For those of us Hockey nuts that have games consoles and played NHL over the years, one shirt that you may have come across especially if you are a Dallas Stars fan, is that of a mysterious Red and Black kit of the former NHL side – the Cleveland Barons. Some of you (more than likely a majority) will be thinking reading this ‘who in the blue hell, are the Cleveland Barons!?’…well gather round children and let me thee a hockey tale!
Our journey begins back in 1967 when the National Hockey League threw its doors open to the largest ever expansion in sporting history and saw the introduction of six new franchises. Three of the six expansion sides from that year have gone on to lift the Stanley Cups in their history – Los Angeles Kings, Philadelphia Flyers, and Pittsburgh Penguins, meanwhile, the only side still active from that expansion year is the St Louis Blues, though hasn’t been for the lack of trying.
The two remaining teams from the 1967 Expansion year, were the Minnesota North Stars (now the Dallas Stars) and the California Seals. Originally, the Seals were from San Francisco and played out of the now defunct Western Hockey League. In February 1966, Barend (Barry) van Gerbig bought the team from Mel Swig and looked to take the Seals from the WHL to the NHL. Following the team losing in the first round of the play-offs, the new owner set about getting the Seals ready for their first season in the NHL.
Prior to the start of the 1967-68 season, van Gerbig’s plans of having the side playing out of a new arena in San Francisco went up in smoke with the new building new materialising, so he moved the team across the Bay area from Cow Palace in Daly City to the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena in Oakland. It also saw the team going through four changes while the side played out of California, going from the ‘California Seals’, ‘Bay Area Seals’, ‘California’/’Oakland Seals’ and ‘Oakland Seals’ before finally settling in 1970-71 till their final season in 1975-76 on the ‘California Golden Seals’.
While based in California, the ‘Seals’ managed to reach the Quarterfinals twice in the consecutive years of 1969 and 1970, before going on to lose to the LA Kings in 69′ and then swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins at the turn of the decade. It saw very poor crowds following the move to Oakland, as their new owner in van Gerbig had threatened to move the franchise away from the area many times but never did.
Bert Olmstead, who played for the Chicago Blackhawks, Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs during his play career, was also the first-year coach and general manager and made his voice known that he felt the franchise should move to Vancouver. More interestingly, the well-known Canadian brewery in Labatt’s made an offer to buy the club and offered to move the team up north, but the NHL rejected the takeover.
Prior to the 1970-71 season taking place, the Oakland Athletics Baseball owner in Charles O.Finley, saw him buying the Seals and renaming it for a short time the ‘Bay Area Seals’. That name soon became yesterday’s chip shop paper, as they resorted back to the California Golden Seals. The change of ownership also saw O.Finley making changes to the team colours too, with colours matching that of his Oakland A’s baseball side of ‘Yellow and Green’ and adopted the ‘Seals’ name as the shirts’ main feature.
With the Seals failing to match the success of O.Finley’s Athletics side who went on to win three-straight World Series titles between 1972-74, it began to see the beginning of the end for the Seals in California.
Rumours were going round in 1975, that both California and Pittsburgh were going to be relocated to Denver and Seattle. It saw the league stating, that if the sale of the Seals to Denver didn’t happen or find a local ownership that the club would then be liquidated come end of the season. It saw the move to Denver collapse and see the league running the team. Melvin Swig who was a San Francisco hotel magnate took control of the side in 1975, with plans of moving the side to a proposed new building in San Francisco. However, plans of the arena were cancelled and so the league allowed the side to be relocated elsewhere.
Two of the minority holders in the side was George Gund III and Gordon Gun, as the father and son duo talked the then owner in Swig to move the team to Gund’s hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Gordon Gund was no stranger to Ice Hockey himself, having played the sport at Havard University. The announcement od the team being moved came on July 14th, 1976, with the side upping sticks and getting approved of relocating to the City of Cleveland.
With the arrival of the new side to the area town, the City had the Indians in Major League Baseball, the Cavaliers in the NBA, whilst also playing home to the Browns of the NFL. The new NHL team adopted the former name of their old American Hockey League (AHL) side that played from 1937 to 1973 before that side was then relocated themselves to Jacksonville – in the Barons. The City had seen hockey teams like the Indians, Falcons and Crusaders between 1929 and 1976 – right up to then original Barons the following year.
The Barons of 1937-1973, is still the most successful team in AHL history, with the Cleveland side winning nine Calder Cups and ten regular season titles in their existence – a record that was broken in 2009 when the Hershey Bears collected their 10th Calder Cup. It saw the Barons playing out of the old Richfield Coliseum in Richfield, Ohio, and was the largest capacity for any NHL side at that time, standing at 18,544.
Despite moving to Cleveland and renaming the side the new franchise the Barons, it couldn’t stop the club getting off to an absolute nightmare start and never saw them recover. Having got the approval to move the team from the Bay area to Ohio, the details hadn’t been fully completed until late August of that year. With a lack of promotion for the new side coming to Cleveland, it saw the team suffering because of it.
On October 7th, 1976, the Barons played their first game in a home opener and saw 8,900 in attendance. In the forty games played that year – they only manage to draw more than 10,000 fans to the arena for seven games. That was less than what Oakland and the Cleveland Crusaders who played in the old World Hockey Association were getting while active too. The owner in Melvin Swig commented that the side may not see the season out due to money payroll problems, plus with a lease that was wasn’t great with the Coliseum, it saw the side sinking towards big-time trouble. Swig, contacted the NHL board of governors for help, but they refused to help out – with the board thinking their plight was not as bad as being made out.
Things began to snowball out of control for the Cleveland outfit soon after with team workers going two months unpaid and also saw the side missing two payrolls as well come February. With the side coming close to folding and the players threatening to go on strike, it saw the league stepping in late-on with some help from the NHLPA too at least prolong things. It saw $1.3million dollars raised to allow the Barons to play out the rest of the season and saw Swig selling his interests to the Gund’s after the season finished.
In what turned out to be their final year in the NHL, the Barons were being bankrolled by the Gunds’ and saw them getting some return as the team chalked up a massive over the Stanley Cup champions in the Montreal Canadiens, with 12,859 watching the hosts beating one of the big hitters of the league. The teams’ general manager at the time was Harry Howell and he managed to secure some good trades to see the Barons far more physical and soon saw them picking up three wins on the bounce against top teams in the Toronto Maple Leafs, the NY Islanders and Buffalo Sabres.
A 2-2 tie with the Philadelphia Flyers saw a record crowd at the Richmond Arena for an NHL game, where 13,110 came to watch the Barons and Flyers end all-square. Cleveland missed out on the playoffs following a 15-game losing streak that put paid to their hopes of a postseason place and in the off-season, saw the Gunds attempting to buy the Richmond Coliseum and saw their efforts fail. With both the Barons and Minnesota North Stars in the same boat, in terms of struggling in the league, it saw the unprecedented move of the side merging and playing under the North Stars banner.
In the aftermath of the Barons’ demise – it saw the Minnesota North Stars playing on till 1993, where they would eventually head south and relocate to become the Dallas Stars. Meanwhile, with the loss of the Barons, it saw hockey returning to the city with the Lumberjacks of the International Hockey League, before a third incarnation of the Barons’ side and then the Lake Erie Monsters until 2016 – when they switched to Cleveland Monsters.