Florida Hockey History: A look back at the AHL's Jacksonville Barons

The rise of the WHA in 1972 pushed the legendary AHL Barons franchise out of Cleveland, all the way down to Jacksonville, where it would ultimately be laid to rest.
After the loss of the EHL Rockets, it only took a little bit over a year for professional hockey to return to the city of Jacksonville. Nick Mileti, who owned the Barons of the AHL, had finally brought major-league hockey to Cleveland by securing a franchise in the new World Hockey Association. That team was called the Crusaders, and after a couple months it became apparent that Cleveland was not big enough to support both teams.
The Barons franchise traced its roots all the back to 1929, when the club began life as the Cleveland Indians in the original International Hockey League. The team was known as the Falcons for a spell before becoming the Barons during the 1936-37 season. The IHL would at first play an interlocking schedule and then eventually merge with the Canadian-American Hockey League. That merger resulted in the American Hockey League that exists today. The Barons went to become the greatest team in AHL history, winning nine Calder Cups and at times, icing a roster on par with with some of the “Original Six” era NHL teams. There were a few times when Cleveland came close to becoming the NHL’s seventh team.
The Barons began the 1972-73 season sharing the Cleveland market with the Crusaders but could not compete with their new big brother. Mileti needed an out, and after getting consent from the majority of AHL owners in December, decided to temporarily ship the club south to Jacksonville, which was just coming off an eight-year stint in the Eastern Hockey League. The last AHL Barons game in Cleveland was played on February 4th.
Jacksonville welcomed the Barons with open arms, at first, with the initial game in the city drawing over 9,100 fans to the Coliseum. Unfortunately, the John Muckler coached club continued to struggle on the ice and finished the year out with a 23-44-9 record, missing the playoffs and seeing a precipitous drop in attendance. Gary Gambucci, who would later play for the WHA’s Minnesota Fighting Saints, led the Barons in scoring with 76 points. Mike Chernoff was the team’s leading goal-scorer with 35 while goaltender Fern Rivard made 65 appearances.
The Barons would remain in Jacksonville for the 1973-74 season and play out of the AHL’s South Division with the same teams as the prior season, the Cincinnati Swords, Hershey Bears, Virginia Wings, Baltimore Clippers and Richmond Robins, when the division was called the West Division. John Hanna would replace Muckler as the team’s head coach.
The Barons would again struggle and finish the season in 5th place with a 24-44-8 record, only two points better than the league’s worst team, the Virginia Wings. Attendance continued to suffer with the Barons ending up drawing an average of 1,875 fans, a far cry from Hershey’s league-best 5,710. Former Philadelphia Flyer, Dick Sarrazin led the team in scoring with just 54 points while Keith Ahearn fired in a team-leading 22 goals. Yves Belanger and Gerry Gray split time in goal with Belanger getting the bulk of the work. Belanger would go on to play in the NHL with the St. Louis Blues, Atlanta Flames and Boston Bruins.
As Jacksonville had proved with the Rockets, it wasn’t going to support a subpar hockey team, even with the step up in caliber of play from EHL to AHL. Owner Nick Mileti had his hands full trying to keep the Crusaders going and the Barons, who were without an NHL parent team to rely on for players, suffered. With another major league now on the scene, talent was scarce, making the running of an independent minor-league team extremely difficult. After claiming over a $1 million in losses in Jacksonville, Mileti decided to throw in the towel and the Barons did not return for the 1974-75 season, or ever again, sadly ending the club’s long and rich history with a whimper.
The Jacksonville Barons were noteworthy for a couple of reasons. One, at the time, they played the highest level of professional hockey in Florida’s brief stint hosting teams and two, by virtue of finishing out the 1973-74 season, something the SHL’s Suncoast Suns were unable to accomplish, they were the last professional team to call the state of Florida home until the birth of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida-based Sunshine Hockey League in 1992.
via Florida Hockey History: A look back at the AHL’s Jacksonville Barons.

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