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HOCKEY (ICE)

HOCKEY (ICE). Hockey has remained a sport of marginal popularity in Cleveland, despite periods of great success by the city's professional teams. Collegiate, high school, and amateur hockey teams also have been organized in the greater Cleveland area. Ice hockey originated in Canada in the mid-1800s as a variation of the game of shinny. Shinny, played on foot with a ball and long-handled, bent sticks, allowed as many as 20 players a side, and the object of the game, as in hockey, was to shoot the ball into a goal. Play was physically rough. In fact, shinny was viewed at the time as a sport of moral education for young boys, teaching the "manly discipline" required to overcome the difficulties of adult life. Shinny could be played year-round but was most commonly played by elementary school teams in the winter. By the 1830s, it had become a popular sport in the growing city of Cleveland. Canadians began playing the game on skates in the 1850s and 1860s, and the sport of ice hockey took shape. The transition, however, required rule changes. Large, open stretches of smooth ice were more difficult to find than open meadows. Also, skaters were faster than players on foot, making large teams impractical, and gradually 6 players were accepted as the standard.

Sometime during the 1890s, the new game was introduced to Cleveland, but the sport appeared to be a casual "pickup" recreation until 1929. In that year, Harry (Happy) Holmes secured $20,000 and formed a professional hockey team, naming it the Cleveland Indians. Holmes raised the final investment by touting the Indians as a diversion from the concern raised by the recent stock market collapse and gained a franchise in the Intl. Hockey League, a minor-league circuit. At that time, the team paid little more than the players' expenses. Holmes rented the ELYSIUM at Euclid Ave. and E. 107th St. for the Indians' home games. Despite the team's limited pre-season practice time, they won the league championship for 1929-30. The club's star players were Ken Doraty and Doug Young. The Indians, however, were not able to repeat their triumph in succeeding seasons, falling steadily in the standings until 1933-34, when they finished last in the league. Not even "Happy" Holmes, noted for his public relations skills, could convince a financially pinched public to support a losing team in the Depression years. Although Holmes himself had reached the end of his monetary resources, he remained convinced of hockey's potential and searched for a new backer to support the team. He brought in ALBERT SUTPHIN, who would be responsible for the great years of hockey in Cleveland. Sutphin bought the franchise, installed himself as president and treasurer of the club, and reorganized the team. They continued to play in the Intl. League, but under the new name of the Falcons. Although Sutphin was not immediately successful in producing a winning team, the Falcons improved. By 1937 the team's finances were strong enough and the play good enough to move into the American Hockey League, the most important of the minor-league circuits. Sutphin renamed the club the CLEVELAND BARONS and moved them into the newly completed CLEVELAND ARENA. Although the Barons proved to be fully competitive in the AHL, it was not hockey's major league, and Sutphin wanted to move the team into the National Hockey League. He worked for years to secure a franchise. In 1952 all requirements for entry seemed to have been met, until the NHL owners decided that television and radio contracts could not be counted as team capital, and the franchise was denied. Sutphin continued to lobby for admission and received consideration again in 1968. In turning down his application, the NHL owners cited 2 reasons: the Arena was not large enough, seating 9,300 when 14,000 would be required, and Clevelanders had failed to attend the Barons' 1968 championship playoff series in substantial numbers. The NHL owners suspected that Cleveland was not a "major league town," and Sutphin entertained the same suspicions. Attendance at Barons games had fallen in the late 1960s. While the team remained competitive, Sutphin began to look toward his retirement from hockey. In 1970 the Barons agreed to become the NHL Minnesota North Stars' primary "farm" team, which helped secure the team's financial base. The club looked profitable enough to prompt sports entrepreneur Nick Mileti to buy it in 1972.

Mileti, seeking to build a major-league sports empire in Cleveland, immediately applied for admission to the NHL. His bid, underpinned by new financial backing and the promise of a new home rink (the proposed Coliseum), seemed sure finally to gain NHL approval; however, at the last minute the Washington, DC, bid received the new franchise. Mileti then turned to the recently organized World Hockey Assn. The WHA was established as a second major league to compete with the NHL, and generally located its teams in cities without NHL franchises. Mileti named his new team the Cleveland Crusaders. During the 1972-73 season, both the Barons and the Crusaders played at the arena, but despite Mileti's hopes, the WHA could not win acceptance with the public as a proper major league. During the 1972-73 season, the Crusaders found it difficult to attract a regular audience, and the team's mediocre play did not help matters. The Barons also continued to lose patrons, and during the off-season in 1973, Mileti shipped the club off to Jacksonville, FL. This move, he hoped, would consolidate the Cleveland hockey market. Unfortunately for Mileti, the Crusaders did not significantly improve in the next 3 seasons. His final hope to move the team into the NHL was blocked by the league owners, who resented the WHA's player raids. At the end of the 1975-76 season, Mileti took the team to Hollywood, FL, whereupon Cleveland finally received an NHL franchise. The California Golden Seals was an NHL expansion team that had not established itself in San Francisco. Mel Swig and George Gund III bought the Seals; moved them to Cleveland; and renamed them the Barons. The new club survived for only 2 years as attendance failed to increase. The team nearly went bankrupt at the end of their first season, and only a special appropriation by the NHL prevented their failure. The Barons did no better in 1977-78 and merged with the Minnesota North Stars, strengthening another weak team. The departure of the Barons spelled the end of professional hockey in Cleveland until 1991. At that time, the Gateway arena was being built in downtown Cleveland, and an unsuccessful effort was made to establish a new professional North American Hockey League with a Cleveland franchise. Instead, professional hockey returned to Cleveland in 1992 when the CLEVELAND LUMBERJACKS of the Intl. Hockey League moved here from Muskegon, MI. The Lumberjacks were affiliated with the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins in 1995.

Amateur hockey was played in Cleveland in the 1930s and 1940s, generally by teams sponsored by local companies such as Thompson Products and FISHER FOODS. However, those teams never organized into a formal league structure. League play began in 1951 with the Cleveland Midget Hockey League. Formed by Cleveland recreation director John Nagy and Police Department Juvenile Division captain Arthur Roth, the CMHL was intended for boys who might otherwise become juvenile delinquents. Funds were provided by the CLEVELAND FOUNDATION and the ROTARY CLUB. In 1964 the Muny Leagues were organized by the Cleveland Recreation Department, and by the mid-1970s the Muny teams had evolved into clubs playing at all levels in Midwest regional leagues. By 1986 numerous small leagues also played at all Greater Cleveland ice rinks. Scholastic hockey began in 1940 with the organization of the Cleveland High School League. Although most city high schools participated, the league dissolved in 1942. In 1969 the Greater Cleveland High School Hockey League was formed by Joe Prokop, a former Cleveland Baron. Beginning with 4 teams, the league grew to 20 participating schools in 1986. The highlight of the season was the Baron Cup tournament, in which the 8 best teams in the league played for a trophy donated by the Cleveland Barons in 1970. Collegiate hockey began in the 1940s, when Western Reserve Univ., Case Institute, and JOHN CARROLL UNIV. began fielding hockey clubs. The college teams have been arranged in several league formulations, generally on a regional basis. In 1986 most area colleges and universities had hockey clubs. Amateur hockey has remained a popular sport; in 1993 the Greater Cleveland area supported 17 hockey rinks and had about 175 Cleveland hockey teams signed up with Hockey USA.

Michael McCormick

Western Reserve Historical Society