Early in the season, the crowds at Cleveland Barons games were so quiet, you could hear skates skimming ice. That's because there were no crowds. It was like attending the wake of a guy who never picked up a dinner check.
Call it the legacy of Larry Gordon and Hank Kassigkeit.
Two years ago, Gordon, the legendary deadbeat and longtime Lumberjacks owner, finally put his team up for sale after skipping to Mexico to avoid being tried for Crimes of Stiffing Humanity. Kassigkeit bought the Jacks in October 2000. It took him just four months to fold. The International Hockey League assumed control of the franchise to finish out the season.
So this fall, the NHL's San Jose Sharks brought the Barons to town as their minor-league affiliate. It marks the fifth attempt to make hockey work in Cleveland. Why it hasn't is a mystery.
All the great Rust Belt kingdoms -- Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago -- have thriving NHL teams. Even Columbus sells out 18,000 tickets for every Blue Jackets game. That's because it's a sport, though played by toothless Canadians, that speaks to the soul of the Industrial Heartland. It's fast, rugged, workmanlike, violent -- football meets roller derby, with the occasional bar brawl thrown in. While baseball players get a blister, sit for two weeks, then need a note from their ma to play again, hockey players take 100 stitches to the face without anaesthetics so they can get back on the ice for their next shift. Fans realize that beer is meant to be drunk, not thrown at highly paid athletes, who can afford their own. Best of all, it's a game played with Midwestern modesty. As far as anyone can tell, not a single hockey player has ever spoken of himself in the third person.
Despite being the nation's fourth-largest recreational hockey market, with 22,000 players, Cleveland has yet to even support a minor-league team. But Barons Director of Marketing Michael Mudd thinks the team can overcome what he politely calls "the damage that took place in the market."
After all, this version is backed by the deep pockets of San Jose, one of the more respected franchises in the NHL. They're people who've learned how to sell out arenas in the heart of Wine & Brie Country. And their goal is real success, not the fictitious kind proffered by Gordon, whose ticket giveaways resembled an IMF bailout.
"We're not papering the house this year," says Mudd. "We're making people buy tickets to create some value. A lot of people expect free tickets. That's exactly why the Lumberjacks are where they're at. The ticket got devalued."
But as President Michael Lehr notes, there's still "a bad taste in the community by what was left behind."
It's translated to an attendance of just 2,700 a game, worst in the American Hockey League. (Tiny Wilkes-Barre, by comparison, averages 8,314.) Corporate sponsors have also stayed away; the boards at the Gund are conspicuously absent of the advertising that rings most rinks. "They're waiting to see what we can do," says Lehr.
Yet the Barons are already a success on the ice. They've led the Central Division most of the year, playing a brand of old-time hockey that's made them one of the league's highest scoring teams -- and one of the most penalized. It's a combustible formula that makes for premier entertainment. Perhaps the only downside is that their uniforms are teal, a color best reserved for retired golf pros, not the manly arts.
Over the holidays, Barons attendance blossomed to the 4,000 mark. Gund remains a rather empty place, but it's losing the feel of a Mormon bachelor party. The team won't reveal how many people are needed to break even, but if the Barons can average 4,000-5,000 for an entire season, hockey may finally find a permanent home in Cleveland. Says Lehr: "Those kind of numbers can work."