achieved cult status. More than 40 years after the team moved to Cleveland and nearly 40 years since the franchise disappeared in a merger with the Minnesota North Stars, the Seals booster club still meets every other month. A tribute to the Seals staged last month by the San Jose Sharks drew throngs of nostalgic fans who soaked up the sight of the team’s old green suitcases and jerseys and reverently greeted former players.

“They were actually mobbed at that game,” said Mark Greczmiel, a freelance TV producer who was an avid Seals fan while he grew up in Alameda. “I was surprised at how many people came that wore Seals jerseys. They were lined up five deep to ask for autographs. It was a pretty emotional night.”

Greczmiel understood their attachment to the team. He took his own emotional involvement a step further by making a 97-minute documentary about the Seals, “The California Golden Seals Story,” using crowdfunding to enhance his “micro” budget and allow him to realize a dream that began when his family moved from Vancouver to the Bay Area and his father took him and his two brothers to Seals games.

The documentary, available for purchase or rental on iTunes, is educational for those who aren’t familiar with the Seals’ history and entertaining for those who remember the colorful green, gold and white uniforms that club owner Charles O. Finley ordered them to wear. Greczmiel interviewed many key players, including Charlie Simmer, Marshall Johnston, Stan Weir, and goaltenders Gary “Cobra” Simmons and Gilles Meloche. He was struck by their frankness, especially the honesty of Rick Hampton, who had been impossibly touted as the next Bobby Orr.

“He was drafted when he was 17, he was like an 18-year-old kid when he joined the team and he had all this pressure on him. So it was really interesting,” Greczmiel said. “He told a story about buying a Mercedes Benz and how all the other players were jealous. And he still has that car. It’s been 40-something years and he still has that car.”

Among Greczmiel’s must-get interviews was Wayne Gretzky, whose first NHL game as a spectator involved the Seals. Greczmiel was told Gretzky could give him only eight minutes. Gretzky stayed much longer and left with a Seals beanie that Greczmiel had given him, promising to wear it at Pebble Beach.

The Seals were laughable, lovable and, above all, memorable. Greczmiel’s documentary hits all the key points and is warmed by the undercurrent of his youthful fandom for a team that couldn’t find long-term success in northern California.

“For nine seasons we watched the Seals play. Every year was an adventure,” he said in a phone interview. “Every year you thought it was going to be a better team. Some years they were, then something horrible would happen, like Charles Finley or the World Hockey Assn. [luring players away] or a variety of other things.”

He attended film school at UCLA and then worked in Edmonton during the peak of Gretzky’s career, quite a contrast from the hockey he had seen in Oakland. Doing a film about the Seals was always in the back of his mind: he had taken home movies at some games and had taken pictures while working for his high school paper, but he wasn’t sure where to go from there.

It proved to be easier than he imagined. Once word got out about his project, he received video and audio tapes from people who had kept them for decades. Jon Miller, renowned as the voice of the San Francisco Giants but once a young hockey play-by-play announcer, contributed some old 2-inch videotape he had stashed in a closet. The official team photographer gave him access to old photo negatives.

“And another gentleman who had directed some of those games, he provided some footage for me,” Greczmiel said. “And then I discovered that when TV stations went from film to videotape, some of them in the Bay Area gave all their old film cans to San Francisco State University. So I found a whole bunch of news stories done in the ’60s and ’70s and a lot of them hadn’t been seen since they aired back then.”

With the help of Len Shapiro, once a Seals publicity executive and now their unofficial historian, Greczmiel tracked down many players.  “When I grew up, these were my idols, and then to go to their homes and get their stories, it was incredible,” he said. “And all of them talk about how every week they’ll get one or two letters from somebody sending them a Seals hockey card or a puck or a program to sign. … They all had stories about playing in California, this way-off bastion of hockey in the National Hockey League. It was fun to hear those stories.”

And about those white skates: They were regulation black boots, but Finley ordered trainers to paint them white. They had to be retouched often in order to cover puck marks and scuff marks and they became annoyingly heavy by the end of the season. But that wasn’t the worst part of having to wear them.

“When you’re from Canada, no guy is supposed to wear white ice skates,” Greczmiel said. “I didn’t use this in the piece but one of the players talked about hearing players from other teams say, ‘You’re a bunch of figure skaters. Go home. You can’t skate anyway or play hockey.’ Those white skates are a big collectible now.”

This documentary is a collectible, too.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen

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