Of course, one can’t have a website dedicated to the California Golden Seals without reserving a small corner of it for the Cleveland Barons. When the Seals moved to Ohio in time for the 1976-77 season, the team adopted the same name as the old American Hockey League franchise, which had won nine Calder Cups between 1937 and 1973. Some of the most famous players to come through Cleveland include Johnny Bower, Fred Glover, Bill Needham and Les Binkley, The Barons were so successful at the gate that the city of Cleveland tried to secure a NHL franchise in the 1950s, but when financing fell through, the city’s bid was rejected. That didn’t stop the Barons from challenging the NHL champions for the Stanley Cup, but the NHL, with everything to lose by accepting the challenge, turned the Barons down.
Throughout the Barons’ history, Cleveland proved itself to be a solid hockey market. Attendance remained strong for most of the Barons’ history, but in 1972, when the new World Hockey Association decided to put a team in Cleveland, few people came to watch the Barons. After all, the Cleveland Crusaders would have former NHL talent on their roster, and every now and then, someone like Bobby Hull or J.C. Tremblay would come to town, making it hard to convince fans to spend their bucks on minor-league hockey. The Barons’ owner, Nick Mileti, moved the team to Jacksonville, Florida mid-way through the 1972-73 season. After just one full season in Florida, the Jacksonville Barons were folded and sold to a group from Syracuse, New York, and the franchise officially died.
The World Hockey Association was a big reason for the Barons’ demise, and indirectly, one of the main reasons for the Seals’ demise, but the Seals got their revenge on the WHA by taking one of its franchises away. When the Seals moved to Cleveland in 1976, the Crusaders, now owned by Mileti, felt it was a lost cause to compete with the NHL, so the team moved to Minnesota to become the second incarnation of the Minnesota Fighting Saints. What the Seals should have known was that the Crusaders had had all sorts of attendance problems due to the location of their rink, the spacious, 18,544-seat Richfield Coliseum. While there was nothing wrong with the rink itself, it was so far away that there were actually farms just beyond the parking lot, and sheep used to graze nearby. “The rink in Cleveland was 26 miles out of town, a two-lane road to get there,” remembers Barons goaltender Gary Simmons. “It used to take me 45 minutes just to get home after the game and I lived eight miles away. None of us took there in Cleveland. It was a beautiful rink, a state-of-the-art rink, but it was just way out in the middle of nowhere and it was just brutal.”
The Barons take on the Boston Bruins in Cleveland
The Seals had always been at a disadvantage in that they were one of just three West coast teams in the NHL. Nevertheless, the Seals had also been on the cusp of becoming a solid playoff contender. It was believed the move to Cleveland would add ten or fifteen points in the standings because the team would have to travel fewer air miles over the course of the season. At the end of the day, the move did absolutely nothing to turn the team’s fortunes around. In fact, the team actually got worse. In 1975-76, the Seals had set dozens of franchise records, and they seemed to be a team on the rise. Their 27-42-11 mark was not outstanding, but it made a few heads turn, and the 3-M Line of Dennis Maruk, Al MacAdam, and Bob Murdoch was a force to be reckoned with at even strength, on the power play, and shorthanded. Nevertheless, the 1976-77 Barons actually dropped two points in the standings, and they finished with a 25-42-13 mark. Attendance dropped from an all-time high of 6,944 per game to just 6,194. The Barons were losing so much money they almost folded in mid-season, and players’ paychecks were delayed several times. Only an eleventh-hour loan from the NHL Players Association saved the Barons, and saved the league the embarrassment of folding a franchise in mid-season.
Long-time NHL veteran Jim Neilson leads the Barons out onto the Coliseum ice. Directly behind him are defenseman Jean Potvin, brother of Hall-of-Famer Denis Potvin, and former Seals star Walt McKechnie
Owner Mel Swig sold the franchise to George and Gordon Gund, and they had high hopes for the Barons. They even increased the team’s payroll and gave general manager Harry Howell the OK to acquire proven NHL talent like Walt McKechnie, Jean-Paul Parise, Chuck Arnason, and Jean Potvin. The moves put the 1977-78 Barons in position to steal one of the wild-card playoff spots, but a franchise-record 15-game winless streak that stretched from late February to late March killed those hopes.
Defenseman Jeff Allan, in the dressing room during one of just four games he would play in the NHL.
Dennis Maruk, Rick Hampton, Mike Fidler, and Harry Howell went to Prague after the season ended to participate in the 1978 World Hockey Championships, but George and Gordon Gund also made the trip. It was there, in the beer hall of the Imperial Hotel, that they signed a deal with the Minnesota North Stars, on a napkin, to merge the two struggling franchises. No one saw the deal coming either. In fact, the Barons had started making some long-term plans in Cleveland. They signed Howell to a three-year extension, and new colours and uniforms had been chosen for the 1978-79 season. Instead, the Barons would quietly disappear, and all of their players would find new homes. For some, like Al MacAdam, Gary Edwards, Greg Smith and Gilles Meloche, it would be a chance to finally participate in the Stanley Cup playoffs as members of the North Stars. In 1981, both would play key roles in helping Minnesota reach the Stanley Cup Finals, where they would fall in five games to the New York Islanders. For others like Dennis Maruk, it would be an opportunity to spread his wings elsewhere and take his game to whole other level. After just two games with the Stars, he was traded to Washington, where his career really took off. He would score 50 goals for the Capitals in 1980-81, and 60 goals the following year. His 136 points in 1981-82 are still a franchise record that even the great Alexander Ovechkin has not equaled. Other Barons such as Hampton, Neilson, Bob Stewart, and Dave Gardner would be dispersed throughout the NHL and WHA and would retire shortly afterwards.
While the Barons lasted only two years in Ohio, one has to wonder if the team had played closer to downtown Cleveland, would it have survived and thrived? The San Jose Sharks have proven that hockey can work in the Bay Area, and the Columbus Blue Jackets have proven that Ohio has its fair share of loyal fans. The Seals and Barons were always so close to success, and yet so far.
Photos courtesy of Dennis Turchek.