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.