Friday, 9 December 2011

Baron Von North Star

If you're somewhat interested in hockey history, you may want to circle June 14 on your 2012 calendar. On that day thirty-four years ago, the NHL saw the Cleveland-based franchise fold up shop for good as the Barons merged with the Minnesota North Stars. That's right: MERGED. Rather than just folding and allowing the players to hit the free agent market, the Barons and North Stars merged in an attempt to save one failing franchise and one struggling franchise. There are a bunch of reasons why the Barons failed in Cleveland, but I only want to focus on June 14, 1978 as that was the day that the ice melted in Cleveland for its NHL franchise.

After being sold to Richfield Coliseum owner Sanford Greenberg and well-known sports magnate George Gund on June 10, 1977, there was hope for the Cleveland Barons after they had bumbled through their existence as both the Seals and the Barons. They had an arena owner who could help drive revenues, and George Gund was certainly well-connected in the Cleveland region.

In that linked article, I did find it interesting about the possible rule changes that the NHL was considering in 1977. Voted down included having both teams skate to the neutral zone when a fight started. Wouldn't close quarters just breed more contempt?

They also discussed the "Laycoe Rule" that would have made passes across the red line legal as long as the puck went past the red line ahead of the offensive player chasing it. Interesting idea, to say the least, but the two-line pass was still forbidden in the 1980s, so this one would eventually be voted down. Also voted down? The NHL-WHA merger again.

New for the 1978-79 season would be the statistic of plus/minus. So that was a win for the ultra-conservative NHL in 1977, I guess - more numbers and paperwork for the statisticians.

Going back to the Barons, it seems the problems didn't disappear with new owners, however, and the Barons found themselves drowning in red ink once again as the end of the 1977-78 season came to a close. The location of the arena outside of Cleveland, the poor management, and the lack of support from fans simply brought this franchise to the brink of extinction once again, and the NHL wanted nothing to do with saving it once more. And with that knowledge, we look at a few newspaper articles from June 15, 1978 when it was announced that the Barons would merge with the North Stars.

If you're keeping track of calendar dates at home, that's 370 days after the new owners were brought in as saviours of the Cleveland Barons. Make no mistake that Greenberg and Gund had a pile of money between them, and their local connections in the Cleveland area were strong. It just goes to show you that no matter who owns the team, there is a ton of work to do in getting fans to buy into the franchise, especially after previous owners of the franchise ran the club into the ground. Cleveland and the Atlanta Thrashers are proof that poor ownership and management can drive fans away faster than poor play by the team on the ice. But I digress.

John Zeigler, who one year earlier was made president of the NHL, announced that the Barons and North Stars would merge and play as the Minnesota North Stars for the 1978-79 season in the Adams Division, taking Cleveland's old position within the division. Of course, this little article from the Edmonton Journal didn't really answer any questions except for player distribution to the weaker teams, so I kept pushing forth in my search for definitive information about this merger.

The St. Petersburg Independent brought forth a little history in their blurb about the merger. Eleven years saw the team collect "white skates, trained Seals and unimpressed customers", and became the first NHL team to merge with another team in the NHL. They also were the first team to cease operations since the 1942 Brooklyn Americans. If nothing else, the Associated Press may have wired out one of the harshest obituaries ever in this snippet. But again, I pushed on as my curiosity about the merger was not yet quenched.

Thanks to the Regina Leader-Post, a lot of the questions were answered. George and Gordon Gund officially joined the ownership ranks of the North Stars while the Cleveland Barons ceased to exist. The NHL also established that the dispersal draft would occur before the NHL Entry Draft, and that Washington and St. Louis - the two worst teams outside of Cleveland and Minnesota - would get the first picks in the dispersal draft. Seems fair, right?

Instead, the Capitals decided to take the 18th overall pick in the 1978 NHL Entry Draft instead of selecting a player in the dispersal draft after the North Stars chose to protect ten players and a goaltender while forfeiting Cleveland's first-round pick. The Barons would also have to forfeit their remaining picks because Minnesota still had picks in the draft, including the first overall pick. Minnesota selected Bobby Smith that year from the OHA's Ottawa 67's, and Washington used the second overall pick to take Ryan Walter of the WCHL's Seattle Breakers. That 18th overall pick? The Capitals took Tim Coulis of the OHA's Hamilton Fincups.

Coulis played a grand total of 47 NHL games in his career. He suited up for 19 games with the Washington Capitals before playing 28 games with the Minnesota North Stars. Four goals and five assists later, and Coulis became another first-round flame-out. Notable players that Washington could have selected instead of Coulis included Don Maloney, Stan Smyl, Tom Laidlaw, Keith Acton, Paul MacLean, Craig MacTavish, Darryl Sutter, Anton Stastny, or Viacheslav Fetisov. Ouch.

The only player who finished with worse statistics from the 1978 Entry Draft was Philadelphia's third pick in the first round and 14th overall selection Dan Lucas from the OHA's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Lucas played just six games in the NHL, scoring just one goal which came against the Pittsburgh Penguins on October 19th, 1978. Lucas, however, is probably better known as Wayne Gretzky's first linemate in Sault Ste. Marie!

Back to the article, however, and there were a few quotes from former Barons that would foreshadow the future. Head coach Jack Evans spoke of how he thought the drama would be over, but he wouldn't survive the summer as the bench boss as he was replaced by Harry Howell on July 8, 1978. The Gunds would officially take over the Minnesota North Stars later that year, and the North Stars were officially a mainstay in Minneapolis for the next two decades.

And that's how the Barons became the North Stars. Talks initiated with the Minnesota franchise by the Gunds turned into a merger between the two teams - a first for the NHL - and the unprotected players were put up for grabs in the dispersal draft. It took eleven years for the Barons to see their demise, and all of three days for the team to officially be dismantled.

June 14, 1978: the day the Barons became Stars.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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