The Cleveland Barons finished what they thought would be their last practice one morning last week, then gathered at Little Joe's Pub to wait for their team to expire. For more than a month the Barons had lived on skid row, the victims of meager home crowds, a last-place record in their division and a financially strapped owner—San Francisco hotel-man Mel Swig—who had poured $2.4 million into the ailing franchise over the last six months and now saw no reason to prolong his misery.
The Barons had received their Feb. 1 paychecks two weeks late, and they were still owed their Feb. 15 checks. On one road trip, a bus driver refused to transport the Barons from their hotel to the arena until he was paid in cash, and a Pittsburgh hotel refused to house the team until Coach Jack Evans agreed to put the entire bill on his American Express card. Back home, the Barons' credit rating was no better; one day a company reclaimed a videotape machine from Evans' office while the coach was at lunch. "Someday it'll all seem funny," said Forward Gary Sabourin. "But now I just want to be a long way from Cleveland and the Barons."
As Sabourin spoke, the odds were that he and all the other Barons would be a long way from Cleveland before their scheduled home game the next night against the Buffalo Sabres. In fact, the Barons had told Swig they all would retire immediately unless he produced their late paychecks and showed financial proof that the club would be able to complete the schedule. For his part, Swig said he had already lost enough money on the Barons, while the other NHL owners, who had lost more than $11 million trying to keep the Barons afloat when they were located in Oakland, insisted they would not bail out the franchise again.
The Oakland-Cleveland mess has always been an eyesore for the NHL, which has repeatedly boasted that, unlike the rival WHA, it has never folded a sick club in the middle of a season. Three years ago the league bought back the Oakland team from Charles O. Finley for some $7 million, then sold it to Swig a year later for $3.5 million. Before purchasing the Seals, Swig had received assurances from the city of San Francisco that it planned to construct a 17,000-seat arena in the Yerba Buena redevelopment complex there, and it was his plan to move the Seals across the Bay from Oakland to San Francisco. But the Yerba Buena deal collapsed, so last summer Swig transferred his team from Oakland to Cleveland, recently vacated by the WHA's Crusaders, who tried to move to Florida but landed in Minnesota instead—and promptly went bankrupt.
The Barons arrived in Cleveland just six weeks before the start of the season, but for some reason Swig declined to budget funds for promotion. Complicating matters, suburban Richfield—the site of the Coliseum—is somewhere between Akron and Nome, and inaccessible by public transportation. The Barons drew poorly from the start, averaging only 5,300 spectators per game. With his seasonal losses approaching $2.4 million, Swig searched for local investors, and for a time he thought that George Gund III, who owns about 30% of the franchise, would purchase another piece. But when it came time for Gund to put up his money, he was fishing in Chile.
As a result, the office staff was not paid for two months, and when an office boy was sent out to get paper cups for the coffee machine, the paper company refused to give him the cups. Swig suggested that the players take a 27½% pay cut, but they balked. Then Swig was unable to meet the Feb. 1 payroll. The NHL finally stepped in and paid the players on Feb. 15, but there was no guarantee of future checks. "Considering what they've been through, the players have been remarkable," said Acting General Manager Harry Howell. "In fact, they've had better than a .500 record since the day they missed their first paycheck."
Nevertheless, the financial crisis had clearly affected the Barons. "We got to the point where we felt like no one cared—not the Players' Association, not the fans, not the club, not even the league," said Defenseman Bob Stewart, the Barons' player representative. "We'd even like to be booed, anything that shows someone's interested." The Barons voted to strike and not play a game against Colorado, but Alan Eagleson, the executive director of the NHL Players' Association and the agent for several team members, convinced them to suit up for two more games. If there was no guarantee of salaries at that time, Eagleson said, they could retire, let the team fold and have the league dispose of them.
"That's what we want," said Forward Bob Murdoch. "A lot of guys have heard from other clubs, and they want to go."
