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Cleveland Might Never Get Another NHL Franchise. OH Really?

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Cleveland Barons play Pittsburgh Penguins in 1977
Cleveland hasn't had an NHL team since the Barons left town in 1978. Here, the Barons' Mike Crombeen (foreground) battles the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins at Richfield Coliseum Oct. 23, 1977. The Barons would fall 3-2 as part of a dismal 22-45-13 season.

Tonight is the home opener for The Cleveland Monsters, the city's minor league hockey franchise, established in 2007. But a listener asked our “OH Really?” team: when it comes to hockey, why is the city in the minor leagues?

“My name is Frank from Wadsworth, and I would like to know why Cleveland does not have an NHL franchise.”

The city did have an NHL team at one time, the Cleveland Barons, a name which has also been used by two AHL teams. WKSU sports commentator Terry Pluto says, “the American Hockey League is like AAA baseball. It's the top level of the minor leagues.”

The city’s first professional hockey team, the Indians, began play in 1929 in the International Hockey League. After five seasons, that team was renamed the Falcons of the merged IAHL. After three more seasons, they were named the Barons.

From AHL to NHL
The first AHL Barons team played at the Cleveland Arena for nearly 40 years, starting in 1937, and was very popular for most of that time. In this report from the mid-1980s, Channel 8 Sports Anchor Casey Coleman explained that “[about] 9,000 hockey faithful would attend each and every game at the Arena. And every game was a blood bath.

Cleveland Hockey Barons and Crusaders

"What killed the Barons? The Cleveland Crusaders, who began play in the 1972-73 season. The Crusaders got the prime dates and times, pushing the Barons to extinction.”

The Crusaders would also be gone four years later, and then, “in 1976, the NHL Cleveland Barons began play. They moved to Cleveland from Oakland, where they were originally called the California Golden Seals. The distance to the Coliseum, a lack of promotion, and few wins sounded the death knell for the Barons in 1978. “

Over the past three decades, Cleveland has hosted three more minor league teams: the Cleveland Lumberjacks gave way to a third Cleveland Barons team, which was replaced by the Cleveland Monsters.

Media Matters
Pluto says to add an NHL team to the mix here, alongside today’s AHL Monsters, would make little sense in a city the size of Cleveland.

“It's ranked the No. 19 media market overall. It’s the smallest one, though, with Major League Baseball, NFL football and NBA basketball. And certainly, none of those cities below them have four teams," he said. "I mean, this is not like Boston where you can have the Boston Bruins and the Celtics and the New England Patriots and the Boston Red Sox. It's just not big enough.”

Fans first
Pluto says it’s not just a matter of filling an arena with fans.

“People say, ‘Well there's still a lot of people here who like hockey.’ But what pays a lot of the salaries besides people buying tickets? Corporate sponsorship. FirstEnergy Stadium, Indians broadcasts brought to you by Sherwin-Williams paint, or Union Home mortgage, or all of those things. If you now have four teams trying to get a rather limited pool of big-time corporate sponsors, it's just not enough," he said. "That's why Dan Gilbert, who also owns the NBA Cavaliers, doesn't have an interest in an NHL team because he could run that minor league team [for] a lot less. And he also just knows that there's a limited amount of corporate sponsorship available. That's why some people have said to me, ‘it's amazing Cleveland has three Major League teams.’”

As with the Browns-Steelers rivalry, the first two Barons teams had long-running competitive streaks against their Pittsburgh counterparts, as seen in this 1977 NHL game:

Penguins at Cleveland Barons Oct 1977

After the 1976-78 run of the NHL Barons, the team merged with the Minnesota North Stars. Ironically, the Pittsburgh Penguins won their first Stanley Cup by defeating the North Stars in 1991.

Columbus v. Cleveland
For Northeast Ohioans who want NHL hockey, they’ll just have to head south to see the Columbus Blue Jackets, established in 2000. Pluto says that team is another reason we're unlikely to see an NHL franchise on the north coast.

“If you own the Columbus Blue Jackets, you are going to scream at the top of your lungs. You’re going to take off your shoes and pound the table. If they try to put an NHL team in your back yard in Cleveland? There is no way. It would be just like saying, ‘We’re going to move the Cincinnati Reds to Columbus.’ The Indians would go crazy.”

And while the Blue Jackets have yet to win the Stanley Cup, fans in Cleveland can boast of the then-Lake Erie Monsters’ 2016 Calder Cup, as well as the nine Calder Cups won by the original, AHL Cleveland Barons.

2016 Calder Cup Finals - Game 4

WOIO Assignment Editor Brian Koster grew up around Cleveland's hockey scene. His father, Michael, was a photographer for both the WHA Crusaders and the NHL Barons. Brian has donated his late father's archives to the Hockey Hall of Fame, available here. And he remembers what it was like to grow up in a hockey town in the 1970s:

Brian Koster on the Crusaders and Barons

“OH Really?” is WKSU’s podcast which makes you part of the reporting process. Ask your question now right here (or click here):


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Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.