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Ice Age

Today's Playoff game with New Jersey might be the Penguins' last home game ever; but if history tells us anything, there will always be hockey in Pittsburgh

Sunday, May 02, 1999

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Today could be the Penguins' Last Stand, not merely their final home game of the Stanley Cup playoffs or of the 20th century, but their last game in Pittsburgh. Ever.

Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets players Goose Giesebrecht, left, and Byron McDonald kick up the ice at Duquesne Gardens in 1937. 

The National Hockey League has given them less than one month to emerge from bankruptcy court and become a thriving, bill-paying club again. If not, the league has threatened to pull the plug and dissolve the franchise.

If that happens, it would be the second time the city has lost its NHL team and at least the seventh time it has lost a pro hockey team.

Although not strong on stability, the history of professional hockey here is long and rich, almost a century old. In fact, Pittsburgh can lay claim to at least a portion of the birth of professional hockey in 1904.

"The sad thing about possibly losing the Penguins is Pittsburgh is one of the richest hockey towns of any in the NHL," said New York's Stan Fischler, a renowned author and commentator on the sport. "It goes back to the 19th century."

That hockey history includes:

The first amateur team in the United States in 1897.

Charter membership in the five-team International Professional Hockey League, the world's first pro league in 1904 at a time when the NHL was an amateur league.

A National Hockey League franchise, the Pittsburgh Pirates, from 1925 through 1930, born eight years before Art Rooney's Steelers joined the National Football League.

Several minor-league teams, first the Yellow Jackets and Shamrocks in the 1930s, then the long-lived Hornets of the American Hockey League.

Sundry amateur and semi-pro teams in the early 20th century.

The best artificial ice for hockey in the world.

  Pittsburgh Hornets players, from left, Lowell MacDonald, Eddie Joyal and Claude LaForge, along with Coach Jack Stewart, get ready for their first practice at the Civic Arena in 1962.

"The first professional hockey in the world was here," said Paul Sullivan, 95.

Sullivan, a lawyer who was born in Shadyside and still lives there, covered hockey for much of his life for the old Pittsburgh Gazette-Times and, after its demise, the Sun-Telegraph. He covered the Pirates of the NHL when they played the old Montreal Maroons in the Stanley Cup semifinals in 1926.

The team was formed from the stars of the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets, the champions of the U.S. Amateur Hockey Association in 1924 and 1925. Among the Jackets-turned-Pirates were two Hockey Hall of Famers -- Lionel "The Big Train" Conacher, who would be named Canadian male athlete of the half century, and goalie Roy "Shrimp" Worters.

"They were an amateur team one year and in the Stanley Cup semifinals the next," Sullivan said. "And they were barely nudged out."

Back then, the playoff series was just two games long, with total goals deciding the issue. The Pirates, who finished third in the seven-team NHL, lost to the Maroons, 3-1, in the opener here and tied, 3-3, in Montreal. The Maroons' 6-4 edge in goals gave them the series and they went on to win the 1926 Stanley Cup.

The Pirates made the playoffs again the following year but their quality of play deteriorated throughout the 1920s. The stock market crash of 1929 hit the steel industry hard and the Pirates moved in 1930 to Philadelphia, where they played one season as the Quakers then suspended operations.

The NHL kept the franchise in abeyance for five years before the league revoked its charter in 1936.

It took Pittsburgh 37 years after the Pirates left before it would get another NHL franchise.

"They were pretty good," Sullivan said of the hockey Pirates. "But they weren't winning the championship and they didn't have enough players to compete with those big Canadian teams. Then they got another team in New York, and one in Chicago."

The first U.S. team in the NHL, the Boston Bruins, started only one year before the Pirates joined in 1925, when the New York Americans also joined. The New York Rangers entered in 1926, when the NHL expanded to 10 teams.

Thus, by 1926, all of what would become the six "original" NHL teams were in place. Those six -- Toronto, Montreal, Chicago, Detroit, Boston and the Rangers -- formed the league from 1942 through 1967. Had the Pirates been able to make it here, there would have been no need for the expansion Penguins in 1967.

But what helped make the city such a hotbed for hockey in the early part of the century -- the Duquesne Gardens -- ultimately helped doom the Pirates.

Another rink in Schenley Park burned and the Gardens, built in the late 1800s in Oakland as a trolley barn, became the preeminent hockey building in America 100 years ago. The Gardens held slightly more than 5,000 fans, which was fine at the turn of the century but small by comparison in the late '20s to other arenas sprouting up, such as 18,000-seat Madison Square Garden.

Duquesne Gardens had something few others had in North America at the turn of the century -- grand artificial ice-making.

According to Total Hockey, the official encyclopedia of the NHL, Pittsburgh was one of the first cities in North America to lure amateur Canadian players for what was a standard $30 a week stipend and a local job in the early 1900s. The attraction was the artificial ice at Duquesne Gardens.

The manager of a Canadian team returned from a trip here in 1902, according to an account in Total Hockey, and gave the following description to the Toronto Globe:

"Pittsburgh is hockey crazy. Over 10,000 turned out for our three games there. The general admission being 35 cents and 75 cents for a box seat . . . the Pittsburgh rink is a dream . . . What a marvellous place it is."

It was that ice palace that helped make the city a pro hockey pioneer, much the way it had given birth to the first pro football players in the 1890s. There is strong suspicion that hockey players were paid here before 1904, but that is when the first pro league officially formed.

Pittsburgh joined Sault Ste. Marie (Ontario), Sault Ste. Marie (Michigan), Calumet (Michigan) and Houghton (Michigan) to form the International Pro Hockey League in 1904. Other leagues popped up after that and the IPHL disbanded after the 1907 season. So, of the 26 current NHL teams, Pittsburgh was the first to field a pro hockey club, thanks to its artificial ice.

