Cleveland Back In The NHL? Too Many Bad Memories Are Hurting Them

Last year I wrote an article explaining why Cleveland (and Cincinnati and Indianapolis) are never mentioned when NHL expansion occurs. Surprisingly the article has proved popular which indicates that there is some interest in making Cleveland a big league NHL city once more. This article explores that possibility.

Even before I go into details, I have to conclude that even in this era of NHL expansion (quite possibly up to becoming a 40 team league), there are too many strikes against them, at least in the near future. Cleveland is the heart and soul of a strange area for big league hockey in the United States, an area which I have labeled “Death Valley” in other articles, Ohio-Indiana. It should not be. The area is located close to the Canadian border and is in between hockey loving cities of Detroit, Chicago and Minnesota in the west and Pittsburgh and Buffalo in the east.

But inside this area lie the corpses of the Indianapolis Racers, Cincinnati Stingers, Cleveland Crusaders of the WHA and the Cleveland Barons of the NHL, all from the 1970s. The Columbus Blue Jackets are simply the best top-ranked professional hockey club to survive in this area for 16 years and even their future is highly questionable. They have only just qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third time in their history and they have never won a playoff round. Many years they have lost money, drawn poor crowds, prompting rumors of their departure to another market. Certainly hockey-hungry cities like Quebec would welcome the Blue Jackets with open arms.

Nobody has ever been able to explain why NHL-WHA hockey is so unpopular and in a precarious state in an area of the northern United States. Hockey being unpopular in the unfamiliar climate of the American south is understandable, but even the establishment of the Blue Jackets in 2000 had to be considered a gamble and not a sure thing. The memory of the Cleveland Barons had to make the NHL look at the reestablishment of an Ohio team as a risk.

After a few years of trying to establish Cleveland in their finest rink (over 18,000) the WHA gave up and dismantled the Crusaders. Seizing the opportunity, the NHL shifted their most troubled franchise, the California Golden Seals into the modern Cleveland arena. The minor league Cleveland Barons had been popular in the past and in homage and to attract old minor league hockey fans to the NHL, the shifted franchise was renamed the Barons too. It was thought that the WHA had failed in Cleveland because the WHA was not considered “big league” enough. Now the number one league, the NHL was moving in.

But in all the history of NHL expansion since 1967, no team (not even the current Arizona Coyotes) can come close to topping the horrendous record of the Cleveland Barons. Crowds usually averaged between 5-7000; even the payroll started to be missed and the NHLPA had to make a loan to keep the team afloat. The Barons lasted two years and were merged into the Minnesota North Stars.

Last year, the Lake Erie Monsters played before over 19,000 fans in the AHL Finals. But the memory of the Barons – where minor league success did not translate into big league success – makes the NHL view the splendid attendance figures of the Monsters with cynicism and doubt. Are Cleveland fans, so willing to buy AHL tickets, willing to spend lots more on big league NHL tickets? The Monsters play in one of the best arenas in the United States, well above the NHL seating median but then so did the Barons in the 1970s.

It would help if an enthusiastic potential owner like Bill Foley, the owner of the new Las Vegas Golden Knights appeared, vowing to make NHL hockey a reality in Cleveland again. Would Cleveland fans respond to a season ticket drive just like the fans in Las Vegas did? The NHL needs to see tangible evidence that Cleveland hockey fans are willing to put their money where their mouths are. They are not going to be taken in by impressive crowds to minor league hockey games this time.

Cleveland remains a ghost, a riddled enigma. It’s got the arena. It’s got the NHL rivals – Columbus, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Washington, Detroit, Chicago, and Minnesota. It’s got a big-enough market. But no potential owner who believes in Cleveland like Foley does in Las Vegas has appeared. Most of all the NHL with the bad memory of the Barons, doubts the fans, no matter how impressive the attendance figures for the Monsters may be. And with so many “real” hungry hockey markets potentially waiting for an NHL team – Quebec, Hamilton, Hartford, Seattle, Portland and Milwaukee, among others, the NHL is in no rush to test the Cleveland market once more.

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4 thoughts on “Cleveland Back In The NHL? Too Many Bad Memories Are Hurting Them

  1. Cleveland Akron Canton areas a huge market; there are approximately 3.5 million people that live in this consolidated Metro area. Quicken loans Arena home of the CAVS is already a fantastic facility that is going to be renovated starting in the summer of 2018, and should remain state of the art. To judge Cleveland hockey support on what took place with the Barons more than forty years ago is not a good way to measure. The team played at the Coliseum in rural Richfield; with very little marketing done by the Gund brothers, if a NHL team comes to downtown Cleveland it would add and feed off a dynamic vibrant entertainment district. Cleveland just needs a owner (Dan Gilbert) to step up and keep momentum going.

    • Thanks for commenting Kawhite. On paper at least, putting a team into Cleveland makes a lot of sense. The Monsters get great attendance too. But sports leagues have long memories. All you have to do is look at the arrogant NFL which has seen fit to strip Oakland, St. Louis, and San Diego of their teams instead of expanding the league to accommodate Los Angeles and Las Vegas. And these cities got GOOD football attendance, not the horrors of the Barons. You should know because Cleveland got stripped of the Browns in 1990s without much provocation.

