Friday 28 October 2011

The Vultures Circled

I have spent some considerable time looking at the various stories found in the Sports Illustrated Vault about the WHA, but there are some rather good stories about the inner workings of the NHL and the problems they faced in the 1970s. One such problem was the Cleveland Barons. The entire organization was on life support the moment it landed in Cleveland, and the franchise never did recover due to poor management, poor location, and the unwillingness of NHL owners to help one another out. Honestly, it's remarkable that the Cleveland Barons lasted as long as they did considering all the craziness that went on behind-the-scenes. Fortunately, we have a record of what was happening thanks to some great writing.

Today, I bring forth an article written by Peter Gammons on the Barons that was published on March 7, 1977 in Sports Illustrated. Mr. Gammons' work is absolutely solid in this two-page piece, and he frames the problems with the Barons very well. I want to just touch upon the highlights.

"The Barons had received their Feb. 1 paychecks two weeks late, and they were still owed their Feb. 15 checks. On one road trip, a bus driver refused to transport the Barons from their hotel to the arena until he was paid in cash, and a Pittsburgh hotel refused to house the team until Coach Jack Evans agreed to put the entire bill on his American Express card. Back home, the Barons' credit rating was no better; one day a company reclaimed a videotape machine from Evans' office while the coach was at lunch. 'Someday it'll all seem funny,' said Forward Gary Sabourin. 'But now I just want to be a long way from Cleveland and the Barons.'
There was no doubt that the Barons were in dire straits financially as the 1976-77 season rolled to a close. Hotel magnate Mel Swig had poured $2.4 million into the team, and saw nothing but red ink for his trouble. Swig, being a business man, knew when to cut ties on a failing business venture, and it appeared that he was allowing the Barons to ease their way into darkness.

It appeared that the NHL would see its first franchise fold mid-season in the modern era as "the Barons had told Swig they all would retire immediately unless he produced their late paychecks and showed financial proof that the club would be able to complete the schedule. For his part, Swig said he had already lost enough money on the Barons, while the other NHL owners, who had lost more than $11 million trying to keep the Barons afloat when they were located in Oakland, insisted they would not bail out the franchise again."

So how did this mess start? For that answer, you need to head west.
"Three years ago the league bought back the Oakland team from Charles O. Finley for some $7 million, then sold it to Swig a year later for $3.5 million. Before purchasing the Seals, Swig had received assurances from the city of San Francisco that it planned to construct a 17,000-seat arena in the Yerba Buena redevelopment complex there, and it was his plan to move the Seals across the Bay from Oakland to San Francisco. But the Yerba Buena deal collapsed, so last summer Swig transferred his team from Oakland to Cleveland, recently vacated by the WHA's Crusaders, who tried to move to Florida but landed in Minnesota instead—and promptly went bankrupt.

"The Barons arrived in Cleveland just six weeks before the start of the season, but for some reason Swig declined to budget funds for promotion. Complicating matters, suburban Richfield—the site of the Coliseum—is somewhere between Akron and Nome, and inaccessible by public transportation. The Barons drew poorly from the start, averaging only 5,300 spectators per game. With his seasonal losses approaching $2.4 million, Swig searched for local investors, and for a time he thought that George Gund III, who owns about 30% of the franchise, would purchase another piece. But when it came time for Gund to put up his money, he was fishing in Chile."
Wow. Consider the factors that came into play when the Seals moved to Cleveland to become the Barons: a failed arena deal, the move of a franchise into a WHA facility where the WHA team couldn't thrive, a lack of promotional budgeting, and no investors to help with the mounting bills. If that's not the definition of a "calamity of errors", I'm not sure what is.
"As a result, the office staff was not paid for two months, and when an office boy was sent out to get paper cups for the coffee machine, the paper company refused to give him the cups. Swig suggested that the players take a 27% pay cut, but they balked. Then Swig was unable to meet the Feb. 1 payroll. The NHL finally stepped in and paid the players on Feb. 15, but there was no guarantee of future checks. 'Considering what they've been through, the players have been remarkable,' said Acting General Manager Harry Howell. 'In fact, they've had better than a .500 record since the day they missed their first paycheck.'"
If you were working for the Barons, imagine telling your bank that you can't make your mortgage payment because the NHL team you work for hasn't paid you in eight weeks! Worse yet, try being a player of said NHL team and being asked to take a 27% paycut to help the franchise out after you had signed a valid contract with the organization! I don't blame the NHL for cutting its losses by not offering any additional paydays, but why are the players and staff forced to suffer?

As the players looked forward as to where they would play next once the franchise dissolved, an unlikely hero stepped forward: the NHLPA.
"With the zero hour approaching, Eagleson had proposed a novel survival plan. The Players' Association, Eagleson said, would take out a $600,000 loan to help finance Cleveland's operations if Swig and the other NHL owners contributed a similar amount.

