Posted by: Adventures in Pucking | September 11, 2011

The Cleveland Barons: a hockey saga in three parts

Once upon a time, before the Columbus Blue Jackets, Toledo Walleye and Youngstown Phantoms descended upon the Buckeye State, Ohio had a hockey team based in Cleveland. That team was the Cleveland Barons.

Actually, there were three teams, two in the AHL and one in the NHL. Sit back and read on to learn the storied history behind the name.

Part the First: the AHL team 1937-1973

The original Barons started out as the Cleveland Indians in the International Hockey League, having that name for five seasons before being renamed the Falcons. Three years and a move to the AHL later, they were renamed again, this time becoming the Barons.

For many years, the owner of the Barons was a man by name of Al Sutphin, who owned an ink company in Cleveland. He was a real sports nut, and in the 30’s and 40’s he paid his players better salaries than many NHL teams. This caused many players to reject playing in the NHL in favor of the AHL and Sutphin’s generous salary. Sutphin built Cleveland Arena for his team, and it was reportedly the best rink in North America.

Sutphin sold off the team in 1949, and it was around that time that the Barons petitioned to join the NHL. They were rejected three different times, as was their request to play for the Stanley Cup (um, what?). But during the 50’s, they played to standing room only crowds.

By the way, they held a record for most Calder Cup wins at nine till the Hershey Bears broke that in 2009. Johnny Bower, their goalie for nine seasons, still leads the AHL in career shutouts. And Les Cunningham, one of their star players, has the AHL’s MVP trophy named after him.

The 50’s and 60’s were really great years, as the team never went below 4th place in their division. But in 1972 their owner, Nick Mileti, bought another hockey team in a league that was supposed to compete with the NHL. The Barons couldn’t compete with the new team, and they were  relocated to Jacksonville, Florida in 1973 – in mid-season. Attendance sucked so badly that after one more miserable season, Mileti shut down the franchise and sold it to a group from Syracuse, New York. Thus ended the team after 36 years.

Part the Second: the NHL team 1976-78

When the Barons finally made it to the NHL, it was the result of relocation (oh, we just looove relocation here at AiP). The team that was the California Golden Seals moved to Ohio after plans to build an arena in San Francisco went bust. Minority owner George Gund III persuaded the majority owner to move the team to Cleveland and rename them the Barons. Even though the league approved the move in July 1976, the final plans weren’t set till August, which left no time to promote the new team properly. Because of this, attendance barely cracked 10,000 that first year at the old Richfield Coliseum (I fondly remember seeing my first live wrestling event there when I was a youngling).

Worse yet was the fact that they were so far in the hole financially because of a bad lease arrangement with the Coliseum that majority owner Melvin Swig was worried that the team might not finish out the season. They missed two payrolls in February and were even losing players to other teams.  It was a loan from the league and the NHLPA that kept the franchise afloat, but Swig sold his majority hold to Gund and his brother.

The Gunds pumped their own money into the franchise to boost it, and it helped a little when the Barons beat the defending Stanley Cup champs, the Montreal Canadiens, on November 23, 1977. The team slumped a bit, but after they traded some players to toughen up the team and beat the three best teams in the league – Maple Leafs, Islanders and Sabres – along with the Flyers, things seemed to be looking up for them. But they fell into a 15-game slump in February, and they didn’t make the playoffs.

After the Gunds tried and failed to buy the Coliseum, the league decided to merge the Barons with another foundering team, the Minnesota North Stars. The Barons were absorbed into the Minnesota team, and the Stars took the Barons’ place in the old Adams Division. In a weird twist, the Gunds ended up forming the San Jose Sharks in 1991 after splitting the North Stars’ roster, while the Stars moved to Dallas in 1993. Curtain down on Part the Second, with a bit of foreshadowing to the next part…

Part the Third: the other AHL team 2001-2006Thanks to the Gunds, the San Jose Sharks revived the Barons name in 2001. The Barons were the result of the relocation of the Kentucky Thoroughblades, which the Gunds acquired as the Sharks’ AHL affiliate. The logo is actually an early alternate logo design for the Sharks, with the addition of a monocle, top hat and tux.

The team played at the Gund Arena – Quicken Loans Arena – and did all right, with their worst performance being 7th place in the North division in the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons and their attendance hovering between 3200-4200 (recent Man of the Day Ryane Clowe played on the team for three seasons). Then the team relocated again to Worcester, Massachusetts and was renamed the Worcester Sharks; no reason’s really been given for the move, but I suspect that low attendance would be a factor. Thus ends the Saga of the Cleveland Barons.

But there is still hockey in Cleveland. Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, bought the inactive Utah Grizzlies franchise in the AHL and relocated them in 2007, renaming them the Lake Erie Monsters. They’re the affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche.

So when you think of sports in Cleveland, don’t think of the Browns, Indians or Cavs. Think of the Barons and the long, strange trip that name has taken.

– Krista

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