Forty seasons ago, Cleveland finally got its long-awaited NHL franchise. It was an abject failure, even though it is one of the most successful cities in the history of professional hockey.
BY VINCE GUERRIERI
On June 19, 2016, Cleveland became the first team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 series deficit in the league final. The Cavaliers capped off their comeback by beating the juggernaut Golden State Warriors on the road in Game 7, as LeBron James made good on his promise to bring a championship to Cleveland. Headlines all across the U.S. praised ‘King James’ for giving the city its first title since the Browns won the NFL championship in 1964, ending a 52-year drought.
Eight days earlier back in Cleveland, the night after the Cavaliers went down 3-1, the Lake Erie Monsters ended a similar 52-year drought for the city, though to significantly less attention and with comparative ease. There at Quicken Loans Arena, the Cavaliers’ home in downtown Cleveland, the Monsters swept away the Hershey Bears to give the city its first Calder Cup since the Barons won it in 1964.
It was the 10th AHL title won by a Cleveland-based team, second-most in league history behind only the Bears, who have 11. Of course, Hershey has had an AHL team for nearly 80 years, while Cleveland has had one, off and on, for about 45. All things considered, Cleveland is arguably the most successful city in the history of the AHL.
You’d think a place with such success and a rich tradition of major league sports could translate it to the next level, or at least make a real go of it. After all, the NBA, NFL and MLB have all stuck it out in Cleveland despite some rather trying times. Yet when the NHL finally came to the city in 1976, after several attempts over the previous four decades, it lasted just two forgettable seasons before skipping town. The NHL just couldn’t gain a foothold in Cleveland, and it has never come close to returning since.
When Cleveland finally got an NHL franchise in 1976, it put the city on the shortlist of those with teams in all four major pro sports leagues. It was a shot in the arm for a city that desperately needed it. Cleveland was becoming a national punch line in the 1970s, aided by events like the Cuyahoga River catching fire (a regular occurrence but one that attracted national notice), mayor Ralph Perk’s hair catching fire at a ceremonial ribbon-cutting, and his wife turning down an invitation to the White House because it conflicted with her bowling night.
Cleveland was getting the floundering California Golden Seals, one of the six teams added by the NHL in the 1967 expansion. The club would play at Richfield Coliseum, the biggest and newest arena in the NHL. And it tapped into local energy by renaming the team the Barons, an homage to the AHL franchise that was so good it was called the seventh-best team in hockey during the NHL’s Original Six era. New owner Mel Swig hoped the name would bring some of the fans that watched the AHL Barons at the old Cleveland Arena to the NHL games.
“There is a great history attached to the name Barons,” Swig said. “Their history in this community is a proud one. We hope to do as well or better.”
It was an unmitigated disaster. The Barons lasted two years and went 47-87-26, missing the playoffs in both seasons. The team struggled to attract fans and, at times, to even meet payroll. Finally, in 1978, the team suffered a fate no major league team has since: it folded.
The storied history of the AHL Barons – and really, hockey in Cleveland – can be traced to one man: Al Sutphin, who owned a printing company in Cleveland and served as the city’s boxing commissioner. Sutphin bought the flagging Cleveland Indians of the International League in 1934. The following year, he led a bid to relocate the Montreal Canadiens to Cleveland. The bid failed, but Sutphin continued his efforts to try to bring the NHL to the city. All that was needed was a new arena.
The Indians, which Sutphin renamed the Falcons, played at the Elysium, billed as the largest indoor ice rink in the world. Yet it was ill suited to hosting hockey, so a new arena was built downtown. Originally part of the pitch to secure the Habs, it instead became the home of the Falcons, who had been absorbed into the newly formed AHL and renamed again, this time the Barons. The Cleveland Arena opened to a crowd of 6,000 fans for an exhibition against the New York Rangers on Nov. 17, 1937. A month later, a game against the Philadelphia Ramblers drew more than 10,000. Estimates before the season projected 148,000 fans would come watch the Barons. A total of 250,000 attended. A year later, the Barons won their first Calder Cup.
In 1942, the NHL offered membership to the Barons, but Sutphin declined, believing his team’s departure would spell the end for the AHL. A decade later, the team asked to join the NHL and was turned down. By then, the Cleveland Arena was sliding into disrepair and would’ve been the smallest rink in the NHL.
However, it remained a successful home for the Barons, who won nine Calder Cups in a 25-year span, behind talent like future Hall of Famer Johnny Bower, who acquired his nickname ‘China Wall’ during his nine seasons in net for the Barons.
“I knew some of the other players for the Barons, and they said, ‘It’s a great place. The fans are just great, and you won’t have any problems if you work hard,’ ” Bower said. “And I didn’t have any problems. When I was there, the fans were just as good there as they were in Toronto. I didn’t really want to leave Cleveland. I still love Cleveland.”
By the late ’60s, the Cleveland pro sports scene had changed dramatically, in large part because of Nick Mileti. Mileti, a local attorney, saw an opportunity for basketball to flourish in the city, so he bought the Cleveland Arena in 1968 and set about getting an NBA team – the Cavaliers, who started play two years later. Mileti also applied for an NHL expansion team in 1972 but was denied. He turned instead to the upstart WHA, which had formed that year and was looking for cities underserved by the NHL.
The WHA’s Crusaders and AHL’s Barons coexisted in Cleveland for a year before the Barons were exiled to Jacksonville where they lasted just one season before folding, an inglorious end to a proud franchise. In 1976, while the Crusaders limped along, holding their own on the ice but struggling to make payroll, a deal was reached in secret for the NHL’s Kansas City Scouts to relocate to Cleveland. The deal fell through, but another was struck to bring the Golden Seals to Cleveland. Mileti, reading the writing on the wall, merged the Crusaders with the Minnesota Fighting Saints. The team folded after just one season.
The return of the Barons – this time as an NHL team – was announced just three months before the start of the 1976-77 season in October. The team had to scramble to coordinate its schedule with the Cavaliers, who were now playing at Richfield Coliseum, a new arena built by Mileti that the Barons would share with the city’s NBA team.
“People were kind of lukewarm about it,” said Cleveland sports historian Scott Longert. “It happened all of sudden, like ‘Hey, here’s a hockey team!’ ”
Attendance was a problem almost immediately. By January, Swig started talking publicly about the franchise moving or folding. A month later, the team nearly failed to make payroll, to the point where the players threatened to strike. Swig eventually sold out to minority owner George Gund, but the Barons’ attendance problems continued.
“I couldn’t even give tickets away,” said Al MacAdam, a former Barons player and captain. “I asked my mailman if he wanted tickets, and he said, ‘I’ve got bowling tonight.’ ”
After the 1977-78 season, the Barons merged with the Minnesota North Stars, spelling the end of Cleveland hockey for another 14 years until the Lumberjacks of the IHL arrived. Since then, the city has been home to a variety of teams, all playing at the Quicken Loans Arena, home of the Cavaliers, who share it with the Monsters, renamed the Cleveland Monsters for the 2016-17 season.
“They’ve got fans and they’re really loyal, but they’d have to make a big jump to get an NHL team,” Longert said. “The level it is now is probably where it’s going to stay. The opportunity was missed.”