George Gund III: 1937-2013

I never met George Gund. I’ve heard quite a few stories about him. He was a character, an iconoclast, a real fan who just happened to be rich. He lived the kind of lifestyle many sports fans would’ve liked to live, jetting off to tournaments and film festivals and pretty much doing whatever he wanted. To appreciate the man, read these four articles about Gund:

What I’d like to do is tie his career into the fabric of the Bay Area sports world. First, we have to start in Cleveland. Gund was what we’d now call a trust fund baby. He loved sports, film, and classical music. In keeping with those passions, he bought two hockey franchises, married a filmmaker, and sat on the board of an orchestra. He partnered with his brother, Gordon Gund, to buy the Cleveland Cavaliers. George was always the hockey fanatic while Gordon was the basketball junkie. It worked out pretty well for both in the end.

The journey, however, was long and at times quite difficult for the Gunds. After George Gund permanently moved out to San Francisco, he took a minority stake in the California Golden Seals NHL franchise. The Golden Seals were sold by Charlie Finley, who tried and failed to establish his “branding” on the hockey club (green and gold colors, white skates). Gund partnered with Mel Swig, who owned the Fairmont in SF (like someone we know). For various reasons, running the Seals wasn’t working out at the Coliseum Arena. Swig tried to put together an arena deal in SF, but that fell through. The Gund brothers bought the team from Swig and relocated it to their childhood home of Cleveland.

Except that the team, now named the Cleveland Barons, played out in the sticks at the Richfield Coliseum, about halfway between Cleveland and Akron. The idea was to leverage the fanbase from both markets, and it failed miserably. With the Barons and the Minnesota North Stars in danger of folding and the NHL still struggling against the rival WHA, the league decided to merge the two teams. The franchise remained the Minnesota North Stars and would have a good deal of stability for the next decade, including a Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 1981 (a loss to the juggernaut NY Islanders). The Cavs stuck it out in Richfield for over a decade before moving back to downtown Cleveland. The new home was named Gund Arena.

In 1991, George saw his opportunity to bring a team to the Bay Area. The NHL was starting its Sun Belt expansion phase, and it seemed a good time to put a team in the Bay Area. Howard Baldwin, who was already known as a sort of serial franchise owner, was pushing hard for the franchise to be in San Jose. George Gund stepped in to swap the North Stars for the rights to the expansion franchise, which eventually became known as the San Jose Sharks.

The Sharks played its first two seasons at the aging Cow Palace, an arena that was already outdated for both the Warriors and Golden Seals by the mid-70′s. A new, hockey-focused arena deal was in the works in San Jose, with recent transplant and future Sharks play-by-play man Randy Hahn playing a key organizing role. Gund had the opportunity to try the Oakland experiment again even though the Coliseum was small and poorly set up for hockey, or try to get an arena built in SF. He found willing partners in San Jose in Mayor Tom McEnery and numerous business leaders, all of whom were willing to do what it took to put San Jose “on the map”.

With two major franchise moves under his belt, George Gund could’ve been considered a carpetbagger. He didn’t live in San Jose, choosing to stay in SF and build an apartment inside San Jose Arena. (Frankly, I’d do it if I was asked to contribute.) Yet his legacy stands as a key figure who made San Jose major league and cultivated a great, appreciative fanbase – even though the Sharks mostly sucked during the Gund era.

Gund’s story as an owner is similar to that of Wally Haas, Jr. Both were scions of very wealthy families. Both were revered by their respective team’s fans. Both made great efforts to make their teams successful, business of the game running secondary to winning. Both were well known as philanthropists. Both bought teams from Charlie Finley. The biggest difference between the two was the state of their leagues – while MLB was still clearly the national pastime during the 80′s, the NHL had major competition, growing pains, and difficulty carving out a niche as the fourth major North American pro sports league. Haas was 20 years older than Gund and part of the established SF gentry, so I can’t imagine they ran in the same circles. But I imagine that when Gund took the elevator upstairs over the weekend, he was greeted by Haas and Franklin Mieuli. Mieuli handed Gund a cigar and the beverage of his choice, while Haas showed him the way to the lounge. They could talk about how the Warriors and A’s are resurgent, and that Gund got there just in time to watch his beloved Sharks start their new season. You’re home now, George. Relax and enjoy the game.

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