Saturday, 26 November 2011

How Things Unfolded

I wanted to do some additional research on the fate of the Cleveland Barons. I wrote a little about the struggles of the Barons at the end of October, but I wanted to learn more about this situation. How did it start? What were the circumstances surrounding the Barons when the club was missing payrolls came to light? Needless to say, it's harder to find information about this situation online, and I am nowhere near the city of Cleveland to dig into local archives. Immediately, I thought there might be something in the local newspapers, but those searches proved fruitless unless I was willing to pay to sift through the archives of those publications. Instead, I turned to the newspaper archives on Google as my search there turned up a treasure trove of information.

I want to make something clear here: I'm not going to speculate or give my own thoughts in this article. Rather, I want to piece together a chronological account of how the team fell on hard time in 1977. This team didn't make it out of 1978, so there had to be rumblings before Peter Gammons wrote his Sports Illustrated article that I linked in October. Today, I present to you the chronological newspaper account of the beginning of the end of the Cleveland Barons starting in January 1977 until the conclusion of the season in 1977.

1977 opened for the Barons with another sparse crowd at the Richfield Coliseum. Owner Mel Swig was quoted as being "baffled" by the low fan turnout as Cleveland had averaged just 5357 fans in 22 home games during the 1976-77 campaign to that point. Needless to say, the problems were looming large for the Barons if they weren't even getting a third of the Richfield Coliseum filled. The Blade from Toledo, Ohio has the details on this story from January 11, 1977.

On January 14, the spin-doctoring of the mounting money problems in Cleveland begin. Reports were swirling that the Barons could lose up to $2 million dollars in the 1976-77 season, but public relations director Ron McGrath tries to stomp out those fires. The UPI writer spells out some obvious signs that the Barons are struggling - lowest attendance in the NHL, a poor record in a powerful Adams Division, and a pile of injuries - so it's hard to believe what Mr. McGrath was spinning. The Bonham Daily Favorite from Bonham, Texas carried this story on January 14, 1977.

Two weeks later, there is a clear money problem in Cleveland as the Barons were granted "more time" from the NHL to get their finances in order. Mel Swig is quoted as saying that the team needs "more than a half a million dollars" to make it through the season, and that he's unwilling to pour more money into the failing franchise. The Windsor Star brings this story to life on January 27, 1977.

We jump to February 2, 1977 when it is reported that the Cleveland Barons players aren't paid on Monday. Alan Eagleson steps in as he represents nine of the Barons, and he informs the press that the owners have rejected Mel Swig's pleas for help. We get our first report of Cleveland sports magnate George Gund backing out of a deal to inject the Barons with $4 million of new cash. Eagleson makes it clear that if the best Barons players elect to leave through free agency after not being paid, the franchise would most likely be terminated. This story appeared in the February 2, 1977 edition of The Calgary Herald.

One day after that story broke, the money problems really began to rear their ugly sides. The Barons players would have to surrender 27 percent of their pay cheques until May 15 so that the franchise could remain afloat. As seen in the article, the NHL had invested more than $8 million into the franchise, and the Barons had missed the January 31 payday. Sixteen players had filed notices that Swig had defaulted on payments, and if they were to play for the next two weeks without being paid, they would become free agents at the end of that period. Both articles were filed on February 3, 1977 with the first article appearing in The Montreal Gazette and the latter appearing in The Leader-Post from Regina, Saskatchewan.

Just two days later, Mel Swig said he had a plan to save the struggling club, but wouldn't go into detail with Barons player representative Bob Stewart. There were rumours that Washington Capitals owner and Richfield Coliseum owner Sanford A. Greenberg might be brought in to help keep the Cleveland Barons afloat. But the picture for the Barons was still cloudy as Stewart informed Swig that if the players were not paid on February 17, all 24 Cleveland Barons players would ask for free agency status on their defaulted contracts. While the meeting between Swig and Stewart was described as "cordial", you have to think that both sides were looking to cut their losses at this point. The two articles both appeared on February 5, 1977 with the first article from The Montreal Gazette and the latter being printed in The Windsor Star.

As a corollary to the problems that Cleveland was having, I found an excellent editorial penned by The Montreal Gazette's Dink Carroll on February 5, 1977 that looks at the issues with a number of teams in the NHL. The Atlanta Flames were in dire straits weeks before the Barons' situation arose, and Mr. Carroll gives a brief, but excellent, synopsis of how the Barons arrived in the financial mess they were in. Mr. Carroll identifies that, besides Atlanta and Cleveland, attendance issues were showing up for teams such as the St. Louis Blues, Minnesota North Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Colorado Rockies, and Pittsburgh Penguins. While players' salaries are blamed for knocking hockey's economics out of whack, it seems that the late-1970s were a bad time for hockey.