Many of the Barons at Little Joe's talked about where they might end up when the club expired. The hottest rumor was that the rich New York Rangers had already offered Swig more than $1 million for three of his best players—Goaltender Gilles Meloche and Forwards Dennis Maruk and Murdoch, the older brother of Ranger rookie Don Murdoch. Buffalo, too, reportedly wanted Meloche, while Toronto desired Forward Rick Hampton and Defenseman Stewart, the Bruins sought Boston native Mike Fidler and Philadelphia was anxious to reclaim Left Wing Al MacAdam.
Then the Barons received the news they least expected: the Cleveland franchise was still alive, if not completely healthy, and would complete the season. With the zero hour approaching, Eagleson had proposed a novel survival plan. The Players' Association, Eagleson said, would take out a $600,000 loan to help finance Cleveland's operations if Swig and the other NHL owners contributed a similar amount.
Eagleson's proposal was overwhelmingly approved. Swig contributed $350,000 of his money, the 17 other NHL owners tossed in $20,000 apiece—and the Barons had the $1.3 million they needed to pay expenses this year. "What we've done." said NHL President Clarence Campbell, "is give Cleveland one last chance to prove it wants this team. But there is no guarantee there will be a Cleveland hockey team next season."
The Barons reacted to the infusion of fresh capital by losing three games in four nights, and attracting a total of only 9,634 for their two home games. "A lot of guys are a little upset about still being in Cleveland," Maruk said. "You figure, what the hell, we're not going to be here next year. Why not let us go someplace else now and let us establish ourselves. Everybody knows we have to play, but nobody wants to get hurt or spoil things for a deal for next year. There are a lot of mixed feelings about things."
The interesting aspect of Eagleson's artificial respiration is that it was the Players' Association that saved the team. But this was not entirely surprising, for hockey players always have genuinely cared about the survival of their sport, and the NHL's Players' Association has more power in the conduct of its game than any of the other players' unions.
"The first purpose of a union is not to keep salaries high for a few players but to maintain as many jobs as possible," says Philadelphia's Bobby Clarke, the president of the NHLPA. "Beyond that, the sport is as much our business as it is the owners'." In fact, Clarke and the other NHL players have shown little interest in the so-called freedom issues that have plagued the other major sports; the NHL players were the first to agree to compensation arrangements for players who exercised their options, to an amateur draft and to a moratorium on legal actions. "We don't want to be like baseball," says Clarke.
Throughout the Cleveland crisis the players showed more interest in the "integrity of the game" than did the owners. While some teams—most notably the Rangers—wanted an auction of the Barons personnel, Clarke insisted that such a lottery "would be all wrong. What about the fans of a team that can't afford to buy players? Even free agency would be wrong, because teams like the Rangers and Flyers would sign the best players. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. If the players are to be dispersed, there should be a straight dispersal draft." But wouldn't Clarke prefer to see the Flyers buy the players who might help them win the Stanley Cup? "The game and its integrity are more important than what one person wants," he says. "All our salaries must come down. It's crazy. Do you realize there are guys in the minor leagues making $150,000 a year? That's got to change."
Eagleson agrees with Clarke. "This Cleveland situation is just the tip of the iceberg," he says. "Look, if we filed protests all over the place and forced the owners to live by every word in the collective-bargaining agreement, we could have bankrupted half a dozen teams this season. But we don't want to bankrupt anyone. The players don't mind inconveniences in certain instances. However, it's about time the league realizes it has to strengthen itself and get rid of these constant crises. They've got to stop bailing out one another. NHL teams will lose $15 to $18 million overall this year. The only answer is a restructuring of the NHL back to 14 or 15 teams.
"What the players have said is that they appreciate the problems and care about them. But this Cleveland thing is a one-shot deal. The players aren't going to bail out the owners again. This game is in big trouble, and the players can't be the only ones doing anything about it."
Said one NHL general manager, "The players have leadership in Eagleson and Clarke, but the owners are 18 men with 18 selfish interests."
So the Barons live for now, but their future—like that of the entire NHL—is uncertain. "The gold rush is over," one player admitted. "Most of us now realize that $40,000 or $50,000 a year is a damn good living wage."