The perforated edges of the Barons, North Stars and Gilles Meloche

Hockey card of Gilles MelocheTeams move and team change names. Some drastically change colors and uniforms in an effort to stay relevant when the standings don’t cooperate. Some cease to be entirely. But how often is one permanently folded into another one?

Look closely, and you might notice that the sweater on the man to the right looks somewhat off. He’s wearing a hockey jersey, for sure, but it was originally red and black. At some point in the production process for this card, the folks at Topps painted a Minnesota North Stars sweater onto Gilles Meloche to reflect the present, with the now-deceased Cleveland Barons giving way totally to their new future in Minnesota. They didn’t get around to painting a new uniform on the guy in the back, though (likely defenseman Bob Stewart [1]).

I got this card and a few others from the 1978-79 set from a friend a while back, a flea-market find, and the paint job on Meloche gave me a chuckle. But looking at it again made me decide to reinvestigate: How the hell did the Barons join forces with the North Stars?

The Cleveland Barons saga is as fascinating as anything any of the teams in the WHA, or even in the Original Pre-six era of the NHL, have offered. With owner Charlie O’Finley getting ready to get out of the professional hockey business entirely, he bailed on the California Golden Seals (a.k.a the California Seals, the Oakland Seals and the Bay Area Seals), putting minority owner Melvin Swig in charge for one final season in the Golden State before being convinced to move the struggling team to Cleveland.

And struggle they did. The aforementioned Meloche and Stewart were really their only players of note at this point, and the Seals had been out of the playoff picture every year since their third. Two more last-place finishes confirmed their fate, and they were off to Cleveland to begin life as the Barons in 1976-77.

That bit about Meloche being their only noteworthy player continued in Ohio, though. They remained at the bottom of the Adams Division that season, where missed payrolls pushed the Barons close to folding up shop mid-season. That was a common-enough tale in the rival WHA, where finances varied wildly from city to city, but the NHL hadn’t seen a team disappear since either the New York/Brooklyn Americans or the Montreal Wanderers, depending on your definition. [2]

The NHL tried to prop up the team in the meantime and apparently discussed folding them in the offseason, but another sale to George and Gordon Gund (later the longtime owners of the Cleveland Cavaliers) gave the team a little bit of life, but even that was short-lived. Another last-place finish was in the works, and the financial ground was just as unstable as under Swig.

Simply folding and re-allocating players still seemed like the logical path here. But meanwhile, the North Stars were also having issues of their own. Not interested in losing two of their “Original 12” franchises at a time when they were still fighting off a rival league, a decision was made to merge the two clubs, with Minnesota’s stronger fanbase meaning that the Barons would cease to be. There was a dispersal draft set up after the new North Stars protected their 10 best players: the next five worst teams would be allowed to take one player each to help bolster their chances as well, but only the St. Louis Blues (picking Mike Crombeen) and Vancouver Canucks (Randy Holt) took advantage of the opportunity.

Those teams may have regretted that choice. While the North Stars finished dead last in the 18-team league in 1977-78, within two years they were back in the playoffs. And the season after that, they made a run at the Stanley Cup, taking on the dynastic New York Islanders before giving way to Long Island’s second of four consecutive titles.

Meloche remained solid in net throughout that time. Meloche was an All-Star twice in his time in Minnesota, before splitting time with a young Don Beaupre in the 1984-85 season. He had three more productive years in Pittsburgh from there, before calling it a career in 1988.

The funny, final act of this takes place in the early 1990s. The North Stars’ attendance wasn’t in great shape by the end of the 1980s, and the Gunds (who still owned the team!) asked to move back to San Francisco, effectively ending the North Stars and re-starting the Golden Seals. The league met them halfway and decided to give them a new team — eventually the San Jose Sharks — but still made the decision that both the North Stars and the new Sharks would be treated as expansion teams, kind of. Another dispersal draft gave the Sharks 24 of the North Stars prospects and veterans (including future franchise goalie Arturs Irbe), and then an expansion draft further filled in the gaps in the Sharks’ and North Stars’ rosters.

San Jose caught on, of course, and over time the Sharks became one of the more dependable teams in the NHL, even if the Stanley Cup has eluded them. Minnesota wasn’t as lucky, and after two more seasons, finally did get the green light to move, heading to Dallas, dropping the “North” as they moved south. There was no hasty photoshopping necessary that time, though. The remaining North Stars just kept their sweaters when they left for Texas, making the lives of the folks at Topps, O-Pee-Chee and the like just a little easier this time around.

1. A random thing I discovered while I was poking around on this: Stewart played eight games with the Boston Bruins in 1971-72, was traded along with Reggie Leach to California in the deal for Carol Vadnais, and was the last player not named Terry O’Reilly to wear no. 24 for Boston.

2. The New York Americans played as the Brooklyn Americans (though still resided at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan) for one final season in 1941-42. The Montreal Maroons played their final season in 1937-38, but didn’t officially fold as an organization until 1947 when a planned move to Philadelphia fell through.

One response to “The perforated edges of the Barons, North Stars and Gilles Meloche

  1. Pingback: Five games to get you through the doldrums | Saves and Shutouts, by Nick Tavares

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