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Hockey in Cleveland continues to struggle
Reasons are numerous and complex
2/7/05 - by Craig Haueter

As the Barons head into the last week of play before the AHL All Star break, I felt it time to share my thoughts on the season to date and the state of professional hockey in Cleveland. The Barons are 51 games into the current season and have this to show for it: steady rumors about the team relocating to places like Quad Cities and Tulsa, a spot in last place in the North Division (13 points out of playoff contention) and an average attendance of 4,163 per date which ranks 22nd in the AHL. As I stare at these facts this morning, I feel my frustration level begin to rise as it often has recently.

My excitement over the Barons coming to town in the summer of 2001 seems a lifetime ago. The lone playoff appearance by the Barons last spring seems to have been just a dream. There are some great hockey fans in Northeast Ohio, believe me. I drive 50 minutes one way to watch hockey in Cleveland. As a season ticket holder since the day the Barons arrived, I have been treated very well by the organization and have witnessed the San Jose front office reaching out to build a relationship with Cleveland. The problem as I see it quite frankly is that there is not enough of us and there are large hurdles that make the odds of AHL survival in Cleveland difficult at best. Please allow me to lay out some of them.

#1 – Cleveland is the home of the Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Cavaliers and Cleveland Browns. Can you imagine the difficult task the Barons have landing media attention and advertising support with those major league teams in front of them.

#2 – The fact that Cleveland reportedly falls in the top five nationally in amateur hockey participation might actually hurt the cause for professional hockey. As a parent of children active in sports, I can attest to the fact that it is often hard to fit Barons games into an already busy social schedule with the kids. It is also hard for local hockey fans to relate to an NHL team that plays primarily in the Pacific time zone. As hard as the Sharks organization tries, it has to be logistically challenging to lend support to an AHL affiliation so far away.

#3 – Cleveland historically is a front-runner type of sports town. With maybe the exception of the Browns, Cleveland fans will usually only come out to support a winner. The Barons performance on the ice the last 3 ½ seasons has not helped anything in this area. Frankly, the team was lousy during years 1 and 2. Last year, the Barons made it out of the Q-round but lost to Hamilton. This season thus far, the Barons are 21-25-1-4 in a tough North Division loaded with NHL lockout-related talent. Goals have been hard to come by and the energy level by the team has been inconsistent.

#4 – The Barons play second fiddle as a tenant at Gund Arena. The Cavaliers of the NBA are obviously the primary tenant and get first dibs on home dates. This historically has limited the Barons access to weekend games at home. In addition, the Barons do not reap the parking and concession revenues that other AHL teams do. The recent sale of the Cavaliers and Gund Arena to Dan Gilbert has this area of concern quite up in the air. The Barons lease with Gund Arena expires after next season.

#5 – There seems to be an underlying continuing backlash to prior hockey experiences in Cleveland. The current regime seems to bear the brunt of the negativity from before and gets compared to the things that were done before and are not being done now. Almost from the beginning of the arrival of the current Barons, the question has been whispered, “when is the team leaving town?”

Thanks for letting me vent. The windfall that should have come the Barons way with the NHL lockout has seemingly passed us by. The diehards in Cleveland continue to lend our support and hope for the best. I will forever be a Sharks and Barons fan! Unless the deck of cards we have been dealt gets reshuffled or they uncover more of us, we will more than likely be the last ones out when they shut off the lights-again.

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