The American Hockey League’s Cleveland Barons are arguably one of the most interesting, history-rich professional hockey stories that not many fans outside of, and quite frankly those native to, Cleveland know much about.
The Barons played at the Cleveland Arena, considered at the time to be one of the largest and most beautiful facilities in the country. Located at the corner of E. 36th and Euclid Avenue, now the site of the Red Cross, the building literally came to electrified life each and every time the Barons took to the ice to do battle with their AHL foes.
So successful was the Barons franchise both on the ice and within the community, many players preferred to stay playing in Cleveland, considered to be the “minor leagues” of professional hockey, instead of getting the opportunity to further their careers in the NHL, the pinnacle of professional hockey. Another reason that may have helped their decisions to stay in Cleveland was that Al Sutphin, who owned the team from 1934-1949, was known to pay better salaries than those offered in the National Hockey League.
The success on the ice, and the fervor of their fan base, did not go unnoticed by the NHL, and so the Barons were invited to join the league in the early 1940s. Now, things get a bit murky here as to why Al Sutphin turned them down. If you listen to what would be considered the NHL historical version of how things fell apart, Sutphin was difficult to deal with during negotiations. From Sutphin’s perspective, he felt that the NHL was demanding too much control of what was already a very successful, finely tuned machine.
Apparently the NHL held quite the grudge about the slight from Sutphin. When new owner James Hendy made it well known that his goal was to get the Barons into the NHL, it appeared that in 1952 Hendy and Cleveland’s dream would soon be realized. The Barons put up over $400,000 to back their application, and their application was backed in statements by the Toronto and Detroit franchises. So it seemed that formal, full acceptance was now just a formality during the upcoming league meetings in July of 1952.
On July 2nd, the dream of NHL entry was crushed. The official NHL party line was that roughly 75% of the capital put up to secure entry was borrowed rather than from cash on hand. What made this position suspicious was that this was never mentioned during the application process in May.
Setting all this aside, it simply cannot be ignored that so many great players displayed their skills and talents at the grand old Arena from 1937-1973 while wearing the iconic Barons logo crest on their game sweaters. Names like Les Cunningham, Bill Needham, Norm Beaudin, Cal Stearns and Fred Thurier thrilled the rabid Barons fans for years. But for me, three names stand out among the them all: Les Binkley, Fred Glover and my personal favorite, goaltender Johnny Bower, who after his Barons career went on to a standout NHL career with the Toronto Maple Leafs. A former job of mine afforded me the opportunity to meet the late Mr. Bower twice and I am the proud owner of his signature on a Cleveland hockey history book (Forgotten Glory: The Story of Cleveland Barons Hockey by Gene Kiczek, a must-read for anyone interested in Cleveland Barons hockey history) and an actual 1971 Cleveland Barons press guide.
I’ll leave you with this. Part of what was able to whip Barons fans into a frenzy was the team’s fight song, “The Big-Time Barons." When you listen to the video below, close your eyes and listen to the words. You’ll be able to imagine the words, cheers and music loudly reverberating off the walls of the grand old Cleveland Arena on some Saturday night, most likely packed to the rafters with roughly 9,000 fans. The song played during the team’s entire run from 1937-1973 and was resurrected from 2001-2006 when the San Jose Sharks brought back the Barons name and an updated version of the logo, a shark wearing a top hat and monocle.