Below is a one for, one against debate on the subject of “Should Cleveland get an NHL team?”
Why Cleveland Should Get an NHL Team – Josh Ungar
There are 31 teams in the NHL, soon to be 32 when the Seattle Kraken join in the 2022 season. The Columbus Blue Jackets are one of those 31 teams. The AHL affiliate of the Columbus Blue Jackets is located here in Cleveland, the Cleveland Monsters. However, what would happen if the city of Cleveland decided to apply for an NHL team? Would they become instant rivals with the Blue Jackets? Would a rivalry form between the Cleveland NHL team and the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Detroit Red Wings?
Cleveland had an NHL for a couple of years, 1976-1978 after the California Golden Seals moved from Oakland to Cleveland. Ultimately the Cleveland Barons were not able to take a strong enough foothold in the city to stick around.
I’ve attended a number of Cleveland Monsters games across several seasons. At these games, I’ve seen Blue Jackets fans (as they’re the NHL affiliate of the Monsters) as well as fans of the opponents. Additionally, I’ve seen fans of other NHL teams at these games. During the 2021 season, the Monsters were forced to only play divisional opponents plus the Rochester Americans, but I still saw Tampa Bay Lightning fans.
The Monsters ranked third in all of the AHL during the 2018-2019 season in terms of attendance as they averaged approximately 9,000 fans per game. On top of that, it was the sixth consecutive year in which the Monsters have ranked top three in attendance. The cherry on top of the attendance sundae is that the Monsters received the AHL’s award for the best overall fan experience for the 2018-2019 season.
What do these various numbers suggest? Well, they suggest that the city does support hockey. Remember Game 4 of the 2016 Calder Cup Finals on June 11, 2016, against the Hershey Bears, affiliate of the Washington Capitals? It was the first true sellout in the history of the Lake Erie Monsters, now the Cleveland Monsters, as 19,665 fans packed into what was then called Quicken Loans Arena. Fans were decked out in white t-shirts, and the crowd was extremely enthusiastic throughout the game. This was especially true when Oliver Bjorkstrand put in the game-winning goal with 1.9 seconds left in overtime to win the Cup. It was the second championship in the “Championship Trifecta” for the city of Cleveland in 2016.
Despite all these numbers and records put up by Monsters, they do not get the recognition they so rightfully deserve for one simple reason. The Monsters are an AHL team and not an NHL team. But imagine if Cleveland had an NHL team. First of all, that would complete the big four set for the city of Cleveland. We would have an NFL team, an NBA team, an MLB team, and an NHL team. Second of all, it has the potential to ignite rivalries across the league. Perhaps this new Cleveland team would become rivals with the Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, or a different team altogether. Finally, it would give this passionate fanbase another major league team to support. When looking at Cleveland fans, particularly Browns fans, it is very easy to see that they are generally extremely passionate. Despite suffering terrible teams across the city for several years, they still show up at the stadium.
Why Cleveland Shouldn’t Get an NHL Team – Gregg Senko
There is no denying Cleveland is a sports town. The city loves its baseball and basketball, but there’s an especially high affinity for football. Still, that leaves one sport out of the equation of which Cleveland has a semi-pro team, hockey. The Cleveland Monsters organization has absolutely thrived in the city since their arrival, initially as the Lake Erie Monsters, in 2007. Not only did they capture the AHL’s coveted Calder Cup in 2016, but they are regularly one of the highest-attended teams in the league.
Based on that, what if the city took it one step further and brought an NHL team here? Could Cleveland support an NHL team in a city where football reigns supreme? Could Cleveland support an NHL team, period?
Before those questions get answered, an examination is in order as far as the logistics of what it takes to put a team in place. There is a world-class facility in the form of the Rocket Mortgage Field House, so that’s one item that can be checked off the list. However, a sufficient arena isn’t even one of the initial things to look at. The first problem is the city’s regional positioning.
The NHL is cautious in its expansion and Cleveland would simply be a poor fit. The city resides a mere 133 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, which is of course home to the Penguins. That in and of itself is not an issue, however, it becomes significant when it is, at the same time, roughly 140 miles northeast of Columbus. Problem one, Cleveland is suddenly the apex in a 45-degree angle of NHL teams. League commissioner Gary Bettman and crew are not going to risk borrowing from one fan base to fill another. While a Cleveland franchise likely wouldn’t convert Penguins fans, it would certainly subtract from the Blue Jackets’ battalion of followers.
Considering the Monsters are the farm team of the Blue Jackets, there has been a growing loyalty to the parent team within the greater Cleveland area in recent years. While the Monsters were initially under the Colorado Avalanche, the Blue Jackets made the sensible choice in 2015 to put their minor league team two hours up I-71 from them.
That leads into the case of what happens to the Monsters if an NHL team is brought to Cleveland? It makes perfect sense for the Blue Jackets to have their AHL squad so close. Certainly, the team would have something to say about the forced relocation of their minor league affiliate. For the sake of argument, just suppose for a moment that moving the Monsters does happen. This brings the issue back of the fan base. The city of Columbus has more than double the population of Cleveland according to the 2019 census. That is a difference of 800,000+ people versus 300,000+. To divvy up two top-level teams between that lopsided of numbers is financially foolhardy at best.
In all honesty, the NHL is not going to install a franchise in Cleveland. If the aforementioned realities do not scream that, the fact that the NHL isn’t even looking at Cleveland does. While the Cleveland Barons were once an NHL team in the late 1970s, things have changed greatly around the league since then. As the saying goes, it’s okay to look back. Just don’t stare.