We pick the Barons' story up again on February 16, 1977, and it's beginning to get messy. The proposed sale to Sanford Greenberg has fallen through, and the Barons are floundering. It sounds as though the deal presented by Greenberg to bring new money as an owner, but the terms presented by Greenberg to Mel Swig were not accepted by Swig. With just two days before the Barons players were to become free agents, Swig stated that they would be paid as per the agreement before the deadline. Swig missed the mid-February payment as well, but he has another 14 days to cover that payroll. Greenberg's people proclaim the Barons to be dead. The story appeared in the February 16, 1977 edition of The Montreal Gazette.

With Swig behind another payment to his players, things began to take drastic turns. The very next day, Swig let 19 players from the Salt Lake City Eagles go in a cost-cutting measure. He also hadn't paid the front office staff in both Cleveland and Salt Lake City. Three players had still not been paid from the January 31 payday - defenceman Glenn Patrick and forwards Frank Spring and Phil Roberto - and these three players would be free agents by midnight on February 17. It turned out that they got their releases earlier in the day. The Barons also lost Wednesday night to the Maple Leafs by a 5-3 score, but honestly, these stories shows that the Cleveland Barons were essentially running the franchise on nothing more than smoke and mirrors. These stories appeared in the February 17, 1977 edition of The Montreal Gazette and the Ellensburg Daily Record.

And what of the Salt Lake City Eagles? The CHL team was obviously shocked by the outright releases given to 19 players, but the vast majority of them would remain with the Eagles as the owners of the Eagles - Art Teece, Bill Acord, and Dean Acord - would pay the free agents through to the end of the season. At least one set of owners had their acts together. The Eagles would push forward with the majority of their roster intact. That article was written by Brent Checketts in the February 17, 1977 edition of the Deseret News.

Things were turning ugly on the ice as well as the players were considering not playing against the Colorado Rockies on February 18. Swig was still one payroll payment behind, and there was talk that the players would sit out until guarantees of payments were made. While some may call this sort of action a mutiny, would you work for no pay? This article appeared in the February 18, 1977 edition of the Pittsburgh Press.

Thankfully, the vote by the players wasn't held thanks to Alan Eagleson, and this gave Mel Swig more time. The players handed down an ultimatum to Swig: pay us by Tuesday or we're done. And it sounds like the relationship between Swig and the players was icy at best judging by Bob Stewart's comments. This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on February 19, 1977.

The game on Sunday wasn't much of a game as Pittsburgh defeated the Barons by a 4-1 score in what potentially could have been the Barons last game as an NHL franchise. With no other games scheduled between the loss to the Penguins and the Tuesday deadline at noon imposed by the players, Mel Swig's NHL franchise was literally on its deathbed. This story appeared in the February 21, 1977 edition of The Montreal Gazette.

So we move to Tuesday where it appeared that February 23, 1977 would be the day that the Barons were dissolved. The players were refusing to play against the Buffalo Sabres that night, and it sounded as though Swig was not willing to carry this struggling franchise any longer. If there was one thing that was apparent, the Barons' money problems were the result of poor attendance and poor management. Despite Swig trying to save face, it looked like all was lost for this franchise as the guillotine hung precariously above the Barons. As for the NHL, the Barons' dissolution would throw a few monkey wrenches into their business as well. All four of these stories appeared on February 23, 1977, and the publications featured are seen in this order: The Regina Leader-Post, News-Dispatch, The Regina Leader-Post again, and The Regina Leader-Post once more.

However, it appears the hockey gods weren't about to let this franchise die that easily. In an eleventh-hour effort, the Barons found $1.3 million worth of capital to save the franchise for the remainder of the 1976-77 season. The NHLPA kicked in $600,000, while the NHL and Mel Swig committed $350,000 each to make up the shortfall needed by the Barons. The NHLPA's portion of the money, it seems, came from a bank loan that would be paid through extra exhibition games in the following seasons. In some good news, the Barons played the Sabres the night before, losing 5-3 in front of their smallest crowd ever of just 3185 fans. And thanks to the infusion of cash, the Salt Lake City Eagles got themselves some added reinforcements from Cleveland as well, almost guaranteeing that they will finish the season in good standing. Both of these articles were printed on February 24, 1977 in the Deseret News.

With the franchise saved, Alan Eagleson suggests that the Barons won't exist beyond the 1976-77 season, and also states that three or four other franchises should seriously consider contraction as an alternative to remaining in business. He suggested to players that they not attend Barons' training camp next season unless the franchise is on solid footing as well. If he was looking to kill the franchise, it's those kinds of comments that will do it. This article was found in the February 25, 1977 edition of The Regina Leader-Post.

While the Barons would survive another season, Mel Swig would not be a part of it. He would sell the franchise to new ownership, but there's no doubt that support this franchise needed would not be found in Cleveland. While I only examined two months of the Barons' franchise in 1977, I'll most likely look at this franchise again through the print media in the future. This is a great start, though, and I hope it brings some insight to the problems that all parties faced in Cleveland during January and February of 1977 when things looked bleakest for the Barons and the NHL.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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