      Unfortunately the memory of the horrid Barons still lingers with the NHL. The bad attendance was completely unexpected and made an indelible mark. It is doubtful that the NHL will return to Atlanta which twice failed to support an NHL franchise and if the current crisis in Arizona results in the team being relocated, it will be a long time before the NHL tries again in Phoenix. The NHL went back to Winnipeg and also extended the invite to Quebec and Hartford in 2010 because those 3 franchises were relocated not because of attendance problems and unpopularity, but because of problems at the ownership and arena levels. A comparable companion with Cleveland is Kansas City which also lost its franchise in the 1970s and has been regarded as a suspect fan base ever since even though they have one of the best arenas in the US without a tenant.

      And the same conditions apply to Cleveland today. The minor league Cleveland Barons got good attendance too, just like the Monsters get today, so it was an unexpected shock that the Barons-Crusaders got such bad attendance in the NHL-WHA. The NHL is going to look at the good Monster attendance, be mildly impressed and then say, “Good attendance, but so did the Barons. We’re not going to be fooled a second time.” It may sound unfair but memories like that still count.

      Two other factors have to be mentioned too. There were two other failed WHA cities, Indianapolis and Cincinnati that got bad attendance. Hence I call the entire Ohio-Indiana region the Death Valley of hockey. Returning to these states for even one team in 2000 was considered a gamble by the NHL. And the horrid Columbus Blue Jackets history is a second factor. For many years the Jackets have lost money and there have been rumors that the team might be relocated. The Blue Jackets have yet to win a playoff round in 18 years. The NHL is not going to put another team into Ohio-Indiana when the future of the Blue Jackets is so precarious.

      And finally, when it comes to eastern expansion, the NHL has automatic better options than Cleveland. The NHL is not going to get attendance problems in Quebec, Hamilton, Hartford, or a second Montreal team. Which brings me back to the beginning. On paper, Cleveland looks good. When Las Vegas got admitted, I was doubtful about its success but good ownership/management has proven that it can make up for a doubtful market. If Cleveland were to get a team, I would wish you all the best. But in the two articles on this blog that I have written about it, I’ve listed all the factors that are counting against it. When it comes to NHL expansion, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Indianapolis are never mentioned. There are too many other hungry cities that want an NHL team that are more trustworthy in the NHL’s eyes. One factor that would help Cleveland is if the Blue Jackets were to get some playoff success and firmly establish themselves as an NHL franchise like Nashville has recently done. A successful Cleveland team would be great for the NHL, but don’t expect it in the near future.

      • I appreciate the response an all good points, I will say the NHL should never have gone back to Atlanta anyway. Atlanta typically has low attendance in all sports, because although they have approximately 5+ million people living in metro Atlanta most people are new to the area. It will be nice to see Cleveland get a another shot, and I believe it all comes down to a viable owner that is willing to make the investment and the NHL will buy in.

  2. Thanks for responding, Kawhite. One thing that would greatly help Cleveland would be to get a potential owner like Bill Foley in Las Vegas. He did his homework extremely well, perhaps the best expansion performance by a new owner in NHL history. He obviously knew the doubtful market of Las Vegas extremely well so he had no doubts that he could make it work. He staged a successful ticket drive to prove things to himself and the NHL and then hired a good general manager who in turn hired a good coach. Las Vegas first season success is without precedent in any of the major four sports in North America. Foley has set the bench mark for future expansion team owners, so getting a good owner for Cleveland is essential.

    A second factor that will be MANDATORY for Cleveland to have ANY chance of getting an NHL team will be a successful season ticket drive BEFORE they are awarded a franchise. Foley staged one in Las Vegas and now Seattle will be starting one shortly. As mentioned in my two articles, the minor league Cleveland Barons/Monsters have had good attendance but it did not translate to good attendance at the major league level. This time the NHL will want to see who is willing to put their money where their mouths are. They are not going to be suckered in a second time. If Cleveland does not stage a successful season ticket drive before they are awarded a franchise, forget it. The NHL will simply remember the Barons and not award a team.

    As for Atlanta, if any city in any major league sport loses its team because the sport is unpopular, it will be a long time before it will get a second chance. The NFL had no problem putting teams back in Houston, Cleveland, Baltimore, etc. because they when they lost their teams, it was not due to attendance problems. Similarly, Winnipeg is back in the NHL and once the ownership problem is resolved in Quebec, they will return. And once Hartford solves its arena and ownership problem, they will come back too.

    But both Cleveland and Kansas City have a stigma on them because of bad attendance. In baseball, it took decades to put a team back in Washington for similar reasons. And there are a lot of cities which the NBA have never returned to as well. For Cleveland to return to the NHL, the first steps are to get a good owner like Foley, and to stage a successful season ticket drive. The reason Quebec has built the Videotron and is close to returning is that 80,000 Nordiques fans signed a petition demanding that the Nordiques return. That caught the attention of the politicians who then realized that spending tax dollars on building a proper NHL arena was a popular vote catching thing to do. Nordiques fans also did things like buying a block of tickets to a New York Islanders game (they were having attendance problems) and then wearing Nordiques jerseys to the game and demonstrating in the stands to catch the NHL’s eye.

    There were also two pressure groups in Quebec and Winnipeg dedicated to getting their teams back, Zone Nordiques and the Manitoba Mythbusters. Is there a similar group in Cleveland? Zone Nordiques has its own website. You should check it out, though the language is in French. The NHL needs to see visible public support in Cleveland for a team like they saw in Las Vegas, Quebec and Winnipeg. If they don’t see such support, they will not think of Cleveland when it comes to expansion.

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