The Flyers, despite an unusually messy expansion birth 50 years ago, have matured into a model of NHL success.

Valued by Forbes at $730 million, the franchise has consistently filled its arena, reached eight Stanley Cup Finals, and added a bright orange hue to an already colorful Philadelphia sports scene.

"Everybody told me I was crazy to leave a job [covering City Hall] at the Daily News for something that was going to be a total failure," said Lou Scheinfeld, a longtime Flyers executive who was there at conception. "But I really believed in Jerry Wolman and Ed Snider."

Few others shared that belief in 1966, when the sweet scent of TV money finally impelled the NHL - icebound for decades in the same six North American cities - to expand.

Despite an outcry from western Canada, the owners were determined to limit that growth to the United States, using six new teams to create a vast and geographically balanced TV market. Philadelphia, its NHL experience limited to the dreadful 1930 Quakers, was initially a long shot.

"One NHL owner said, 'Philly's a lousy sports town. We don't want to go there,' " said Scheinfeld.

From among the dozen candidate cities, the league chose Los Angeles and Oakland/San Francisco to occupy the western flank, Minneapolis/St. Paul and St. Louis for the middle.

The last remaining question at the New York expansion meeting that February was who would join Pittsburgh in the East, Baltimore or Philadelphia?

"Baltimore had great hockey history," said Scheinfeld, retired now at 81 but then a Flyers vice president. "They thought they had it in the bag."

But the NHL wanted 15,000-seat arenas, and Baltimore's held only 12,000. When officials there killed plans for a new building, Philadelphia got the sixth expansion franchise.

"Wolman and Snider impressed them with a really strong presentation," Scheinfeld recalled. "The $2 million entry fee wasn't a problem because Wolman then was in really good shape."

Wolman's construction empire, though, was about to collapse, nearly burying the new hockey franchise in the rubble.

That's why, when the Flyers officially introduced themselves and their sport to a skeptical city on Oct. 19, 1967, things could hardly have gone worse.

A Page One Inquirer story the morning after the home opener immediately cast doubt on the team's future. Snider, the Flyers' principal owner, had been fired from an executive position with the Eagles by Wolman, who owned both the NFL team and the Spectrum. The implication was that the Philadelphia sports empire built by the two Washington natives was crumbling.

"That story was a tremendous blow to Ed," said Scheinfeld. "Jerry was running around the world trying to save his empire, and Ed was cobbling together the money to open the building."

Money was so tight that while sorting each day's mail, the staff prayed for envelopes containing cash or checks.

If those 7,812 fans at the home opener, a 1-0 Flyers win over Pittsburgh, had witnessed the backstage chaos that preceded it, they might have stayed home too. Like the city itself, the Spectrum wasn't ready for NHL hockey.

The financial pinch had caused amenities to be scrapped. The arena's centerpiece, a solid-light-matrix scoreboard, was in place but not functioning. The seats arrived at the last minute. The boards almost didn't make it.

"The boards were unfinished and sitting in a woodworking shop in New York," Scheinfeld recalled. "We made a deal with union workers there to allow us to bring in a big trailer and take the stuff to Philly. They left a door open, and we took it and had local carpenters finish it."

Media problems were even worse.

WGTW, the TV outlet for just 25 games, was ill-equipped for the strange new sport. Its early telecasts were virtually unwatchable. The Inquirer said it wouldn't send reporters to road games until the Flyers averaged 10,000 fans at home. And while Camden sportscaster Gene Hart had been engaged to call the games, no local radio station had agreed to broadcast them.

"In other cities, stations are fighting for the rights," said disappointed Flyers president Bill Putnam. "Not here."

Scheinfeld had spent the previous year trying to familiarize Philadelphia with a sport long confined to a small slice of the continent.

He showered the area with Flyers decals, made promotional deals with the city's two ice rinks, developed a Freddie Flyer mascot. At one point, he bused city officials and businessmen to Madison Square Garden for an up-close taste of NHL hockey.

"We worked nonstop. I'd call people, and they'd think I was talking about Breyer's ice cream or the Friars Club," he said. "They'd say, 'Flyers? What's the Flyers?' "

The team had been named via a contest, sponsored by Acme. Flyers beat out such entries as Bruisers, Quakers, Liberty Bells, and Croaking Crickets.

The payroll was around $130,000. Goalie Bernie Parent had the top deal, three years for a total of $57,000. Putnam predicted the team would meet its financial obligations if it drew 11,000 a game.

That was going to be tough with only 2,132 season tickets sold by opening night. Yet despite that and two West Coast losses to start the 1967-68 season, Putnam predicted a sellout for the home opener.

Instead, even with seats priced as low as $2, the new Spectrum was half-full. Some other expansion teams did worse. Los Angeles drew 7,023 to its opener, Oakland 6,886.

The Flyers stayed at or near the top of the expansion division, averaging 9,625 for that season.

The turnaround came on a February weekend. Before two sellout Spectrum crowds, they defeated Chicago and Toronto - both Original Six teams.

"And just like that," said Scheinfeld, "we were accepted."

@philafitz