As you've probably heard, Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney passed away today at the age of 84. Head to Behind the Steel Curtain our SBN Steelers blog for coverage of the remembrance and special pieces there of a life well-lived.
So why the article on a Penguins blog? Well as Howard Cosell famously said;
"When you play Pittsburgh, you play the whole city. Yes, it’s still the City of Champions. It has nothing to do with victories. Pittsburgh has a winning character."
The Penguins franchise has a LOT to owe the Rooney family. Did you know that there probably wouldn't even be the Penguins, as we know them, in the first place without the help of Dan Rooney's father Art Rooney (aka The Chief aka the founder of the Steelers)?
It's covered in the Pens 50th year documentary "Pittsburgh is Home" and there was an origin story that floored me, as I hadn't heard it before. The Penguins also recount the sequence in their book "A Great Day for Hockey: The Pittsburgh Penguins 1967-2017", which was included in their charity bag earlier last month.
To set the stage: the NHL is finally about to expand- they've been with the "Original 6" franchises forever but want to add 6 more teams for 1967. The plan is to add 2 teams out West, 2 in the mid-west and 2 in the east. Pennsylvania state senator (and eventual first owner of the Pens) Jack McGregor wanted a team in Pittsburgh and had learned that Philadelphia had already been confirmed as one of the expansion teams (and, indeed, that would become the Flyers). This left many contenders who wanted teams and only one spot left.
Here's a small snippet, written by Kevin Shea in Chapter 2 'The Start of Something Big'
McGregor and Block [a law school classmate] noted that Buffalo was the most serious competition for that franchise. "The Buffalo group went all out to pick off the sixth franchise," McGregor remembered.
But senator McGregor recruited Art Rooney, founding owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers to use his relationships with Bruce Norris, owner of the Detroit Red Wings, and Jim Norris, the owner of the Chicago Black Hawks, to campaign for Pittsburgh over Buffalo as that sixth expansion franchise.Rooney knew the half-brothers through horse-racing circles. And it worked.
On February 8, 1966, the votes of the NHL Board of Governors were tabulated. NHL President Clarence Campbell declared, "This is the year of the great expansion. For the first time, the league will be composed of twelve teams." After consideration, the NHL's Board of Governors had granted franchises to Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Oakland/San Francisco, Philadelphia, St. Louis and, yes: Pittsburgh!"
As McGregor recounts it himself in the documentary with a little more detail and charm:
"They got word to me that the two Norris brothers [Detroit & Chicago owners], who were two of the six votes were leaning away from Pittsburgh, towards Buffalo. So, knowing that the brothers were well-known for their horse racing enthusiasm, and knowing that Art Rooney was also well-known [in horse racing circles], I called Art and asked him if he knew the Norris brothers. He said, 'I know them like the back of my hand, Jack, why?'. I told him why. He said 'come on over, I'll get them each on the phone'.
I sat there in wonderment. Art made it very clear that it would be personally embarrassing to him and the Rooney family if Buffalo was selected over Pittsburgh. And he hung up and winked at me, with a big cigar in his hand, and said, 'Jack, I think you just got those two votes'."
Indeed, Pittsburgh got those votes and others as well to secure the franchise. But, you don't have to feel too sorry for Buffalo (I guess) since they would be included in the NHL's next batch of expansion in 1974 just a few years later.
Anyways, Art Rooney would pass the operation of the Steelers onto Dan, and Dan would really take the team to the next level as they built into the power of the '70s and set the basis for the most proud and successful team in the NFL. The Rooney's have very much been a family institution, and are synonymous with the entire city of Pittsburgh. Plus, in no small thanks to them, an NHL hockey team was able to be established in Pittsburgh in 1967.
Safe home Dan Rooney, thank you and your family for your contributions to sports in Pittsburgh, which extends even beyond the massive reach of the Steelers.