Like its experiences with other pro sports, Cleveland’s relationship with hockey is filled with moments of triumph and tragedy. Mostly the latter, of course. In his new book, Gary Webster, author of the very brilliant The League That Didn’t Exist, explores the history of the Cleveland Barons and their brief time in the National Hockey League (NHL).
The book also includes a look at the original Barons of the American Hockey League (AHL) and the Crusaders of the World Hockey Association (WHA). The histories of those teams figure prominently into that of the NHL Barons.
Appearing on the podcast Good Seats Still Available (an OSS partner) before the book was released, Webster described himself as only a casual hockey fan, a position which may have provided some objectivity. He does take a few pokes at the WHA, intimating that it was barely a major league (it most certainly was). He also questions the legendary Gordie Howe’s impressive numbers for the WHA’s Houston Aeros, pondering whether those stats were the result of seemingly timeless talent or the poor quality of the league’s players.
Most of the book is a detailed biography of the NHL Barons but begins with the very popular AHL Barons. They started in 1929 as the Indians. From 1934 to 1937, they were the Falcons. In 1937 they became the Barons and went on to be one of the most beloved and successful teams in the AHL. Indeed, the Barons were offered a spot in the NHL after the Brooklyn (originally New York) Americans folded in 1942. The Barons owner turned down the offer.
Owner Al Sutphin reasoned that being a big fish in a little pond, or rink, was a much better position to be in. He also felt that if he withdrew from the AHL, of which Cleveland was a charter member, that league would disband
When the NHL doubled in size in the mid-60s, the NHL remembered the rebuff. Cleveland was not included in that expansion and was denied entry into the 1970s in favor of arguably less attractive markets like Oakland, Atlanta, and Kansas City. This created a vacuum for major league hockey in Cleveland, which was filled by the WHA’s Crusaders, who were owned, oddly, by the same guy that had come to own the AHL Barons, Nick Mileti.
When the Crusaders left, the hapless California Golden Seals, a team that joined the NHL in the first wave of expansion in 1967, moved to Cleveland in 1976 and were renamed the Nations.
Webster details the team’s two seasons in Northeast Ohio, both on and off the ice. With no puck left unturned, the author demonstrates quite effectively why the Cleveland Barons failed so spectacularly. He also includes a few juicy details about two possible mergers involving the Barons and teams in the WHA.
The book ends, fittingly, with the team’s demise. It doesn’t go on to explain what happened following its collapse or how that situation would later impact hockey in Minnesota, Dallas, and (coming full circle), the San Francisco Bay Area. Suffice to say, this book is a must for any hockey fan interested in the sport of that era, rebel leagues, minor league hockey, or all three.