Last May, just eight months after he left his home in Germany, 20-year-old Marcel Goc took to the ice before 18,007 roaring fans in Denver, Colo. He raced toward the goal, deflected a teammate's shot past the goalie and lifted the San Jose Sharks to the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"It was a great feeling," he says outside a Gund Arena locker room. "Everybody wants to score a goal in the National Hockey League, and I made it." His little angular smile tells the rest of the story: He's already scored the career highlight many beat-up veterans never achieve, and he's got years of potential still ahead.
Where, Goc is asked, would he be right now if the NHL hadn't canceled its season because of a labor dispute? "Ask the coaches," he says, then laughs. Again, you can read the full answer in his face: He would've stayed on San Jose's roster.
Instead, San Jose sent him back to the Cleveland Barons, the team's minor-league affiliate, so he could keep playing. Tonight, he scores a goal. He takes a pass from a teammate and speeds toward the net on a sudden two-on-one break. The defenseman stretches out to take away the pass, so Goc whizzes the puck past the guy's right skate and between the goalie's pads. The crowd of 4,545 cheers: The Barons have tied the game, 3-3.
But a minute later, a St. John's Maple Leaf, hanging out by the goal with impunity, flips a rebound into the half-empty net. A red light signals the bad news. The Barons go on to lose, 5-4, and their chance of making the American Hockey League's Calder Cup playoffs slips farther away.
The next afternoon, Goc picks up a bowling ball, stares down the lane and rolls a strike. He's at Brookgate Lanes in Brook Park for "Bowling With the Barons," where any of the Barons' couple hundred season-ticket holders can share a lane with one or two Barons for two hours. It's one of dozens of events that keep Cleveland's much-ignored minor-league hockey team connected to its small but loyal circle of fans.
Goc and his fiancee, Susi Weiss, are bowling with Bob Rosen, a volunteer ticket salesman from Solon, and his daughter, Jennifer. They see the same people over and over at games and fan events.
"Some, they come and they just watch the game," Goc says. "Others, they know every player, they know his stats, they know his hair color, they know [about] his family, they know everything about every player.
"We have some really crazy fans!" he continues. "They have as much fun watching us as we have playing it. It's good."
Ten lanes away, JoAnn MacEwan, 26, a drugstore worker from Old Brooklyn, is bowling with Barons forward Ryane Clowe and defenseman Aaron Gill. She's been a Cleveland hockey fan for 10 years, since she won tickets to the Lumberjacks, the Barons' predecessors, by identifying snippets from five Madonna songs in a radio-station contest. Hockey's high-speed collisions and fights captivated her.
"One of the players on the Lumberjacks was knocked unconscious," she reminisces. "The trainer had to give him smelling salts. It was awesome."
Now, MacEwan goes to as many games and fan events as she can. "I'm making friends. I've come to like these guys so much," she says. "It's a lifetime remembrance."
MacEwan's father and sister have season tickets right by the glass, and Clowe and Gill tap their sticks on it to say hello to MacEwan at games.
"JoAnn is always right by the glass," explains Gill, whose cheek is decorated with what looks like a lipstick print but is actually a bright red bruise left by the butt of a stick. "When you're standing right there, you can feel people looking at you."
If the Barons ever left town, "I'd be so lost," MacEwan says. "Outside work and everything, this is my life." She'd probably fill the void by rejoining a bowling league, she says.
Is Cleveland a hockey town? "Honestly, no, since we don't have an NHL team," she says. "It's a minor-league thing."
To Clevelanders, hockey has always been a minor-league sport. That's not literally true: an NHL team, also called the Barons, played at Richfield Coliseum for two pathetic seasons, 1976 to 1978, sometimes failing to make payroll and losing almost twice as many games as they won. Before them, the Cleveland Crusaders played four years in the short-lived World Hockey Association. Minor-league hockey has a proud history here: The original Barons, who played from 1937 to 1972, won the AHL's Calder Cup a record nine times. But in the typical Cleveland sports fan's mind, hockey ranks as low as soccer, a sport you might watch your kids play, but not professionals.
The night before the bowling outing, that crowd of 4,545, spread out in huge Gund Arena, feels more like a crowd of 455. Some sections in the lower level are almost half-full, but black curtains hide the upper bowl to make the place seem less empty. And that's on a Saturday night. For the Barons' quiet weeknight games, Cleveland police don't even bother to enforce the event-night parking ban on the streets near Gateway.
Above the aisle in section 133, George Leach wears a Barons jersey with "Super Fan" and the numeral 1, written in marker, pinned to the back. He rings cowbells and hangs up signs that read, "You have entered the Super Fan Zone" and "This isn't the library make noise!" Tonight, he's one of eight people in the Super Fan Zone.
Leach, 39, from Aurora, has been coming to Cleveland's pro hockey games since he was a kid. Now, he attends about 25 a year, on nights he doesn't work. He leaves Barons schedules wherever he goes, even in offices whose ducts he cleans for a living. "I pin 'em to a board, leave 'em on a desk. I leave them at rest stops, gas stations, give them out at Indians games."
