Frozen Faceoff The Newest Chapter In Cleveland Hockey History
By Vince Guerrieri
On Jan. 15, Ohio State University and the University of Michigan will cap off Cleveland Indians Snow Days with an outdoor hockey game at Progressive Field.
It’s the latest outdoor hockey game – a novelty that attempts to lure casual fans to the game, which started with the “Cold War,” a hockey game in East Lansing, Mich., between Michigan and Michigan State in 2001, which drew more than 74,000 fans, setting a record for the largest attendance for a hockey game. The record is now more than 104,000, set at the University of Michigan in December 2010. The Buckeyes previously played in the Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic, at Lambeau Field in 2006.
The success of the college games gave rise to the Winter Classic, an NHL game played on New Year’s Day outdoors. The Pittsburgh Penguins have played in two, against the Sabres in the inaugural event at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, and in the 2011 event at Heinz Field, which became the first game to be played in prime time when warm weather forced them to move the game to 8 p.m.
Other than those two Winter Classics, though, the games have been held in baseball venues, with an Original Six matchup between the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks at Wrigley Field and the Boston Bruins winning in overtime against the Philadelphia Flyers. This year’s Classic, was on Jan. 2, featuring the Flyers again, hosting the New York Rangers.
After the NHL shot itself in the foot with the cancellation of an entire season, the Winter Classic has become a fixture for the league, garnering its highest ratings for a regular-season game – and rivaling the Stanley Cup Finals in popularity.
And the outdoor game in Cleveland could awaken a sleeping giant. Although its tenure as an NHL city was brief and ultimately unsatisfying, Cleveland for years was home to one of the most successful hockey franchise in America, the Cleveland Barons.
For many years, the Barons were regarded as the seventh-best professional hockey team in North America. They were the class of the American Hockey League when there were only the original six teams in the National Hockey League: the New York Rangers, Detroit, Chicago, Boston, Montreal and Toronto.
Professional hockey in Cleveland started in 1929 with the International Hockey League. Harry “Hap” Holmes, a former goalie, relocated a franchise to Cleveland from Hamilton, Ontario. The team was named the Indians. They played at the Elysium, Cleveland’s first indoor ice arena, at E. 107th Street and Euclid Avenue. The arena was built by Harry Humphrey, the man behind Euclid Beach Park, and billed itself as the largest ice-skating rink in the world.
The Indians hockey team was renamed the Falcons for the 1934-35 season, the same year they were bought by Al Sutphin (who would later go on to own the Cleveland Rebels, a team in the Basketball Association of America, the forerunner to the NBA. They went 30-30 in their only season in 1946). They played in the IHL for two more years before they and three other teams in the International Hockey League merged with four teams in the Canadian-American Hockey League to form the International-American Hockey League.
In 1937, they were renamed the Barons, and they moved into what would become their home for almost their entire history: the new Cleveland Arena. The arena, built by Sutphin and modeled after Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, seated 9,739 people and cost more than $1.5 million.
In 1939, the Barons won the first of their nine Calder Cups, awarded to the IAHL champion and then, starting in 1940, to the American Hockey League champion. They also won a total of 10 division titles.
Cleveland at the time was the largest city not in the NHL. The Barons could draw crowds of more than 10,000 for their games, and they were the biggest draw in the league on the road as well. In 1942, the NHL offered admission to the Barons and the Buffalo Bisons of the AHL. By that time, the Barons were outdrawing four of the NHL’s seven teams, with an average attendance of 8,267 fans. But the AHL was limping along. A team in Philadelphia folded, and World War II was taking men away from teams. So Sutphin stayed in the AHL, for the good of that league.
In 1948, the Barons won the Calder Cup. That year, the Indians won the World Series, and the Browns went undefeated to win the All-American Conference championship, giving Cleveland early claim to the name “City of Champions.”
Sutphin sold the team in 1949 for $2 million (four years later, the Browns would only bring $600,000 when Mickey McBride sold them), and three years later, it appeared that the Barons were set to become the seventh team in the NHL (by then, the New York Americans had folded). But the deal fell through, possibly because of some NHL politicking—there were still some hard feelings from Sutphin’s turning them down a decade earlier—but also because the smallest arena in the NHL at the time was the Boston Garden, which seated 14,000 people, over 3,000 more than the Cleveland Arena could hold.
Cleveland sports impresario Nick Mileti bought the Barons and the arena in 1968 for $2 million (the same price Sutphin sold the team for nearly 20 years earlier), but he too was unsuccessful in getting the NHL to come to Cleveland. After the 1966-67 season, the NHL announced that it would expand to Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Oakland. Cleveland was rejected; its arena was still too small.
In 1972, after another bid by Mileti to join the NHL was turned down, he started a World Hockey Association team, the Cleveland Crusaders. The Crusaders played in the arena at the same time the Barons did, but after the 1973-74 season, the Crusaders moved to Mileti’s newest creation, the Richfield Coliseum, 25 miles outside of Cleveland. Mileti also owned the Cavaliers, and moved them out of the Arena to the new Coliseum.
During the 1973-74 season, the Barons were relocated by Mileti to Florida. The Crusaders were moved to the Twin Cities in 1976 to make way for the NHL, which had finally come to Cleveland. The expansion Seals, known variously as the California Seals, Oakland Seals and California Golden Seals, limped along before owner Melvin Swig then packed the team’s bags and moved operations to Cleveland for the start of the 1976–77 season, after being persuaded to do so by minority owner George Gund, a Cleveland native.
The team was named the Barons, after the old AHL team. It was hoped that by moving the team to a city with a population that was more knowledgeable about hockey, the NHL might be able to salvage the franchise. The Richfield Coliseum was at the time was the largest venue in the NHL, seating 18,544 fans.
The season began without much fanfare; barely 9,000 fans showed up for the team’s home opener on October 7, 1976. The Barons seemed doomed from the start. Of the 40 home games they played that season, only seven drew more than 10,000 fans. Support was also lacking in the team’s bank account, as an expensive lease with the Coliseum nearly caused the team to fold in January of their first season. The Barons even missed payroll twice in February and had to secure a loan from the NHL and the Players Association just to finish out the rest of the schedule.
By the end of the season, Swig had given up any hopes of making money with the Barons and sold his stake of the franchise to Gordon and George Gund. The brothers poured dollars into the team, hoping that money could fix their issues. The Barons opened the 1977–78 season in mediocre fashion, winning just as many games as they lost, but during a home game against the Montreal Canadiens on November 23, it seemed that their fortunes were turning for the better. The Barons managed to beat Montreal, a feat accomplished just nine other times that season. In January, the Barons reeled off wins against NHL powers Toronto, the New York Islanders and Buffalo. Cleveland then fought the Philadelphia Flyers to a 2–2 tie, and by February, sports fans in the city began talking of making the playoffs. But the bottom fell out later that month when the team went on a 15-game losing streak and dropped from playoff contention.
The Gund brothers tried unsuccessfully to buy the Coliseum. But the Minnesota North Stars were in equally dire straits, so in order for both teams to save face, the league granted approval for the two franchises to merge. They would remain the Minnesota North Stars but assume the Barons’ place in the Adams Division, and just like that, NHL hockey had come and gone in Ohio. After a proud history in the AHL, the Barons name is now associated with the last team in any of the four major leagues (NHL, MLB, NBA, NFL) to fold.