"Eagleson's proposal was overwhelmingly approved. Swig contributed $350,000 of his money, the 17 other NHL owners tossed in $20,000 apiece—and the Barons had the $1.3 million they needed to pay expenses this year. 'What we've done,' said NHL President Clarence Campbell, 'is give Cleveland one last chance to prove it wants this team. But there is no guarantee there will be a Cleveland hockey team next season.'
As the franchise circled the drain, the cash allowed them to play out the season before the inevitable happened. The players, however, were less than thrilled with this turn of developments.

"A lot of guys are a little upset about still being in Cleveland," Dennis Maruk said. "You figure, what the hell, we're not going to be here next year. Why not let us go someplace else now and let us establish ourselves. Everybody knows we have to play, but nobody wants to get hurt or spoil things for a deal for next year. There are a lot of mixed feelings about things."

The NHLPA, however, was looking out for the good of all its members. "The first purpose of a union is not to keep salaries high for a few players but to maintain as many jobs as possible," says Philadelphia's Bobby Clarke, the president of the NHLPA. "Beyond that, the sport is as much our business as it is the owners'."

Clarke also tacked on an interesting twist to his comments when he said, "We don't want to be like baseball." Yet Donald Fehr is now the NHLPA Executive Director. How the times have changed!

Concerns were raised about what to do when the Barons finally rolled over for good as the NHL and NHLPA were beginning to see the writing on the wall regarding the Barons franchise.
"While some teams—most notably the Rangers—wanted an auction of the Barons personnel, Clarke insisted that such a lottery 'would be all wrong. What about the fans of a team that can't afford to buy players? Even free agency would be wrong, because teams like the Rangers and Flyers would sign the best players. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. If the players are to be dispersed, there should be a straight dispersal draft.' But wouldn't Clarke prefer to see the Flyers buy the players who might help them win the Stanley Cup? 'The game and its integrity are more important than what one person wants,' he says. 'All our salaries must come down. It's crazy. Do you realize there are guys in the minor leagues making $150,000 a year? That's got to change.'"
This is an article that should have been taken into the bargaining room in 2005 when the NHL locked its doors and shutdown the season. Bobby Clarke stated, "All our salaries must come down. It's crazy" in 1977. Twenty-eight years later, the NHL still hasn't fixed the problem. It has a band-aid on it known as the salary cap, but there are still teams that hemmorrhage money annually. The "integrity of the game" in 1977 was simply about making things fair; in 2012, the discussions really should be about fairness again, and not who will be richer at the end.

In any case, the Barons played one more season in Cleveland after that problem-filled 1976-77 season. Mel Swig sold his ownership stake to his brother, Gordon, and to Gordon Gund III, and the two men tried to salvage the Barons in the 1977-78 season. Attendance increased as the Gunds drove up interest, and the Barons appeared to be on the verge of a playoff berth for the first time since moving to Cleveland. However, a fifteen-game losing streak in February put an end to the hopes of seeing the Barons in the playoffs.

The team would merge in the off-season with another struggling team in the Minnesota North Stars, and the North Stars would move into Cleveland's spot in the Adams Division. Ironically, the Gunds were granted an expansion team in San Jose in 1991 - the same market the Seals left - and the merger was undone to allow San Jose to draft unprotected players from the North Stars. The Gunds later sold the Sharks, but the Sharks retraced their roots when they setup an AHL franchise in Cleveland as the Barons! Talk about not letting go of something.

In any case, Cleveland Barons uniforms are one of the most sought-after items in hockey memorabilia circles. The short lifespan of the NHL Barons makes finding them a real challenge, and bids always end up in the four-figure range at least. But do you know what you're actually looking at when you see a Barons jersey?

The one thing that made the Barons' jerseys extremely popular was the Ohio-shaped outline on the sleeve numbers. To this day, no other NHL team has had an outline on the sleeve numbers which is surprising, considering some of the garish designs and horrific jersey details we've seen over the years. In a rather astounding move, the Barons wore this design for only their first season in Cleveland during the 1976-77 season! They also wore their names on their white jerseys, but went nameless on their red jerseys for that first season.

In their next and final season in 1977-78, the sleeve numbers broke free from Ohio, moving up the arm to the shoulder yoke. Both the red and white jerseys featured names this season, complying with the NHL mandate that all uniforms had to feature names on the back. The numbering on the back of the jersey also got considerably smaller than the previous year. Why? No one seems to know.

While the NHL has never considered moving back to Cleveland as far as I've heard, the AHL's Lake Erie Monsters now play out of Cleveland. The NHL does have a team in Ohio as the Columbus Blue Jackets call the state home, but the Barons still have the legacy as being the first Ohio-based NHL team. Even if that legacy is covered in tarnish.

With their short yet colorful history, though, you just have to grin and "Baron" it.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

Robert Ullman said...

Man...I grew up about 15 minutes from Richfield. To think that I had NHL hockey right in my backyard...If only I hadn't been just 5 years old!

They tore down Richfield Coliseum about a dozen years ago after the Cavs moved's just a desolate patch of abandoned concrete now. Hard to believe after seeing so many concerts and event there.