"Lester Patrick, Craig's grandfather, started a league on the Pacific Coast early in the 20th century," Fischler said. "To learn how to get proper ice refrigeration, he came to Pittsburgh to see how it was done. It's ironic that the Canadians came to the states for that."

Pittsburgh plunged full-speed into hockey, even though no official pro team existed here between 1907 and the NHL's Pirates in 1925. Total Hockey reports a Pittsburgh entry into a U.S. rival to the NHL that lasted only one year, 1922. The Pittsburgh Athletic Association fielded one of the better teams in the early 1900s and a local league also sprung up around the time, called the Bankers League.

"Some of the banks started a hockey league as a promotional stunt and brought Canadians down and gave them jobs in the banks," Sullivan said. "They were down here to play hockey but in order to qualify and play for the bank they had to be an employee of the bank.

"I don't know what they gave them to do at the bank, but it wasn't much."

Later came the U.S. Amateur Hockey Association and the powerful Yellow Jackets. Even though it was called an amateur league, "They didn't come down from Canada because they thought Pittsburgh was a nice place," Sullivan noted. "They weren't exactly amateurs."

The Yellow Jackets of the Western Division were so dominant that they spun off another Pittsburgh team, the Hornets, who played in the Eastern Division. Pittsburgh won both divisions, Sullivan noted, and they played each other for the '24-'25 championship at Duquesne Gardens.

The Yellow Jackets won, and the next season they entered the NHL as the Pittsburgh Pirates, stealing the name from the baseball club, something the new NFL team also would do eight years later.

"It was a popular name," Sullivan said. "It wasn't very original, but on the other hand there was the alliteration. Can you imagine playing hockey and being called the Mighty Ducks?

"But the Gardens only held about 5,000 people. Nobody made very much money."

So strapped were they for money that they traded Conacher to the New York Americans during the 1926-27 season for a journeyman player and $2,000. Conacher had been the highest-paid NHL player at $7,500 a year.

Conacher, elected to the Hockey Hall five years ago, was the Canadian version of Jim Thorpe, starring in pro football, baseball, lacrosse, boxing and wrestling. He was elected to the House of Commons and died of a heart attack in 1954 while playing softball.

After the hockey Pirates left, the city became the home of minor-league hockey, on and off, for the next 37 years.

First came the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets in the International-American Hockey League (eventually, the AHL) in 1931-32. They played for two years. The Shamrocks followed for one season, in '35-36.

Finally, the Hornets appeared in '36-37, owned by Ice Capades founder John Harris, who also owned the Gardens. They played 20 straight seasons here. They won all three of their league championships -- Calder Cups -- in the 1950s.

At the time, there were still only six NHL teams and the AHL was by far the top minor-league team.

"Those players in the AHL were better than what you have today in the NHL," said Tom "Scoop" Saulsbury, an assistant trainer with the Hornets.

The Hornets in the '50s were the minor-league farm club of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who won four Stanley Cups between 1947 and 1951.

"Some very, very good players went from Pittsburgh to Toronto and became part of the first dynasty in hockey," Fischler said.

Because there were so many good ones, others did not make it. The Hornets' Frank Mathers was one of the AHL's best defensemen but he played only 23 games for Toronto over three seasons and had no options to join other organizations, as players have today.

"There was no such thing as free agency," said Mathers, who lives in Hershey, where he eventually played, coached and served as general manager of the AHL Bears. "You signed with Toronto or Pittsburgh and you were that for life unless you were sold. At that time, that was the way it was."

The Hornets became successful playing the Maple Leafs' style of hockey -- hard, close checking that produced low scoring games, perfect in the old Gardens, which by then no longer resembled the "marvellous place" of 1902.

"The building was not really heroic," Mathers said. "It was an old car barn, but it was home. They claimed the rats there were the biggest in the league. Socko McCarey [then a Hornets trainer and later, a baseball scout for the Red Sox] used to load up with pucks and fire away at the rats."

It ended after the 1955-56 season. The Hornets franchise was suspended because the archaic Gardens was torn down. The Hornets reappeared in the new Civic Arena in 1961 and, after a poor start, they became AHL contenders again, this time as a farm club for the Detroit Red Wings. They won a division title in '64, won the Calder Cup in '67, then vanished for good.

The NHL expanded and put a team here for the first time since 1930. Many hockey fans were not happy about it. They loved their Hornets and did not readily embrace the Penguins.

"Most fans wanted to keep the Hornets name," said Jack Riley, president of the AHL from 1964 to '66 and the Penguins' first GM. "I certainly wasn't in favor of the name Penguins at the time, but it caught on.

"This was probably the hardest expansion franchise to sell due to the fact that we were the only expansion team that had an American League team. So, the people here got to know all the players in the AHL.

"I don't think the fans were turned on by the Penguins like fans were in other new cities."

Eventually they would become so, especially after a French Canadian came here to play in 1984. Mario Lemieux followed a familiar path to Pittsburgh other Canadians had traveled for more than a century. He not only revived hockey here, many say he saved the team from leaving town when attendance flagged in the early 1980s.

Now, he's trying to save it again as the Penguins' prospective new owner. As happened the first time the city lost its NHL franchise, an old building and financial losses are cited as reasons for the team's dilemma.

"Pittsburgh's a good hockey town," Scoop Saulsbury said. "The fans are as loyal as they can be."

Sometimes, as a century of history has shown here, good fans and great ice just aren't enough.

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