Gone But Not Forgotten: Cleveland Barons

After nine seasons of misery in the Bay Area, the California Golden Seals packed their bags and headed for Ohio, where they would settle in Cleveland, a former AHL hot spot, in a futile effort to survive the turbulent times of the 1970’s when the NHL and WHA battled for players, fans and markets. Let’s meet the last of the NHL’s teams to outright perish after the jump...

If any city deserved a chance to house the NHL’s seventh team during the "Original Six" era it was Cleveland. Playing out of the suitable for the times Cleveland Arena, the AHL Barons were a well run, well attended powerhouse with a stout roster that could have immediately competed with a few of the league’s established teams and maybe even contended for a Stanley Cup or two during the 1950’s. The Barons tried to move up to the NHL on more than one occasion but were rebuffed as the league had no real desire to add any new teams. By the time the NHL was ready to expand again, it seemed that Cleveland’s chance at the big time had passed, leaving the city to become an original outpost of the rival WHA. In 1974, a new arena was erected to replace the decrepit Cleveland Arena but in suburban Richfield, not downtown Cleveland. The relocation of the troubled California Golden Seals finally gave Ohio its first NHL team. The former Seals moved into the cavernous Richfield Coliseum during the summer of ‘76, pushing the WHA’s Cleveland Crusaders to Minnesota where they would become the second edition of the Fighting Saints after briefly considering a move to South Florida. This offseason would be the first time the NHL would see a franchise (actually two as the Kansas City Scouts moved to Colorado as well) relocate since 1934. The Seals adopted the name of the old AHL club, officially becoming the Cleveland Barons in time for the 1976-77 season. GM Bill McCreary and coach Jack Evans followed the franchise from Oakland to Cleveland providing some needed stability. Unfortunately, the details of the relocation were not finalized until late in the summer, leaving little time to promote the team or to revamp the roster.

The Barons opened their first season in Cleveland with a 2-2 draw against former state rival, the Los Angeles Kings, on October 6, 1976 in front of only 8,900 or so fans.
With the exception of veteran free agent Phil Roberto and a few rookies, the Barons sported much of the same roster the Golden Seals had iced the season before. They picked up their first win at home three days later by beating the Washington Capitals 6-3. Their next two outings saw the team lose its first road game, 4-3 to the Boston Bruins, and drop its first on home ice by a 4-2 score to the Atlanta Flames. A 3-0-4 stretch a month later pushed the Barons record to a respectable 6-7-6 but a nine game winless streak followed, leaving the team far behind its Adams Division rivals. This would be a trend that would keep up all season as the Barons rotated between short spurts of good play and longer losing streaks. On January 22nd, the club made a minor deal, sending backup goaltender Gary Simmons and forward Jim Moxey to Los Angeles for goalie Gary Edwards and center Juha Winding. In February, saddled with an unfavorable lease and with few fans showing up, the team missed payroll twice and was on the verge of financial ruin before a loan from the NHL and NHLPA allowed the Barons to complete the season without folding. Cleveland improved a bit during the second half of the season and finished with a record of 25-43-12, good for last place in the Adams Division. They ended up 18 points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs and a playoff spot as the top three teams in each division made the playoffs in those days. Dennis Maruk followed up a strong freshman campaign by leading the team in scoring with 78 points. Al MacAdam picked up 63 points while Wayne Merrick added 56 and Bob Murdoch scored 23 goals. Rookie Mike Fidler, a 3rd round choice in that summer’s amateur draft scored 17 goals and 16 assists. Goaltender Gilles Meloche won 19 games and compiled a 3.47 GAA while posting 2 shutouts. After the season, majority owner Mel Swig sold his interest in the team to minority owner George Gund III.

