• Hockey was played at four rinks through the first 75 years: The Schenley Park Casino, Duquesne Garde, The Winter Garden and the Civic Arena.
Pittsburgh is quickly becoming a hockey hotbed.
MONTREAL GAZETTE, from an article in December 1904.
Pittsburgh hockey thriving for more than a century
An excerpt from Pittsburgh Penguins: The Official History of the First 30 Years
When Pittsburgh’s dark streets were populated by electric trolleys in the 1890’s, a former newspaperman named Andrew McSwigan struck upon an idea that would enrich the city’s cultural heritage for decades to come and provide a foundation for the hockey legacy inherited by the Penguins.
As the sprawling building where the Consolidated Traction Co. stored its horse-drawn cars was being abandoned, McSwigan imagined it as the city’s only indoor ice rink and something of a showplace. A press agent for one of the companies leaving the site, he sold the idea to his boss, Christopher Magee, and the Duquesne Gardens Company was formed.
The building was purchased for $200,000 and lavishly refurbished with another $250,000, and when Duquesne Garden opened for public skating on Jan. 23, 1899, some 10,000 people came to visit. It preceded Canada’s first indoor rink by 13 years.
The Garden was more than simply a replacement for the ice surface at the Casino, an amusement center near the entrance to Schenley Park that had burned down in December, 1896, and the place where manager James Conant introduced ice hockey to the city.
Over the next 57 years, the Garden on Craig Street near Fifth Avenue in Oakland served as the site of public meetings, performances by the Metropolitan Opera, dancing marathons and an eclectic mix of sporting events. These included bicycle races, boxing, tennis exhibitions with Don Budge, winter sports shows that included ski jumping, bowling, rodeos with Roy Rogers and college basketball. And it was home to the world’s first semi-professional hockey league.
The night after its public opening, the Garden’s ice surface at 26,000 square feet the largest in the world hosted its first hockey game. The Pittsburgh Athletic Club defeated Western University of Pennsylvania (now Pitt), 4-0. Along with the Bankers Athletic Club and the Duquesne Country and Athletic Club, these teams constituted the Western Pennsylvania Hockey League, which lured Canadian players with the promise of big-city jobs.
And they recruited some incredible talents. Hod Stuart, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame who won the Stanley Cup with the Montreal Wanderers in 1907, captained the Bankers; Alf Smith, a Hall of Famer who won four straight Cups as a player and coach with the legendary Ottawa Silver Seven from 1903 to 1906, captained Pittsburgh AC in 1909.
The game at this time was played seven aside in 30-minute halves, and players got quite a workout laboring up and down the Gardens’ huge ice surface. The extra skating benefited the Pittsburgh pros, who formed some of the best teams the United States could produce.
Pittsburgh was among the five teams in the International Hockey League, which was formed in 1904 and lasted three years, and its scholastic ranks produced Ray Robinson, a Fifth Avenue graduate who was good enough by 1907 to become a real hockey rarity an American paid to play in Canada.
The West Penn League was briefly revived in 1907, but by 1910 it, too, was history. The Garden hosted no hockey games from 1910 to 1915, catering instead to the nation’s roller skating craze.
In 1912, the game was played again at the Winter Gardens in the old exposition buildings at the Point. The Winter Gardens had its own team, managed by Arthur Sixsmith, and by 1915 Duquesne Garden had revived hockey under the auspices of former hockey referee Roy Schooley.
Schooley’s amateur team, the Yellow Jackets, was the first to bring an official national title to Pittsburgh, taking the U.S. Amateur Hockey Association’s championship in 1924 and 1925 under Dick Carroll, who had coached the Toronto Arenas to the Stanley Cup in 1918.
The Yellow Jackets beat Boston AA, 6-1, to clinch the first title on April 4, 1924, although the game was described on page 2 of the sports section, behind marbles coverage, in The Pittsburgh Press. As Western Section champions the following season, the Yellow Jackets beat the Eastern Section champion and city rival Fort Pitt Hornets for the title, clinching their championship defense with a 2-1 win on April 11, 1925.
The Yellow Jackets were proof positive that Pittsburgh was still attracting some of Canada’s finest players. Their championship teams featured two players headed for the Hall of Fame: tiny goaltender Roy Worters, who at 5-4 and 140 pounds allowed an average of less than one goal in 81 games during the two championship seasons, and hulking defenseman Lionel Conacher. Conacher was later voted Canada’s athlete of the half-century, and it was easy to see why.
“Big Train,” as he was known, was a 6-1, 200-pound tour de force. He was a rugby and lacrosse star in Canada, as well as an amateur boxing champion. He played minor-league baseball with Toronto of the International League. He played football with the Toronto Argonauts and briefly here at Duquesne University, and when he showed up one day at Duquesne’s track practice, nobody could outrun him.
When Schooley encountered financial problems, his promising team was purchased by attorney James F. Callahan and New York sportsman William Dwyer, renamed the Pirates and granted a spot in the NHL on Nov. 7, 1925. Henry Townsend, a Pittsburgh politician and president of the Duquesne Garden Co., organized the team, which featured 10 former Yellow Jackets, including Worters, Conacher and forward Hib Milks, who would be the Pirates’ leading scorer in each of their first four seasons.
