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Florida Panthers predecessors: A look back at the AHL’s Jacksonville Barons

Storied franchise quickly meets its demise after being forced south by the WHA

After the loss of the Eastern Hockey League’s Rockets, it only took a little bit over a year for professional hockey to return to the northern Florida city of Jacksonville. Nick Mileti, who owned the storied Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League, had finally brought major-league hockey to Ohio by securing a franchise in the new World Hockey Association. The new team was called the Crusaders, and after only a couple of months, it became apparent that Cleveland was not a big enough market to support both teams.

The Barons franchise traced its roots all the back to 1929, when the club began life as the Cleveland Indians in the original International Hockey League. The team was known as the Falcons for a brief spell before becoming the Barons during the 1936-37 season. The IHL would at first play an interlocking schedule and then eventually merge with the Canadian-American Hockey League. That merger resulted in the AHL that still exists today. The Barons went on to become the greatest team in the history of the league, winning nine Calder Cups, and at times, icing rosters that were on par with with some of the “Original Six” era National Hockey League teams. There were a few times when Cleveland came close to becoming the NHL’s seventh team.

Mileti’s Barons began the 1972-73 season sharing the Cleveland-area market with the Crusaders, who played in the cavernous 18.544-seat Coliseum out in suburban Richfield, but could not compete with their new big brother. The beleaguered owner needed an out, and after getting consent from the majority of AHL owners in December, decided to temporarily ship the club south to Jacksonville, which was just coming off an eight-year stint in the Eastern Hockey League. The last AHL Barons game in Cleveland was played on February 4, 1973.

Jacksonville welcomed the Barons with open arms, at first, with the initial game in the city drawing over 9,100 fans. Unfortunately, the John Muckler-coached club had a hard time winning games and finished the year out with a 23-44-9 record, missing the playoffs, while seeing a precipitous drop in attendance. Gary Gambucci, who would later play for the WHA’s Minnesota Fighting Saints, led the Barons in scoring with 76 points. Mike Chernoff was the team’s leading goal-scorer with 35, and goaltender Fern Rivard made 65 appearances in net.

The Barons would remain in Jacksonville for the 1973-74 season keeping the same nickname and colors and play out of the AHL’s newly-christened South Division with the same group of teams as the prior season, the Cincinnati Swords, Hershey Bears, Virginia Wings, Baltimore Clippers and Richmond Robins, when the division was called the West Division. John Hanna would replace Muckler as the team’s head coach.

Struggles on and off the ice beset the relocated club again and they would finish the season in fifth place with a 24-44-8 record, only two points better than the league’s worst team, the Virginia Wings. Attendance continued to lag with the Barons ending up drawing a paltry average of 1,875 fans, a far cry from Hershey’s league-best 5,710. Dick Sarrazin, a former member of the Philadelphia Flyers, led the Barons in scoring with just 54 points while Keith Ahearn fired in a team-leading 22 goals. Yves Belanger and Gerry Gray split time in goal with Belanger getting the bulk of the work. Belanger would go on to play in the NHL with the St. Louis Blues, Atlanta Flames and Boston Bruins.

As Jacksonville sports fans had previously shown with the Rockets, they weren’t going to support a subpar hockey team, even with the step up in caliber of play from the EHL to AHL. Owner Mileti had his hands full trying to keep his Crusaders going in the topsy-turvy WHA and the Barons, who were without an NHL parent team to rely on for players, suffered. With another major league now on the scene, the talent pool was diluted, making the running of an independent minor-league team extremely difficult. After claiming over a $1 million in losses in Jacksonville, Mileti decided to throw in the towel and the Barons did not return for the 1974-75 season, or ever again, sadly ending the club’s long and rich, championship-filled history with a whimper.

The Jacksonville Barons were noteworthy for a couple of reasons. One, at the time, they played the highest level of professional hockey in the state of Florida’s brief stint hosting teams and two, by virtue of finishing out the 1973-74 season, something the SHL’s Suncoast Suns were unable to accomplish, they were the last professional team to call the sunshine state home until the birth of both the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida-based Sunshine Hockey League in 1992.