With Harry Howell taking over as GM
and players Charlie Simmer, Phil Roberto, Garry Holt and Dennis O'Brien departing via free agency, the Barons began the 1977-78 season with a 2-0 loss to the Kings in Los Angeles before quickly rebounding with four straight wins over the Capitals, Kings, North Stars and Blues. As usual, the Barons could not deal with prosperity and went on a 1-9-2 skid, culminating with an embarrassing 7-2 loss to the lowly Colorado Rockies in Denver. The team returned home to Cleveland and on November 23rd, shocked the Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens 2-1 in front of a crowd of 12,859 fans. The huge win failed to ignite the Barons and they dropped their next three games to Philadelphia, St. Louis and Toronto. On December 9th, the team reacquired former Seal Walt McKechnie from the Washington Capitals for LW Bob Girard and welcomed him back by getting blown out 11-1 by Philadelphia two days later. Flyer Tom Bladon scored eight points in the game, setting an NHL record for defensemen. The Barons finished the first half of the schedule with an 11-25-4 record prompting GM Howell to finally shake up the roster. He acquired forwards Chuck Arnason and Rick Jodzio from Colorado for Fred Ahern and Ralph Klassen and a day later picked up J.P. Parise and Jean Potvin from the Islanders for Wayne Merrick and Darcy Regier. With some new blood in the lineup, the tougher Barons started off the second half on the right note by winning three straight games to spark a 7-5-1 run which appeared to have the team headed towards the playoffs. A record home crowd of 13,110 witnessed the 2-2 draw between the Barons and Flyers that capped off the successful stint on February 4th, but a 4-3 loss in Detroit to the Red Wings in the next game swung momentum completely the other way as Cleveland would only win once in their next twenty games to lock up another last place finish in the Adams Division with a dreadful 22-45-13 record. The final win in franchise history was by a 4-2 count over the Chicago Blackhawks at the Richfield Coliseum on April 2nd while the last ever Barons game was fittingly a home loss, 3-2 to Pittsburgh, a week later. Dennis Maruk led the team in scoring again, this time with 36 goals and 71 points while second year player Mike Fidler added 51 points. NCAA free agent signee Kris Manery contributed 49 points in his rookie season and tough guy Randy Holt racked up 229 penalty minutes. The team gave up a whopping 325 goals against on the season while only tallying 230 goals for. Gilles Meloche posted 16 wins and one shutout with backup Gary Edwards picking up the other 6 wins in 30 appearances.

After the season, the Gund brothers tried to buy the Richfield Coliseum in an effort to save the franchise but failed. With blazing financial fires to put out in both Cleveland and Minnesota, the NHL decide to merge the Barons and North Stars into a single entity with the North Stars continuing to play on under Gund ownership in Minnesota while the Barons would cease to exist. The North Stars got to keep some players from both clubs and moved into the Cleveland’s old spot in the Adams Division the following season. The rest of the players were made available to the Washington Capitals, St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks, Pittsburgh Penguins and Colorado Rockies in a dispersal draft. After the dispersal draft, the remaining players
all became North Stars property. The merger was effectively undone in 1991 when the Gunds were granted an expansion team in San Jose and were able to take half of Minnesota's players with them instead of being allowed to move the North Stars franchise to California.

Unfortunately, when the NHL finally came to Cleveland it was years too late and in the guise of the sad-sack Golden Seals who brought their losing ways with them from
California. Lacking the funds to drastically overhaul the roster, the club didn’t make the playoffs in its brief, two season stay in Cleveland and fan support was worse than it was in Oakland, with the average attendance coming in at just above 6.000 fans for the first season in 1976-77 and actually below that number during the final 1977-78 season. In addition to the team’s poor on ice performance, the Barons were not helped at all by the location of the arena in Richfield which had previously been a problem for the WHA Crusaders. With a downtown arena and different team, things might have been turned out much better for the NHL in Cleveland, but in this case, an unhappy ending was all but guaranteed. This was the last time the NHL would decrease in size, going from 18 to 17 teams for the 1978-79 season. A bit of Barons DNA would live on in the Minnesota North Stars and later the San Jose Sharks, in a way bringing the Seals franchise full circle. The NHL would return to the state of Ohio, but not to Cleveland, in 2000 with the addition of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

NHL Seasons: Two

Stanley Cups: None

Notable Players: Dennis Maruk, Al MacAdam, Mike Fidler, Gilles Meloche

Should the NHL return to Cleveland?

Yes, Cleveland would be a nice spot for relocation or expansion4
No, one team in Ohio is enough39