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Remembering the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team that brought line changes to the NHL

Welcome back to Lost Franchises where we remember the teams that no longer exist. Today we take a look at the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team that truly innovated the way hockey was played.

The original Pittsburgh Pirates
The original Pittsburgh Pirates
via YouTube

One of the easiest mistakes to make when it comes to hockey history is the assumption that the Original 6 teams as we know them -- the New York Rangers, Chicago Black Hawks, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings -- is where the NHL started.

It wasn't.

The Original 6 was nothing more than an era of the NHL that lasted for 25 years between 1942 and the expansion boom of 1967 -- when the phrase Original 6 became commonplace -- as the league doubled in size from six teams to 12. The NHL actually existed long before the Original 6 era in many different forms between 1917 and the end of the 1941-42 seasons.

In its earliest form, the NHL was a three-team Canadian league that gradually started to branch out to Quebec, Hamilton and Ottawa before doing what the NHL always does when it wants to expand: Move south. It started in the 1924-25 season with the Boston Bruins, and then continued the following season with the New York Americans and the subject of today's edition of Lost Franchises, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Pittsburgh's humble NHL beginnings

The Pirates were originally called the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets, playing in the United States Amateur Hockey Association until that league's demise at the end of the 1924-25 season. It was then that owner Roy Schooley sold the team to James Callahan, a Pittsburgh lawyer, who was granted an NHL franchise, renaming the Yellow Jackets after the city's baseball team.

duquesne gardens
Duquesne Gardens in the 1950s, long after the Pirates left. (Wikipedia)

Like their baseball namesake, the Pirates had a black and gold color scheme. That would later become relevant in the 1980s when the Penguins, Pittsburgh's current NHL team, attempted to change their uniforms from their original blue and white to black and gold to match the city's other professional sports teams. The Boston Bruins protested the change, arguing that the color scheme exclusively belonged to them. But because the Pirates had previously worn black and gold in the 1920s, the league allowed the Penguins to make the switch.

The Pirates lasted in the NHL for five seasons between 1925 and 1930, playing their home games at the Duquesne Gardens, an old trolley barn that was repurposed into a multipurpose sports arena in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh.

They made their NHL debut on Nov. 26, 1925 with a 2-1 win over the Boston Bruins, and followed that up with a 1-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens in what would turn out to be the final game played by legendary goalie Georges Vezina. Vezina, who had fallen ill before the season, collapsed in his crease during the second period and was later diagnosed with tuberculosis. He passed away a few months later.

While the team had very little success on the ice, winning only 67 of its 212 games and qualifying for the playoffs twice in five tries, it was a team under player/coach Odie Cleghorn that was, in some ways, ahead of its time.

Innovation: The first line changes and reserve players

In the early days of the NHL -- and this is something we briefly touched in our look at the Seattle Metropolitans -- rosters were significantly smaller than the league we know today, and games typically involved teams just keeping the same players on the ice for as long as they could. Pittsburgh's contribution to hockey was regular line changes and a reliance on reserve players.

odie cleghorn
The Pirates coach during his playing days, pictured here with the Renfrew Millionaires. (Wikipedia)

The Pittsburgh Press highlighted the Pirates' "depth" in a December article during the team's inaugural 1925 season. It is a fascinating look back at not only 1920s hockey, but 1920s sports writing.

Here is a brief excerpt (and be sure to check out the rest of that page; it's really something):

Odie Cleghorn's Pirate reserves are about the best in the National Hockey League, and if the belief that a team is no stronger than its substitutes counts for anything, then the Pittsburgh sextet is second best to none in the major organization.

Manager Cleghorn is the only leader in the league who so far has used two full forward lines, and he is about the only manager in the circuit who has such high class material available for regular duty.

In the games played to date the Black and Gold mentor has started all his games with McCurry as left wing, Milks at center and Darragh at right, but when the halftime mark is reached in each period Odie sends out his "Three Mustketeers," Drury at center, White at right and Berlinquette or Cotton at left wing. The second line of offense usually remains on the ice for six or eight minutes and then the first line goes out to finish the period.

By using this system Cleghorn can keep a fresh line on the ice almost all during the game, and with Spring and Skinner still vailable he can alternate these sparemen with Smith or Conacher, or any of the forwards should the occasion come up.

If that doesn't capture the spirit of what 1920s NHL hockey was all about, I'm not sure what does.

The result of Cleghorn's strategy was one of the deepest teams in the league, featuring seven players who scored at least seven goals during the 1925-26 season. No other team in the league had more than five players score that often. They finished with a 19-16-1 record, good enough for third place in the six-team league and a spot in the playoffs against the Montreal Maroons.

The playoffs in these days were not best-of-seven series where the team that won the most games moved on, but a two-game matchup where the winner was decided by the total number of goals scored in the two games, much like aggregate goal series in soccer today.

Montreal ended up moving on to a Stanley Cup meeting with Ottawa thanks to a 6-4 advantage.

The Pirates made one more playoff appearance, losing to the New York Rangers in 1927-28.

Financial struggles and bootleggin'

By the end of the 1928-29 season, the Pirates were a struggling team both on and off the ice, losing games and money, and were in need of a new arena. The Duquesne Gardens, which only had a capacity of 5,000 for hockey, had quickly become outdated due significantly larger arenas that were starting to sprout up around the league.

Financial hardships as early as their second season forced the team to trade Lionel Conacher, a multi-sport star who was later named Canada's greatest male athlete of the half-century, to the New York Americans for Charlie Langlois and $2,000 cash.

He went on to win Stanley Cups with the Chicago Black Hawks and the Maroons while finishing as a runner-up for the Hart Trophy two times, and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1994.

In Pittsburgh's first season, Conacher was not only the best player on the team and one of the best in the league, he was also the highest-paid player in the league, earning a salary of $7,500. The league had actually implemented a salary cap of $35,000 that season in an effort to curb player salaries. Conacher's salary took up 21 percent of the Pirates' cap space, which would be the equivalent of a player in today's NHL taking up $14.7 million of the $69 million cap.

When the stock market crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression started to set in, the Pirates were one of the many teams in the league that was losing money and struggling to make ends meet. By that point Callahan had already sold the team to a group that featured a prohibition bootlegger by the name of Bill Dwyer, and was fronted by a boxing promoter by the name of Benny Leonard.

The team continued to struggle financially while the product on the ice deteriorated to the point where they won just 14 of their 88 games over the last two seasons.

Relocation to Philadelphia

In the 1929-30 season, the Pirates won only five games and ended the season on an impossibly bad 1-23-2 run over the final 26 games. Following that campaign, the team, which had already changed its color scheme to orange and black, moved to Philadelphia and was renamed the Quakers.

The Quakers lasted just one season before folding, and somehow things managed to get even worse than they were during the final season in Pittsburgh.

The Quakers finished with a 4-36-4 record, a points percentage that was so bad that it would not be matched until the expansion Washington Capitals won just eight of their 80 games during the 1974-75 season.

When the team moved to Philadelphia, the initial plan was to relocate back to Pittsburgh when a new arena was built. But the Great Depression was in the process of wrecking the league's then-set up, and Pittsburgh didn't get its new home until 1961 when the Civic Arena was built, eventually leading to the birth of the Penguins.