Owners: James Callahan & Henry Townsend
Coach: Odie Cleghorn
Captain: Lionel Conacher
• On December 26, 1926 the Pirates and the New York Americans set an NHL record for most shots in one game.
The two teams combined for 141 shots in a 3-1 New York win. Roy “Shrimp” Worters, who earned the nickname from his 5’3″ stature, made 70 saves for the Pirates and Jake Forbes made 67 saves for the Americans. That is a record that still stands today.
• The Pirates were the city’s first NHL team.
• New York Americans’ Billy Burch, the reigning MVP, scored a the first NHL goal in the city of Pittsburgh.
• Captain Lionel “L-Train” Conacher scored Pittsburgh’s first-ever NHL goal.
• The last active Pirates player was Cliff Barton, who played his last NHL game in 1940.
• The Pirates colors of black and gold would be used as supporting evidence when the Pittsburgh Penguins switched to those colors in 1980.
• Four Pirates players would eventually be enshrined in the Hall of Fame:
– Lionel Conacher
– Frank Fredrickson
– Mickey MacKay
– Roy Worters
September 26, 1925 – Baldy Cotton, Harold Darragh, Herb Drury, Duke McCurry, Hib Milks, Rodger Smith, Tex White & Roy Worters were signed as free agents.
October 18, 1925 – Odie Cleghorn signed as a free agent and named player/coach.
November 10, 1925 – Louis Berlinquette & Alf Skinner were signed as free agents.
November 11, 1925 – Lionel Conacher signed as a free agent.
November 25, 1925 – Jesse Spring loaned to Pittsburgh by New York Americans for future considerations.
January 12, 1926 – Fred Lowrey claimed on waivers by from Montreal Maroons.
January 23, 1926 – Joe Miller’s NHL rights traded to New York Americans by Pittsburgh for the rights to Odie Cleghorn and the loan of Jesse Spring.
These youthful Pirates are a young lot of speed-demons and they simply dashed over the ice in a dizzy fashion.
MONTREAL GAZETTE, describing the speed of Pittsburgh’s new NHL team, in an article from December 1925
Pittsburgh’s first NHL team had fast burst out of the gate
At first, the writers’ optimistic predictions were on target. The Pirates traveled to Boston for their first game, played on Thanksgiving night, November 26, 1925. Boston’s hockey fans flocked to the Boston Arena for the match, which would be broadcast on radio station WBZ. Bruin defenseman Bill “Red” Stuart scored at 8:33 of the second period to give Boston a 1-0 lead. The honor of scoring the first goal in Pirates history fell to Conacher, the Pirates’ captain. He broke loose, got inside the Boston defense, and tied the score at 1-1 at 17:50 of the second. At 9:20 of the third, Darragh followed up with a goal to win the game for Pittsburgh, 2-1. In goal, “Shrimp” Worters stood out as he stopped 26 of 27 Bruin shots. The Pirates had overcome what the Boston Globe called the “wide difference between amateur and professional hockey.” John J. Hallahan of the Globe admitted the next day there was nothing about Pittsburgh’s play “to indicate that they have just graduated from the amateur ranks.” He commended Conacher, who had contributed “one of the smart efforts for which he is noted.”
The Pirates followed up their victory in Boston two nights later with another road win, this time by a 1-0 score against the Montreal Canadiens. The Montreal Gazette reported, “It was Roy Worters who brought Pittsburgh the victory.” The paper said he “stopped a regular bombardment of terrific drives in the hour he was in the Pirate net. Howie Morenz, the star Canadiens center, “whirled around the ice” in an attempt to get Montreal on the scoreboard, but the “acrobatic style” of Worters turned all of these shots aside. This game was notable in NHL lore. In the first period of this game, legendary Canadiens goaltender Georges Vezina had shut out the Pirates. The Montreal goalie had lost 35 pounds in six weeks and played the period with a 102-degree fever. When he returned for the second period, he collapsed and had to leave the game. It was Vezina’s last appearance on the ice. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis the next day, and he died in the following March at age 39. The NHL’s Vezina Trophy was named in his memory.
Intense excitement was in the air when the Pirates played their first home game December 2, 1925. The Pittsburgh Press predicted that the Duquesne Garden would be “much too small to hold the throngs” if the Pirates kept up the pace with which they started the season. The New York Americans,Â playing their first game not only of the season but in franchise history, provided the opposition. The Press reported that Cleghorn, the Pirates miracle leader, said the Americans would have to get the breaks and be at their very best to land a triumph. This much-anticipated battle of the first-year franchises went to the Americans, 2-1, in overtime. The Press estimated the crowd at 10,000 – a dubious count for a building with an official capacity of 5,657 for hockey. Americans defenseman Charlie Langlois scored the winning goal. The match, the Press said, would “long be remembered by those who were lucky enough to see it.”
