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  • Writer's pictureFred

Compliments to Dan Gilbert's Cleveland Monsters

My family and I watched an entertaining AHL game between the Cleveland Monsters and the Belleville Senators earlier this week. The Monsters won 3-2 in double overtime.

But driving home, instead of being my usual surly self, I wanted to shake Dan Gilbert's Hand. He has done a great job owning the Cleveland Monsters.

My day job is at the local school district and I root for their high school hockey team from afar. Their success fluctuates greatly from year to year. If they keep their local talent, they are fine. If good kids jump to Catholic Schools, they are screwed.

My favorite brand of hockey is College Hockey. My team is the Minnesota State Mavericks and I have followed them since grad school. Sadly their program peaked at the 2022 National Championship game, losing to Denver 5-1. Coach Mike Hastings left for Wisconsin and I'm afraid the program is going to drift back to mediocrity.

My pro team is the Detroit Red Wings. As a teen, my dear Grandmother bought me a Steve Yzerman t-shirt and I've been hooked ever since. After the front office magic Yzerman performed in Tampa Bay, I am convinced that he's the right man to return the Red Wings to their former glories.

Which circles us back around to the Cleveland Monsters. They've always been an afterthought in the Cleveland Sports Market. Well, in my lifetime at least. The Cleveland Barons of the 1950's and 60's were considered the "Seventh Best Team in Professional Hockey," a reference to the best team behind the NHL's Original Six. The AHL has always billed itself as the top level of Minor League Hockey, not a competitor of the NHL.

But Minor League Hockey in Cleveland fell on hard times. The Barons started to suck in the late 60's and the 10,000 person crowds became nothing but a distant memory. The original Barons moved away in 1973.

The WHA's Cleveland Crusaders filled the hockey void for a few years in the 70's, but they moved to Minnesota. The next incarnation of the Cleveland Barons joined the NHL in 1976, having moved from Oakland the previous year. The Barons lasted 2 seasons in Cleveland, then simply folded after missing the playoffs both seasons and averaging around 6,000 fans. The Cleveland Barons were the last franchise in the NBA, NHL, NFL or NBA to just lock the doors and close up shop.

Editor's Note: That stat didn't sound right, so I did a little more research and, sure enough, that is accurate. Every team in the "Big 4" either moved or merged to find success since 1978.

For years, Cleveland was bereft of hockey. The Lumberjacks of Muskegon moved to the city in 1992 and played here for about a decade. They had their moments, but they were mostly an average team before the IHL started its rapid decline. In the year 2001 both the team, and the International Hockey League, folded.

Enter the THIRD version of the Cleveland Barons in 2001 and they were terrible. I remember horrible hockey and hearing crickets in the arena. Some games had attendance in the hundreds.

In the year 2006, the Barons moved to Massachusetts, while Dan Gilbert moved to buy the Utah Grizzlies and relocate them to Cleveland. That team became the Lake Erie Monsters and they were...terrible also.

But when LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010, Gilbert focused more of his energy on the hockey team. That didn't translate to wins right away, but the attendance was up. The Monsters improved from bad to average on the ice and signed a minor-league development contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2015 to gain some regional synergy. Their Calder Cup in 2016 did not translate to more Monsters success, most of the best players on that team graduated to the Blue Jackets within a year.

Which is the double-edged sword of minor league hockey. If you're really good, your players end up in the NHL. If you're really bad, you are still beholden to the parent club.

Now this year's Monsters team is pretty good. My expert opinion is they don't have enough fire-power to get to the Calder Cup, but hey, I've been wrong before. What's impressive is that the Cleveland Monsters led the league in attendance for the fourth time in the last five years. The night we went, the attendance was just over 12,000. The Monsters' regular season attendance was over 10,000.

And looking around the arena, I saw Kenny Rhoda giving player interviews. He's been around since the Lumberjack days. I saw Jock Callander doing analysis. He's the second leading scorer in IHL history and the leading scorer in Lumberjacks history. The Cavs' own 216 Stix performed between the second and third periods.

Even more impressive, the Monsters receive scant local media support. The night we went got barely a mention at the next morning, and even that was behind a pay wall. It's like the Monsters market directly to the fan. You rarely hear "Monsters Talk" on the local Sports Talk Radio Stations.

While Dan Gilbert may be known to the casual fan as the owner of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers, he has quietly become the model owner in the AHL. Because of Gilbert, Cleveland Hockey may be at its strongest since the late 1950's, which is about 70 years in the rear view mirror.

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