All the serious fans know George, says Amanda Lane, sitting a few sections away. "There are so few of us that, to me, it's easy to get to know everyone." Lane, 24, from Garfield Heights, is studying sports
journalism at Cleveland State. She goes to almost every home game and has road-tripped to games in Cincinnati, Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario. Her e-mail address includes the nickname "icekitten."
She's met the players "countless times," at Breakaways with the Barons (their practices at suburban community rinks), celebrity bartender events, their annual charity auction and Cleveland Hockey Booster Club meetings. She loves hearing them tell stories about playing in Canada's junior leagues or in college, breaking curfew to meet some girls or stealing a hotel maid's skeleton key to Saran Wrap teammates' toilets.
"They're like a bunch of brothers," Lane explains. They're friendlier and more accessible than athletes in other sports. They're blue-collar players in a blue-collar sport. "That's why I don't see why it doesn't do very well here," she adds.
On Lake Erie's other wintry shores, hockey is revered, beloved. Fans in Canada, Detroit, even Buffalo crowd arenas and thrill to the sport's constant, ultra-fast action and its mix of gracefulness and brute force.
But, the Barons' average home attendance, 4,203 as of early April, ranks 23rd out of 28 AHL teams. Their two best-attended games probably shouldn't count: One was actually played in San Jose; the other was the second half of a doubleheader — the real draw was a St. Edward/St. Ignatius high-school game.
Cleveland is a bigger youth hockey town than it is a pro hockey town. The Lumberjacks, who played here from 1992 to 2001, faltered and folded just before their league did. Next season is the last in the Barons' five-year lease of the Gund, and fans are nervous.
"We have a business that struggles here in Cleveland for a lot of different reasons," says Barons president Michael Lehr: "what we've perceived as a lack of support" from the city, the media and corporate leaders, plus a lease that only allowed for seven Saturday night home games this season.
"Our preference has always been to be in Cleveland and have the city support us," Lehr adds. He hopes the Gund's new owners will agree to a better lease. Meanwhile, a dozen cities have approached the Barons about relocating.
Half of the Barons are Canadian, but there are also a few token Germans, Minnesotans and Massachusettans, plus a Swede, a Czech and a goalie from Kazakhstan. The oldest Baron is 26; the youngest 20. Their salaries range from the league minimum, $35,000, to just into six figures. Some live in the suburbs with their wives or girlfriends, but a lot live in the Warehouse District, especially the Bingham Building, and hang out together every day.
The team made it to the second round of the AHL playoffs last year, but this year they lost about as many games as they won and missed the playoffs. Their biggest goal is in the future: to play in the NHL.
Several Barons could've been called up to the team's parent club, the San Jose Sharks, this year. But because of the NHL lockout, they're stuck in Cleveland, hockey limbo.
Some younger players are willing to wait; they have time. But Garrett Stafford, 25, a tough, intense defenseman, is impatient. "It's a little frustrating," he says with a dark grin that suggests it's very frustrating. "It's tough because when the NHL is playing, it's a huge inspiration for us. This year, it's a little harder to find inspiration [vs.] when you could get called up any day."
Matt Carkner, the Barons' captain, is a big guy — 6-foot-4, 229 pounds — but standing in Lane 5 at Brookgate Lanes, a Batman T-shirt tight across his wide chest, he flashes an amiable, toothy grin. The four-year Baron veteran had blond curly hair until a week ago, when two women who won the "Clip Carkner's Curls for Cancer" raffle for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society shaved his head on the ice at a game.
A tough guy on the ice, he is not nearly as intimidating at the bowling alley. In his first game, he bowled a 110. "Bowling and hockey don't go well together," he shrugs.
Still, he manages to complete a spare, and Kimberly Knight high-fives him. She's 30, a University Hospitals nurse from Middleburg Heights who's been a hockey fan since she was growing up in Los Angeles, watching hockey immortal Wayne Gretzky captain the L.A. Kings.
Knight has met Carkner before, at a Booster Club dinner. She calls him Carks; knowing the players' nicknames is part of serious fandom. Hockey players are very approachable, she says. "It's the culture of hockey. It's expected of them from Pee Wees on."
But the real friends she's made through the Barons are other fans. "Hockey is a family. We stick together. We all know each other." If a season-ticket holder doesn't show up in their usual section, "We wonder where they are. Someone's usually calling to say, Is everything OK?' "
Carkner improves his game to 121, Knight ends up with 92 and Carkner's wife, Kary, as petite as her husband is huge, gets 115. She and Matt come from the same tiny town near Ottawa, where hockey is played on outdoor rinks and no other sport matters. No, Cleveland isn't a hockey town, she says, because baseball and football have been here longer. In 15 or 20 years, when all the Pee Wees, Squirts and Mites in Cleveland youth hockey grow up, she figures it will be.
Maybe, all Barons fans hope, something will click in Clevelanders' minds, and they'll realize their unpretentious blue-collar town and unpretentious blue-collar hockey are perfect for each other. Like when the Carkners' neighbors in their Gold Coast high-rise accepted free tickets once, saw the speeding skaters and lightning-quick goals, and fell in love with the sport.
"I think once people start going, they're addicted," Kary says.