A tougher assignment now faced the “Smoketown sextet,” as the Press called the Pirates. The next Pirates game would be played in Ottawa against the undefeated Ottawa Senators. Though Ottawa came away with a 1-0 win before a sellout crowd, the Montreal Gazette reported that the Pirates, a “team worthy of serious consideration,” had “displayed combination and teamwork that was a treat to see.” The Pirates followed the Ottawa game up with 6-3 and 5-3 home wins against the Toronto St. Patricks and Boston Bruins. A 4-2 loss to the Montreal Maroons and 3-2 win in a return match with the Americans, also at the Duquesne Garden, left the Pirates with a 5-3-0 record on December 18. Pittsburgh stood in third place, just behind the 5-2-0 record of the second-place Montreal Maroons.
A few years later. the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette would call team speed the primary reason for the Pirates’ early success. The Montreal Gazette described this attribute in its story of a match against the Maroons in December 1925: “These youthful Pirates are a young lot of speed-demons and they simply dashed over the ice in a dizzy fashion.” Their pace never lagged. Lou E. Marsh of the Toronto Star served up an interesting analysis of the Pirates in the same month. He said that although the Pirates were doing very well, the team had smart forwards who were on the small side. He thought the lighter-weight forwards were looking for revenge for every hit they took instead of keeping their minds on the game. Marsh wrote that the forwards would “not get very far in the hard bumping game” and that Cleghorn would soon wean them off it. Worters, he wrote, had “turned in several sensational games” in goal. Marsh said that Drury “is a cyclone on skates and like all other cyclones he does not last overly long.” He thought that Cleghorn served the team better behind the bench than on the ice. While not playing, Cleghorn could “size up the situation and remedy the team’s weaknesses by smart subbing.”
The fast start slows down
A downturn now came along to hamper the Pirates’ fast start. Following the December 18 Americans win, Pittsburgh’s next victory would come almost a month later. The Pirates were outscored 16-3 over the next seven games. This 0-6-1 slump lowered Pittsburgh to fifth place with a 5-9-1 record, barely ahead of sixth-place Toronto’s 4-9-1.
The downturn started with a 1-1 road tie with the Toronto St. Patricks. The Pirates were playing their third game in four nights but managed to keep up with “the Irish.” The Pirates next game, four nights later, was a 1-0 overtime loss to the Montreal Maroons at the Montreal Forum. During this encounter, Milks was hooked across the head and had to be helped from the ice. The loss to the Maroons marked the start of a six-game losing streak. But the Pirates’ slide was not without another brush with a hockey history milestone. During a 3-1 loss to the Americans at Madison Square Garden on December 26, 1925, the Pirates and the New Yorkers combined for 141 shots on goal, still an NHL record. The Americans bombarded Worters with 73 shots, while the Pirates fired 68 shots at Americans goalie Jake Forbes. The New York Times briefly noted the shots “for the statistically minded” and moved on. But the 10,000 fans at the Garden, however they felt about statistics, enjoyed the exciting assaults on the nets and the end result – the Americans’ first victory on their home ice.
The low point in Pittsburgh’s downturn was a December 30 encounter with Ottawa at the Duquesne Garden. Conacher was out with a severe cold and broken nose, and the Pirates took it on the chin, 5-0. The Pittsburgh Press noted that the Pirates “did not seem to have the pep usually shown,” and the Montreal Gazette reported that Pittsburgh was “absolutely helpless” before the visiting Senators. Searching for a spark, the Pirates were reportedly interested in acquiring Sprague Cleghorn for help on defense, but the Bruins wanted $50,000 for him. Too high a price, the Pirates thought. Conacher returned for the next game, a 2-1 Pittsburgh home loss to the Canadiens on New Year’s Day, 1926. The Gazette observed a lack of Pirate teamwork despite fine individual efforts. “The Pirates performed spasmodically,” the Gazette reported, though they were always threatening to score. The Canadiens’ “lightening dashes down the ice astonished everybody,” the Gazette said, noting that Montreal should have won by an even greater margin.
But the Pirate downturn reversed itself on January 15, 1926, in front of a small Pittsburgh crowd. Even though captain Conacher was again on the sidelines, the Pirates came away with a 5-1 win over the Bruins. The Montreal Gazette noted a strong improvement in Pittsburgh’s skating, checking, and team play. The win sparked the Pirates. It came as part of a three-game winning streak during which the Pirates scored 14 goals. The Pirates returned to third place and would end the season there. Pittsburgh did not lose more than three games in a row the rest of 1925-26 and ended the season on a 7-1-0 run, losing only to the powerful Senators in Ottawa 3-0 on March 8.
Even when Worters was forced to the sidelines for one game, the Pirates were able to overcome adversity. Odie Cleghorn filled in for Worters in goal on February 23 in a home game against the Canadiens. Worters was either suffering from the grippe or an injury in the pregame warmup (depending on the source). When Canadiens coach Leo Dandurand refused to lend the Pirates their back-up goalie, Alphonse Lacroix, Cleghorn became Worters’s replacement. Montreal took a 1-0 lead on an excellent shot by Billy Boucher early in the first period. However, in the second and third periods Pittsburgh answered with three straight goals. The Pirate defense kept Montreal’s shooters at bay during that stretch. The Canadiens were forced to take long shots at the Pirates’ coach. The Montreal Gazette reported that Cleghorn didn’t have much work in the nets in the second period. The Canadiens closed the gap to 3-2 with five minutes to go in the game. Pit Lepine scored when Cleghorn was slow in clearing a puck. But the Canadiens could not get a tying goal past Cleghorn, who played a “presentable” game in the eyes of the Boston Globe. The 3-2 Pittsburgh lead held until the final bell. Two years later, Rangers coach Lester Patrick would follow in Cleghorn’s footsteps and fill in for his goalie during the playoffs.
