Wait, Did Cleveland Have an NHL Team?
If you blinked, or unless you're an NHL trivia genius, you may have missed the very short two-season existence of the NHL version of the Cleveland Barons from 1976 to 1978.
Majority owner Mel Swig was persuaded by minority owner Gordon Gund to move their financially struggling team, the California Golden Seals, to Gund’s hometown of Cleveland. Despite the fact that the team was named to honor the highly successful AHL Cleveland Barons (1937-1973), the team arrived with little other identity, publicity, and marketing, and was ultimately doomed to failure when just over 8,900 fans showed up for their home opener.
I was one of those 8,900 fans in attendance that night. Just being in high school at the time, the excitement of having the NHL in Cleveland shielded my friends and me from the fact that the team seemed doomed to failure almost before getting started.
The Barons did have a few players that fans immediately responded to. One was flashy center Denis Maruk. He was their best goal-scoring threat, and fans chanted “MARUUUK” every time he hit the ice. He eventually went on to the Washington Capitals where his talents became more widely recognized in the league. During his time with the Capitals, he scored 50 goals in 1980-81 and 60 goals in 1981-82; his mark of 76 assists and 136 points in the 1982 season remain Capitals' records for a single season. Maruk was the first Capitals player to score 100 points in a season and in 1982-83, Maruk was one of the players instrumental in leading the Capitals to their first playoff appearance.
The Barons' other most noteworthy, and my personal favorite, player was goaltender Gilles Meloche. I was a bit biased towards Meloche because I also played the goalie position, but his career overall statistics do not tell the true story of just how solid a netminder Meloche was.
For most of his career, he played on teams with porous defenses, and his win/loss percentage and goals against averages for most seasons reflected the challenges he faced with the lack of talent playing in front of him. A highlight to his solid career would be that he led the Minnesota North Stars, the second year after the merging of franchises, to the Stanley Cup Finals, only to lose to the New York Islanders in five games.
As of 2020, the Cleveland Barons remain the only franchised team of the four major sports to have ceased operations. Fortunately, it has never really been another national ongoing embarrassment the city has had to endure because the team and the hopes for it came and went so quickly.
It was after the 1977 season that the Barons merged with the also financially strapped Minnesota North Stars, who are today’s Dallas Stars. For those of us who had become fans of the team and its players, it was very difficult to be able to see any games, or to even follow them as it well before the time of social media. Televised NHL games were few and far between, as the Barons' short run was even before the launch of ESPN, which began in 1979.
Despite all the problems the team had on and off the ice, you still see quite a few people at Cleveland Monsters (AHL) games wearing Barons T-shirts, jerseys, sweatshirts or beanies bearing the uniquely designed logo; I know because I still proudly have and continue to wear my beanie when shoveling that Cleveland snow.
So does the NHL once again have a future in Cleveland? It seems crazy it hasn't happened already, and with the way the league wants to continue expanding... would anything surprise you these days?