Close up on a handheld smartphone filming a concert. Stage lights are visible in the background.
Music History

How NHL expansion led to the birth of arena rock

After a couple of decades of seeing teams come and go (Montreal Maroons, Brooklyn Americans, Philadelphia Quakers, Ottawa Senators, etc.), the NHL consolidated into just six teams in 1942. For the next twenty-five years, the league in its “original six” form: Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadians, New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings.

In 1963, William Jennings, the governor of the Rangers, floated the idea of expanding the league across the US all the way out to the California coast. His proposal to add two teams for the 1964-65 season was voted down, but discussions continued. In 1965, the NHL decided to add six teams, hoping that a larger league will help it regain a TV contract. By February 1966, it was agreed that St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and San Francisco (which was eventually changed to Oakland) would be granted teams for the 1967-68 season.

Just as the newly-expanded NHL was beginning play, a new basketball league was putting teams on the court. The American Basketball Association introduced things like the 3-point bucket and a 30-second shot clock–and it brought big-league(ish) basketball to cities without NBA teams. (The ABA and the NBA eventually merged in 1976.)

So what does any of this have to do with rock? In a word, arenas.

Six new NHL teams meant they needed places to play. Pittsburgh’s Igloo (the nickname for the Civic Arena was renovated) for the Penguins while the same was done for Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and the terrible St. Louis Area. The Spectrum in Philadelphia was opened for business on September 30, 1967. The Met Center was built for the Minnesota North Stars and opened on October 21  While the LA Kings moved into the brand new Forum that December.  Meanwhile, the New York Rangers moved into a brand new version of Madison Square Garden on February 11, 1968. Meanwhile, there were suddenly fourteen pro basketball teams, all needing places to play.

The net result of all this expansion was a flood of new expensive buildings that needed to be filled with something when not hosting sports teams, especially in the off-season. Like what?

Rock shows, for one.

By 1967, rock concerts were becoming insanely popular. The Beatles, thanks to their final tour in 1966, showed that bands could fill arenas and stadiums. The 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, the first modern rock festivals, proved that there was a huge market for this music. Why not start booking bands into these new (and newly-renovated) arenas? Could a promoter convince 15,000-18,000 people to see a band in a hockey rink?

Artists were game. It was a chance to play in front of a huge crowd without having to worry about the weather. And potential box offices grosses were much greater. Instead of earning $1,000 from playing a club or $10,000 in a theatre, an area show could result in a take of $100K or more. (Remember that ticket prices were around $5 at the time, which was considered to be the most the average fan would pay. Adjust for inflation, that’s about $35 in today’s money.)

Finding adequate PA equipment was a challenge, but both the Beach Boys and Herb Alpert had already been experimenting with new sound reinforcement technology which helped. (It would take decades to get live sound even close to right, but we had to start somewhere.)

Artists had to learn how to project a performance over a much larger room (This was particularly difficult for frontpersons and guitarists). Now only did stage shows have to expand to fill the available space, acts began to compete with each other with the level of drama they could provide. Many gigs became theatrical in their presentation with costumes, lighting and special effects like lasers. Audience expectations changed. Backstage areas suddenly became bigger and lent themselves to all kinds of new, er, behaviour. Promoters and roadies had to learn brand new skillsets.

The LA Forum hosted its first rock show on October 19, 1968, when Cream appeared with opening act Deep Purple as part of their farewell tour.

Cream also became the first band to headline a show at Madison Square Garden. That gig happened November 2, 1968.

Another early arena rock act was The Doors. They appeared at The Forum on December 14, 1968.

It didn’t take long for industry people to realize that the economics worked and rock shows in arena became a normal thing.

Granted, this all probably would have happened had the NHL not expanded, but that sure helped. Call it one of the great unintended consequences of the 1960s.

More perspective at the LA Times.









Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37899 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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