Unfortunately, the Pirates felt the December-to-January slump’s effects at box office. The January 18 Christian Science Monitor pointed to the “low attendance” at Pirates games in its Hockey Notes and said that a “continuance will make professional hockey dubious for Pittsburgh next year.” The city’s fans, the Monitor explained, “have been used to a winning team and have little use for the Pirates since their recent six straight defeats.” This would be the first of many signs that the Steel City’s affection for the NHL Pirates did not equal its love of the Forbes Field Pirates of the baseball diamond.
A taste of the playoffs
At season’s end, the Pirates’ 19-16-1 third-place record entitled the team to a playoff berth. The second-place Montreal Maroons would be Pittsburgh’s opponent in the first round. It would be a two-game series, with the winner determined by total goals scored. The Maroons, not the Canadiens, would try to uphold Montreal’s honor. The Canadiens, representatives of Montreal’s French population and the older of the two Montreal NHL franchises, had finished well behind the pack in last place. The strong showing during the season was quite a feat for the second-year Maroons, the team of Montreal’s English-speaking fans.
The Pirates and Maroons appeared to be evenly matched. In six games against each other in the regular season, the two teams were 2-1-0 at home, and 1-2-0 on the road. If anything, Pittsburgh seemed to have the advantage. Two of the final six regular-season Pirate wins were at the Maroons’ expense. Pittsburgh had come away with a 1-0 victory at home, and a 4-0 win at the new Montreal Forum. In the 4-0 Pittsburgh win, the Montreal crowd had yelled “Fake! Fake!” at the lethargic Maroons. “The Pirates have acquitted themselves like veterans,” the Montreal Gazette commented the day the playoffs opened. The paper said that Pittsburgh’s fans were confident the Pirates would “take the measure of their more seasoned opponents.” The Gazette reminded its readers that the Pirates had playoff experience under their belts. Most of the Pirates had played in the USAHA championship series the previous two years as members of the champion Yellow Jackets.
The night before the opening game of the series, which was played at the Duquesne Garden, Maroons President James Strachan played a clever strategic hand. As told in William Brown’s book, The Montreal Maroons: The Forgotten Stanley Cup Champions (Vehicule Press, 1999), Strachan had rented a hall in the team’s Pittsburgh hotel. There, he kept watch as his players listened to records and played cards instead of spending a late night on the town. Strachan made sure that the Maroons were in bed by 10 p.m. He also promised the team $1,000 each if the Maroons won the Stanley Cup, and $10 per goal in the series against the Pirates. These cash bonuses would be added to the extra money the players would earn by winning the Cup. The bonuses were substantial. Consider the extra $1,000 per man in light of Lionel Conacher’s then-record salary of $7,500 per year.
The Gazette reported that 7,000 fans jammed the Duquesne Garden on Saturday night, March 20, while another 2,000 disappointed followers had to be turned away. The Gazette reported that the Pirates were favored 5 to 3 to win. The oddsmakers undoubtedly noted the absence of two Maroons defensemen: captain Dunc Munro, who was ill, and Hobie Kitchen.The Maroons’ sluggish 4-5-2 finish at the end of the season provided hope for the Pirates’ fans, whose “six” had finished the 1925-26 season so strongly. Rodger Smith’s goal in the first period and the Pirates’ overall speed seemed to confirm the predictions of a Pittsburgh victory. But Strachan’s ploy could well have given the Montreal players an extra spark. The Maroons matched the Pirates’ speed later in the game as the Pirates faded. Montreal defeated Pittsburgh, 3-1.
The second game was played in Montreal three nights later. When the Maroons ran off to a 2-0 lead, the Pirates were in a four-goal hole they could not climb out of. The game ended in a 3-3 tie. Montreal took the series six goals to four and went on to play Ottawa for the Stanley Cup, which the Maroons would win. But in the wake of the Pirates final game, the Gazette said, “Pittsburgh did not go without a fight.” Following goals by Drury and Cotton, the Pirates had come within two total goals of the Maroons with eight minutes to play in the third period. At that point, the Maroons’ defense stiffened and held off the Pirate attack. The Pirates were eliminated, but the Gazette said the “youthful Pirates were complimented on all sides for their courageous struggle. They went out with the record of an achievement which has hitherto been unknown in pro hockey – that of a former amateur team qualifying in the first division in its first year in pro company. It is a record of which the Pirates and their supporters can be justly proud.”
1925-26 Pittsburgh Pirates
|Skater Stats||Regular Season||Playoffs|
|2||Lionel Conacher “C”||D||33||9||4||13||64||2||0||0||0||0|