Forgotten Franchises: The NHL’s Cleveland Barons

Aside for providing me with a fun project, one thing my Dead Parrot Frankenset has done for me is make me realize how many of the teams I’m collecting have not been the subject of one of my “Forgotten Franchises” posts… so it’s time to rectify that, one team at a time.

The Cleveland Barons lasted just two seasons from 1976 to 1978 and was the only NHL team to ever call Cleveland home (although there had been a couple of prior attempts to being the NHL to Cleveland).

The Barons’ story in begins in Oakland with the California Seals; if you read my Forgotten Franchises post on the Seals, you’ll know that the 1967 expansion team struggled for wins and attendance throughout their existence and had been rumored, at various times, to be moving to Vancouver, Buffalo, Washington DC, Indianapolis, Denver and Seattle. Minority owners George and Gordon Gund were able to convince the rest of ownership to move the team to Cleveland in 1976, just a couple of months before the season began. The team adopted the name of a successful former American Hockey League team.

Given the timing of the move, the Barons didn’t have time to do much marketing before taking the ice, and the attendance suffered for that. Although they had a new arena in the Richfield Coliseum, it wasn’t located in Cleveland but rather between Cleveland and Akron. This non-urban location also caused attendance problems for the team.

On the ice, the team was awful, going 47-87-26 over two seasons and missing the playoffs both years. During the second season, the financial situation became so dire that players went unpaid for weeks, and there had been talk of the team folding mid-season.

After that second season, it was determined that the team would cease operations in some form. The Minnesota North Stars were also close to insolvency so the idea was pitched of having the Barons and Minnesota North Stars combine their organizations, making the argument to the league that one team folding might look bad, but it was better than two teams going under. The combined team would be under the ownership of the Gund brothers, who had already taken majority ownership of the Barons, and would maintain the North Stars identity and home ice. To maintain divisional balance, the team would assume the Barons’ spot in the Adams division.

In case you were curious, the combined teams were still terrible in 1978-79, finishing 4th and missing the playoffs. The North Stars had more success in 1979-80, finishing with a 36-28-16 record which was good for 3rd place in the now-five-team Adams division (the Nordiques were added after the WHA merger). The North Stars beat the Maple Leafs and Canadiens before losing to the Flyers in the semi-finals.

Cleveland Barons in Topps and O-Pee-Chee sets
Although the Barons existed for two years, they appeared on Topps cards only for their second season. This was because the move to Cleveland happened too late for Topps to make the appropriate changes for the 1976-77 set. O-Pee-Chee was able to handle it better – somewhat – due to their later release date.

To illustrate, I’ll use the cards for Dennis Maruk, the Baron’s representative at the 1978 All-Star Game and the team’s leading scorer for both seasons.

When Topps created the 1976-77 hockey set, the team in question was still the California Golden Seals.

O-Pee-Chee had time to change the team name and update the logo; I don’t have an OPC Maruk, but to give you the general idea, here’s the top of another OPC Barons card.

For those players who are still shown wearing a Seals uniform (as opposed to being airbrushed from some other team’s uniform), there’s the typical OPC “Team transferred to Cleveland” text. OPC left the Seals team card alone, so it’s the only Seals card in that set.

This is the one Topps set where you get to see the Barons’ uniforms… well, not so much on Dennis Maruk’s card, but there are others in this post.

It’s also only set with a Barons team card.

Because the merging of the Barons into the North Stars came early enough for the 1978 set, Topps Airbrushed several Barons into North Stars uniforms.  Maruk played just 2 games for the North Stars in 1978 before being traded to the Capitals, but he would get traded back to Minnesota in 1983.

A number of players where weren’t in Topps but were in O-Pee-Chee are shown in their Barons uniforms (Al MacAdam and John Baby, both listed with the North Stars; Dave Gardner with the Kings).

O-Pee-Chee, known for using older photos with a superimposed “NOW WITH…” text to make it all better, would use continue to use Barons photos after the team was just a memory, like in the 1979/80 set.

Key Players (other than Dennis Maruk):

Al MacAdam was second in team scoring and was the Baron’s representative at the 1977 All-Star game; he would go on to win the Masterson Trophy (Perseverance and Sportsmanship) with the North Stars in 1979/80.

Wikipedia lists Bob Stewart and former Rangers All-Star Jim Neilsen as the team’s co-captains; indeed, the above team card shows two different players wearing the captains’ “C”.

Defenseman Mike Christie was, by far, the teams’s plus/minus leader in 1976 with a +19 rating. By comparison, the following season saw four players tie for the best plus/minus with a 0 rating – the team as a whole gave up 95 more goals than it scored. Christie was, on paper, the first player born in Texas to play in the NHL, but it was a technicality – he was raised in Canada.

Gilles Meloche was the starting goalie for both seasons in Cleveland, and would have a long career with the Seals, Barons, North Stars, Penguins and Black Hawks.

Rick Hampton was the 3rd overall draft pick in 1974 (after Greg Joly and Wilf Paiement) and was in the NHL at the age of 18.

Update:  Charlie Simmer played 24 games for the Barons in the 1976/77 season.  With the Kings in 1979/80 he would lead the league in goals (56) and power-play goals (21).  Thanks to Mike Matson of Not Another Baseball Card Blog for pointing out my oversight.

Others of note: Dave Gardner, Wayne Merrick, J.P. Parise, Jean Potvin

3 thoughts on “Forgotten Franchises: The NHL’s Cleveland Barons

  1. Pingback: Dead Parrot Frankenset: The 1977 Reversal | The Shlabotnik Report

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