Odie Cleghorn, who had won the Cup with them in 1924, left the Montreal Canadiens to coach the Pirates. In Pittsburgh, he gained hockey fame by becoming the first coach to make line changes “on the fly.” He even played goal briefly when Worters had pneumonia.
Pittsburgh’s first NHL game was Nov. 26, 1925 at Boston, a 2-1 victory. Two nights later, Pittsburgh beat the Canadiens, 1-0, at Mt. Royal Arena in a game of historical significance. It was the last for the great Georges Vezina, whose goaltending superiority led the league to name after him a year-end trophy honoring its best goaltender. Vezina left the game after the first period with a high fever and died four months later of tuberculosis.
The first NHL game in Pittsburgh was played at the Garden on Dec. 2, 1925, and 8,000 people saw the New York Americans score a 2-1 overtime victory. The ice surface had been reduced from 249 to 200 feet long to accommodate the NHL game.
As Townsend and Cleghorn had predicted, the Pirates did challenge for the Stanley Cup that season, finishing third in the seven-team league with a 19-16-1 record. But they lost both games of their total-goal series with the eventual Cup champion Montreal Maroons, dropping the first game, 3-1, in Montreal March 20.
The Pirates would get no closer to the Stanley Cup. They traded Conacher to the Americans early in the 1926-27 season he would later help Chicago to the 1934 Cup and reached the playoffs only once more, in the spring of 1928. That was the season the NHL adopted three 20-minute periods and a rule forbidding players to toss the puck into the stands, a ploy often used to secure a rest. Despite a 4-2 victory in Game 2 at Madison Square Garden, the Pirates lost their two-game, total- goal series with the Cup-bound New York Rangers, 6-4.
By the 1928-29 season, the team was showing signs of financial strain despite the inclusion of lightweight boxing champion Benny Leonard in the ownership group. Fan support was not as good as hoped. Worters was sold to the Americans, for whom he promptly won the Hart Trophy as league MVP, and Baldy Cotton was sold to Toronto, whom he helped to the Cup three years later.
Frank Fredrickson, a Hall of Famer who had played for the Cup champion Bruins the previous winter, replaced Cleghorn as the Pirates’ player-coach for the 1929-30 season. Fredrickson was a well-known and unique hockey figure. He played on the Canadian team that won gold in the 1920 Olympic Games and also won the Cup with the Victoria Cougars in 1925. He was a pilot in World War I and an accomplished violinist.
But his Pirates team won just five of 44 games and finished with the NHL’s worst record. The only bright spot was a 10-5 win at the Gardens over Toronto on Nov. 19, the only game in NHL history in which two defensemen Pittsburgh’s Johnny McKinnon and Toronto’s Hap Day scored four goals each.
When the season ended, the Pirates’ NHL run was over, the team having cost its owners $400,000.
But the Pirates, strangely enough, wouldn’t die an easy death. Callahan requested in 1930 that Pittsburgh’s home games be transferred to Philadelphia, where the Quakers were worse than even the last Pirates team and lasted one season.
For each of the next five years, Callahan retained his franchise while suspending operations in the hope of building a new home for the Pirates. But a new rink was never forthcoming and the franchise was finally canceled on May 7, 1936.
Earlier that year, the professional Pittsburgh Shamrocks had completed their first and only season in the eight-team International League. They were coached by Odie Cleghorn’s brother Sprague, a Hall of Famer who had won Cups with the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens. The Shamrocks cost owners Ray Babcock, James McKay and Phil Jacks, a Canadian promoter, $36,000.
Far more popular for city hockey fans at this time were the Yellow Jackets, who had been revived by Schooley in 1930. They were purchased in 1932 by John Harris, the man leasing the Garden from the Pittsburgh Railway Co. and the head of a chain of 29 movie theaters. The Yellow Jackets served as a springboard to the NHL for two future Hall of Famers: goaltender Frank Brimsek, who earned the nickname “Mr. Zero” and won the Cup in 1939 and 1941 with Boston, and center Gord Drillon, who put his name on the Cup with the 1942 Maple Leafs.
In 1936, Harris made two important decisions. He hired 24-year-old Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie to perform before a Yellow Jackets’ game against Atlantic City on March 31, 1936, leading to the creation of the Ice Capades; and he bought the entire Detroit Olympics team, which had won the International League championship two years running. Harris retained the Olympics’ 28-year-old coach, Donnie Hughes, renamed the team the Hornets and placed them in the eight-team International American Hockey League as an affiliate of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings.
The Hornets’ first game was a 4-2 victory in Cleveland on Nov. 7, 1936, and their first game at the Garden was a 5-2 win over Cleveland the following night. Over their 26 years, the Hornets featured some of the best young players in hockey and gave Pittsburgh fans three championships and three devastating playoff losses.
