They were a relocation of the California Golden Seals franchise which had played in Oakland, California since 1967.
After only two seasons, the team merged with the Minnesota North Stars.
After new arena plans in San Francisco, California were cancelled, the NHL dropped its objection to a relocation of the troubled California Golden Seals franchise from Oakland.
Minority owner George Gund III persuaded owner Melvin Swig to move the team to his hometown of Cleveland for the 1976–77 NHL season. The team was named Cleveland Barons after the popular American Hockey League (AHL) team that played in the city from 1929 to 1973.
Although a successful minor league city, Cleveland had been turned down for an NHL expansion team on three previous occasions.
The Barons played in the suburban Richfield Coliseum in Richfield, Ohio (an arena originally built for the WHA’s Cleveland Crusaders and the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers) with the then largest seating capacity in the NHL of 18,544.
On July 14, 1976, the NHL approved the move to Cleveland, but the details were not finalized until late August of 1976 and there was little time or money for promotion of the new team.
The Barons would never come close to filling the arena in their two years in Cleveland. The team’s home opener (heldo on October 7, 1976) only drew 8,900 fans. They only drew 10,000 or more fans in seven out of 40 home games and the attendance was actually worse than it had been in Oakland.
The Barons were also troubled by an unfavorable lease with the Coliseum.
In January of 1977, Melvin hinted that the team might not finish the season due to payroll difficulties. The Barons actually missed payroll twice in a row in February and with the franchise on the verge of collapse, some of the Barons’ players were actively being courted by other teams.
Wanting to avoid the embarrassment of a team folding at mid-season (as had happened in the rival WHA), a last-minute $1.3 million loan from the league and the NHLPA was arranged to allow the Barons to finish the season.
After finishing last in the Adams Division yet again, Melvin sold his interest in the team to Gund and his brother Gordon.
For 1977–78, the Gunds poured money into the team and it seemed to make a difference at first. On November 23, 1977, the Barons stunned the defending Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens before a boisterous crowd of 12,859 people.
After a brief slump, general manager Harry Howell pulled off several trades in an attempt to make the team tougher. It initially paid off and the Barons knocked off three of the NHL’s top teams: the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Islanders and the Buffalo Sabres in consecutive games in January of 1978.
A few weeks later, a record crowd of 13,110 saw the Barons tie the Philadelphia Flyers 2–2. However, the bottom fell out in February of 1978 as a fifteen-game losing skid knocked the Barons out of playoff contention.
Team Merger & Aftermath
After the season, the Gunds tried to buy the Coliseum, but failed. Meanwhile, the Minnesota North Stars were facing financial difficulties similar to those weighing down the Barons.
Fearing that two franchises were on the verge of folding, on June 14, 1978, the league granted approval for the two teams to merge.
While the North Stars were the surviving team, the Gunds were the majority owners and the North Stars assumed the Barons’ place in the Adams Division (a pragmatic move more than a symbolic one as the Adams would have been left with three teams otherwise) and the North Stars would be moved to the Norris Division in the 1981 realignment.
In 1991, the merger would effectively be undone as the Gunds assumed ownership of the expansion San Jose Sharks (occupying the same market as the Seals did prior to their move to Cleveland) and the two teams split the players on the North Stars at the time.
The North Stars would move to Dallas as the Dallas Stars in 1993. (Coincidentally, the Sharks formed their own minor-league team in Cleveland and named it the Cleveland Barons from 2001 to 2006.)
The NHL did keep interest in hockey alive in Cleveland, though.
The Pittsburgh Penguins (who from 1978-1991 were owned by Northeast Ohio native Edward DeBartolo, Sr.) would play two "home" games at the Richfield Coliseum in the early 1990s before the arena was demolished to make way for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
The NHL finally returned to the Buckeye State in 2000 with the expansion Columbus Blue Jackets, located two hours south of Cleveland via Interstate 71 in the state capital of Columbus.
Although Cleveland is about equidistant from four NHL cities (Buffalo, Columbus, Detroit and Pittsburgh), the NHL considers Cleveland to be "shared" between the Blue Jackets and the Penguins for territorial rights today.
Dennis Maruk was the last Cleveland Baron (and the last California Golden Seal as well) to be active in the NHL. He retired from the North Stars after the 1988–89 season with 356 goals in 888 games.
- Jim Neilson and Bob Stewart (1976–1978) (co-captains)
First Round Draft Picks
- 1976: Bjorn Johansson (fifth overall)
- 1977: Mike Crombeen (fifth overall) (the selection was made by the California Golden Seals as the move to Cleveland had not taken place yet)
- Jack Evans (1976–1978)
- Bill McCreary (1976–1977)
- Harry Howell (1977–1978)