For many years, the Cleveland Barons were a powerhouse in the American Hockey League. Playing their games at Cleveland Arena, the Barons won the Calder Cup, the AHL's version of the Stanley Cup, nine times, a record which stood until 2009, when the Hershey Bears eclipsed it with 10. The AHL Barons also won 10 division titles in their 37 years of existence, becoming, to the AHL, what the Montreal Canadiens were to the NHL.
In 1972 the World Hockey Association's Cleveland Crusaders began play, and soon, the AHL Barons lost the ability to compete, as the WHA routinely plucked NHL players to fill its rosters, and thus filled the seats with hockey fans who wanted to see a more excellent brand of hockey. So in February of 1973 -- in the middle of a season -- the Barons moved to Jacksonville.
The Crusaders ruled the ice in C-town for the next three years, but in 1976, the California Golden Seals of the NHL, after trying unsuccessfully to gain funding for a new arena in Oakland, were persuaded by minority owner George Gund to move to Northeastern Ohio and to play in the Richfield Coliseum. Unfortunately, that move was not made until August of 1976, which gave the team only two months to prepare the fan-base for the major league product
But Cleveland, which had three times been rejected for a franchise, was suddenly a member of the NHL. The team, in honor of their AHL forbears, choose to adopt the Barons' name. (Which makes much more sense than other teams which have relocated and kept their nicknames -- classic example being the Minneapolis Lakers moving to Los Angeles ... a place not first associated with its lakes. The Cleveland Golden Seals would have been ... well, it just wouldn't have worked on many levels).
For a hockey town, Cleveland never really took to the NHL Barons. Maybe it was hockey overload, after the revolving door of teams in just a few years. Maybe a part of it was seeing the Barons as not "our" team, since they had moved to Cleveland from northern California -- an eerie justification almost 20 years in advance for the indignation that surrounded the move of the Browns to Baltimore. Of course, in 1995 that was not mentioned, but it would have been a little hypocritical to have embraced Oakland's loss of the Seals and then to snarl at Baltimore for doing the same thing.
Be that as it may, what contributed most to the failure of the NHL Barons to capture the fancy of Northeast Ohio was their lack of success where the bread was buttered, on the ice. Playing in the Adams Division of the NHL, the Barons finished fourth and last in both of their seasons. In 1976-77, the Barons managed only 25 victories and 13 ties in 80 games for 63 points. In those days, a tie was a tie ... there were no overtimes except for in the playoffs, no shootouts. Just two points for a victory in 60 minutes, one point for a tie, and zilch for a loss.
The next season was even worse -- only 22 wins and 13 ties for 57 points. One hundred and twenty points in 160 total games, and it is no surprise that a team which was rather thrust upon Cleveland, under-promoted and well out of the playoff picture both seasons, had difficulty putting even 10,000 fans into the Coliseum for a game.
Even so, loyal hockey fans were stunned when, after the 1977-78 season, the struggling Cleveland franchise was merged with the equally struggling Minnesota North Stars, and the "best of" both teams continued play in Minnesota.
The two-year NHL history of Cleveland was over.
The most popular players for the Barons were probably center Dennis Maruk, who would go on to lead the Washington Capitals to their first ever playoff appearance a few years later, and goaltender Gilles Meloche, who eventually led the North Stars to one Finals appearance and appeared in two All-Star games for Minnesota, before ending his career with Pittsburgh.
So you ask yourself, why an article about hockey, in the midst of a brutally hot summer? Maybe just because of that, but even more, I remember going to the first Barons NHL game at the Coliseum, and watching good old Gib Shanley on the ice before the game doing what amounted to an opening ceremony. Years have dimmed the details, but I seem to recall the game ending in a tie against the Atlanta Flames. What was important was that it was the NHL, it was big-time hockey, and visions of years of seeing the Canadiens, Rangers, Bruins, Maple Leafs, etc. were dancing in my head, and I thought of those good days this week when searching for a "Do You Remember...?" idea.
I miss the NHL, and I wish it had succeeded in Cleveland. No offense to Columbus, but your team will never be "our" team. At least not in my eyes.
Anyhow, I hope that this little recollection will inform you, as I am sure that there are many younger fans who might not realize the NHL ever played in Cleveland, or that it will also have jogged some memories of you older fans, like me, who were there and remember.