Larry Aurie, whose six years with the team from 1938 to 1944 represented the longest coaching tenure in Hornets’ history, was an interesting figure. After helping the 1937 Red Wings to the Cup, Aurie became an AHL All-Star right wing during his first season as Hornets’ player-coach. With him on that team was future Hall of Famer Sid Abel, who later joined Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay on Detroit’s famed Production Line and helped the Red Wings to three Cups.
In 1940, Aurie became the first Hornets’ coach to take the team to the Calder Cup finals, where it was swept by Providence. That was also the last season of affiliation with the Red Wings. Harris disliked the shuffling of players from Pittsburgh to Detroit and made his team an independent for the next five seasons, during which it broke .500 only once.
For the 1945-46 season, the Hornets began a much more profitable affiliation with Toronto; over the next 11 seasons, they failed to surpass .500 only once and made five appearances in the Calder Cup finals.
In the spring of 1947, the Hornets suffered the first of three Game 7 losses in the finals, this one to the Hershey Bears. One of the Pittsburgh stars then was Baz Bastien, who that season began a three-year run as the AHL’s best goaltender. Two seasons later, Sid Smith set the team record for goals (55) and points (112) for coach Bob Davidson.
Like the Maple Leafs, the Hornets stressed defense as they became a perennial AHL power in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. When Bastien lost his right eye after being hit by a shot in training camp in 1949, Gil Mayer took over in goal and became a five-time AHL All-Star just like defenseman Pete Backor. “We were told never to roam, just to go up and down our wings,” remembered defenseman Frank Mathers, a six-time All-Star. “And play defense. That was the Toronto style.”
In the spring of 1951 came another Game 7 finals loss, this one to Cleveland. Taking over the team from coach Tommy Anderson for the 1951-52 season was King Clancy, a Hall of Famer who had played on three Cup champions with Ottawa and Toronto and one of the best defensemen in the game’s history. With Mayer in goal and future Hall of Famers Mathers, Tim Horton and Leo Boivin on defense, the Hornets were unstoppable. They defeated Providence in six games in the Calder Cup finals, Ray Hannigan’s goal at 6:08 of the second overtime period giving Pittsburgh a 3-2 victory on April 20, 1952 and bringing the city its first professional hockey title.
The 1952-53 Hornets, however, set new standards for finals heartbreak. A 3-2 Game 6 victory over the Barons Dan Lewicki’s goal at 11:46 of the fourth overtime period sent fans spilling from the Gardens at 1:55 a.m. set up another Game 7 loss in Cleveland, this time on the flukiest of fluke goals.
At 6:23 of the mandatory 10-minute overtime period if the game remained tied, 20-minute sudden death periods ensued the Barons’ Bob Chrystal pulled up outside the Pittsburgh blue line and flipped the puck high into the Hornets’ zone to facilitate a line change. The puck landed short and wide of the Pittsburgh net but hopped crazily past Mayer. The Hornets had lost the game, 1-0, and the title.
Coach Howie Meeker and long-time general manager Jim Balmer took Pittsburgh back to the finals in 1954-55. Bob Solinger scored two goals to help the Hornets to a 4-2 victory over Buffalo on April 10, 1955 and their second Calder Cup.
The 1955-56 season was the last for old Duquesne Gardens, which had been sold in 1950 by the Pittsburgh Railways Co. to a syndicate in a package of 58 properties for $800,000. The last hockey game ever played there was a 6-4 Cleveland victory over the Hornets on March 31, 1956. Demolition began on Aug. 13 of that year to make way for the Park Plaza Apartments.
With nowhere to play while the Civic Arena was being built, the Hornets took five seasons off. They returned to Pittsburgh as an AHL independent for the 1961-62 season, and a crowd of 9,317 saw the first hockey game at the Civic Arena, a 2-1 loss to the Buffalo Bisons on Oct. 14. Rookie defenseman Paul Jackson scored the first Pittsburgh goal there at 5:58 of the third period.
Much to the dismay of team and Civic Arena publicity director Bill Torrey, later the architect of the New York Islanders’ dynasty and a Hall of Famer, it was the start of a 10-58-2 season, the Hornets’ worst. Their affiliation with Detroit, however, was restored for the 1963-64 season. That Hornets team featured a career minor-leaguer named Doug Messier, whose son Mark would win Stanley Cups in Edmonton and New York, and a left winger named Paul Henderson, whose Summit Series-winning goal eight years later in Moscow remains arguably the most memorable in the history of the game.
The Hornets’ last season in Pittsburgh was a glorious one. With the Penguins on the horizon, Bastien behind the bench finishing his fourth stint as coach, Hank Bassen in goal and future Hall of Famer Doug Harvey on defense, the Hornets claimed the 1967 Calder Cup.
This time, all the dramatics went Pittsburgh’s way. On April 30, before a home crowd of 5,169, Terry Gray tied the game with 33 seconds left in regulation and Billy Harris won it 26 seconds into overtime to complete a finals sweep of Rochester with a 4-3 victory. It remains the only pro title won by a Pittsburgh hockey team on home ice.
The Press, in describing the post-game celebration, noted that one Hornets’ fan on his way home shouted out his feelings about having seen his team’s final game: “Who needs the Penguins?”