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.

NHL Cannot Forget Cleveland

Last month on this blog, a colleague, Amanda, wrote about the AHL Championship of the Lake Erie Monsters and complained that ESPN did not do much to report about it. She extolled that the Monsters were playing to near sellout crowds and felt that the Monsters were not getting their due from the media.

Obviously Amanda is from a much younger generation and does not know the story of the NHL’s very brief attempt to bring big league hockey to Cleveland in the 1970s. As matter of fact it is part of a greater mystery that I have written about on another blog, the story of big league hockey in Ohio and Indiana.

In light of her article and in this current era of NHL expansion with Las Vegas getting the NHL’s 31st team and Gary Bettman currently frantically working behind the scenes to find a suitable Quebec City owner instead of racist Quebecor (probably Mario Lemieux, see my full series of recent articles to get the complete story of this unfortunate situation) so that the Nordiques can become the 32nd team, it is good to ask the question about why Cleveland – and for that matter Cincinnati and Indianapolis – does not get mentioned when NHL expansion is discussed. The answer might help explain to Amanda and others why there is poor media coverage about Lake Erie – with the NHL’s blessing.

As mentioned above, I have written about this situation on another blog, where I have called Ohio-Indiana, hockey’s Death Valley. It should not be. It is a region close to the Canadian border and between such American hockey hotbeds as Buffalo and Pittsburgh in the east and Chicago, Detroit, and Minnesota in the west. The only team to claim fans in the region is the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets in fact are the longest surviving big league hockey team in Ohio-Indiana and even they have lost money for many years of their existence and there have been rumors that the team would be moved.

Minor league hockey has had some success in the two states since before I was born. The Cleveland Barons had many successful minor league years. But surprisingly big league hockey has failed to prosper and no one has ever been able to explain why.

The story of big league hockey in Ohio-Indiana begins with the WHA, a league that was formed in the early 1970s to challenge the NHL’s monopoly, just like the AFL once challenged the NFL. The WHA had a very patchy history and the four remnants of the league, Quebec, Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Hartford merged into the NHL in 1980. But the size of the league was always fluctuating, sometimes reaching as many as twelve teams in various cities.

At one time, the league had franchises in all the big cities of Ohio and Indiana except Columbus. In fact the Cleveland team, called the Crusaders played in the best arena of the WHA, that seated approximately 18,500.

But the Crusaders failed to attract enough fans and went out of business. When that happened, the NHL jumped into the pond. They had a troubled franchise of their own since the first expansion of 1967, the bay area Oakland, sometimes called California Golden Seals. When they saw the WHA vacating their best arena, they immediately shifted the ill-starred Seals to Cleveland and renamed them the Barons in memory of their traditional minor league team. It was thought that the reason hockey failed in Cleveland was because the WHA was not “big league” enough and that once the NHL moved in, every seat in that 18,500 seat arena would be filled.

But the NHL actually did worse than the WHA. Usually attendance was between 5000-6000. In a 40 home game season, the Barons only drew more than 10,000 fans 7 times. After the payroll was missed twice, and there was talk of folding the team in mid-season, something that had not happened to the NHL since the 1940s, the NHLPA made a loan of $1.3 million so that the team could finish the season.

The team was sold to new owners who invested a lot of money to keep the Barons playing in Cleveland but the result was still the same. One night Cleveland defenceman Len Frig who was being ejected from a game, took off his jersey and flung it on the ice in frustration in front of the usual 5000 fans.

The next year the NHL folded the team and merged it with another troubled franchise, the Minnesota North Stars. Ohio-Indiana would never have another NHL team until the Blue Jackets were created in 2000.

Meanwhile the WHA still tried to keep its Indianapolis and Cincinnati teams going. Many people do not remember that Wayne Gretzky’s first professional team was Indianapolis and his colleague Mark Messier was there too. But not even Gretzky and Messier could save the Indianapolis team and it folded in mid-season with Gretzky being sold to Edmonton and Messier moving on to Cincinnati.

And when the 1980 merger with the NHL occurred, the Cincinnati WHA team declined to join the NHL and went out of business too. Big league hockey in the Death Valley of Ohio and Indiana would not reappear until the Blue Jackets inhabited Columbus in 2000.

And yet as Amanda reported, the Lake Erie Monsters are a popular draw among local fans, but the NHL still fails to get any benefit from it. Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis would be great rivals for Columbus and other teams like Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Nashville, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Washington, but their names are not even whispered when NHL expansion is mentioned.

Few people today remember the Cleveland Crusaders, the Cleveland Barons, the Cincinnati Stingers and the Indianapolis Racers but the NHL has not. The horrible memory of those teams has left a permanent scar on the NHL. Even the Columbus Blue Jackets are still a precarious team that could be relocated if things went sour.

No one knows why big league hockey is either a complete failure or in such an unpopular, precarious position in the strange Death Valley of Ohio-Indiana, so close to the Canadian border. Lake Erie is indeed a monstrous memory for the NHL. And from their standpoint, when the media says the less about the AHL champion Monsters, the better.