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Hockey History: So What Happened to the Pirates?

The Pirates left Pittsburgh in 1930 for the City of Brotherly Love and put up one of the worst records of the early 20th century.

The 1930-1931 Philadelphia Quakers. Image courtesy of Wikipedia and public domain rights.

In case you missed my earlier article that covered Pittsburgh’s first NHL team from the 1920s, here’s a brief recap: The NHL awarded Pittsburgh their first NHL team in 1925 and the Pirates (named after Pittsburgh’s baseball team) played at Duquesne Gardens from 1925 until 1930. After the stock market crash, the team and its owners were heavily in debt and forced to relocate the team to Philadelphia. The intention was to bring the team back to the Steel City once the debts had been paid off. So, what did happen to the Pirates?

Once the team had been relocated to the City of Brotherly Love, the Pittsburgh Pirates became known as the Philadelphia Quakers. This was a nod to the city’s long history with the Quaker community and the impact the group had on Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania.

Bill Dwyer, one of the two owners of the Pirates-turned-Quakers was unable to salvage his debts. As a result, Benny Leonard, his prizefighting co-owner became the sole owner of the struggling hockey team. Leonard and the management team hoped a change in location (along with a jersey change to black and orange) would serve as a turning point. The stats from the Pirates’ final season in Pittsburgh hadn’t been pretty with a record of 5-36-3. Once in Philadelphia, however, the stats did everything but improve.

The Quakers lost their first three games of the season and only scored the first franchise goal in the third game — a 5-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings. It took three more games (the sixth of the season) for the Quakers to notch their first win — 2-1 against the much better Toronto Maple Leafs on November 25. The Leafs would go on to finish second in the Canadian Division of the NHL that season, while Philadelphia finished dead last in the American Division at fifth place.

The 1930-1931 season for the Quakers was the definition of bad puck luck, financial woe, and disastrous numbers. Their season record was actually worse than the final season in Pittsburgh. The Quakers ended the year with a record of 4-36-4. Their .136 winning percentage was a record low in the league and stood for 45 years until the Washington Capitals’ .131 season in 1974-1975. The Quakers’ only four wins came against Toronto on November 25, the Montreal Maroons on January 10, 1931, Detroit on February 17 and again on March 12. Yes, you read that right; the Quakers didn’t win a single game during December 1930, and only one game each in the other months of the season.

The team’s record in December was the definition of abysmal — 0-10-0 with five games lost at home and five on the road. No wonder the team had trouble filling seats in the Philadelphia Arena. Of the 5,526 seat capacity, the average attendance for a Quakers game was only about 2,500, which was nowhere near the 8,200 fans the Pirates had drawn in Pittsburgh.

Philadelphia Quakers program handed out at games during the 1930-1931 season. Image courtesy of Wikipedia and public domain rights.

What of the other stats for the Quakers’ first (spoiler alert: and only) season?

Their home record was only marginally better than their away record: 3-17-2 and 1-19-2, respectively. Through 44 regular season games, the Quakers only had 76 goals for, but racked up a staggering 184 goals against. That works out to 4.18 GAA overall through the season. Even in the modern high-scoring NHL, no team has come close to a season GAA of that number.

So if the team’s GAA was 4.18, what of their goaltenders? Unfortunately, the three goaltenders — Wilf Cude, Joe Miller, and Jake Forbes — didn’t fare much better than the rest of the team. Their save percentages ranged from a best of .896 to a worst of .878, while their individual GAA was a record high of 4.22 for Cude and a relative low of 3.50 for Forbes.

The goaltenders’ GAA and SV% were not the only jaw-dropping stats from an otherwise futile season. Defenseman D’Arcy Coulson led the team in PIM at a whopping 103 minutes, with defenseman Al Shields the next closest at 98 PIM. After the two defensemen, there was a staggering gap in penalty minutes, all the way down to 46 PIM by John McKinnon. Unfortunately, the team’s point scorers were nowhere near as high as their goals against or their time in the penalty box. Center Gerry Lowrey had the team high of 27 points through 44 games, while captain and forward Hib Milks led the team with 17 goals.

The only uplifting statistic for the Quakers is Syd Howe’s career. The left wing center played his first full season with the Quakers and he was also the last active Quakers player in the league. He played his final NHL games with Detroit during the 1945-1946 season. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1965, two years before NHL hockey would return to Pennsylvania.

The Quakers finished the regular season with only four wins and 12 points total, both of which were the worst performance in the six years of Pittsburgh-to-Philadelphia hockey. The Quakers’ four wins tied the Quebec Bulldogs’ 1919-1920 season for fewest wins during a full season in NHL history. Due to the ongoing financial struggles and the lackluster performance, the team’s managers announced that they would not ice a team for the 1931-1932 season. This left Philadelphia without an NHL team until the 1967 season when the Flyers arrived. As a nod to their history, the Flyers donned black and orange jerseys.

The Quakers ownership continued to hope for the return of hockey to the City of Brotherly Love, however. Each of the next five years at the NHL governors meetings, the Quakers announced that they were suspending operations for the season instead of folding the franchise. The team continued to hope that a new arena would be completed in Pittsburgh, so that they could relocate the team back to the Steel City and the fans there who were eager for more NHL hockey.

Finally, due to the financial struggles and construction canceled for a new arena in Pittsburgh, the Philadelphia Quakers were canceled as a franchise on May 7, 1936. Pittsburgh would not have an NHL team again until 1967 — five years after the Civic Arena had been constructed — when the Penguins were established. 1967 was also the inaugural season for the Philadelphia Flyers, which created a cross-state rivalry that has lasted to this day and was born out of the shared history of NHL hockey from the 1920s and 1930s.

So while the Pirates-turned-Quakers may have had a terrible season in Philadelphia, they left a lasting impact on the hockey community in both cities. That foundation led to not one, but two NHL teams in the 1960s and generations of loyal hockey fans for the Penguins and the Flyers. So next fall, when the Penguins and the Flyers face off at center ice, thank the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Quakers for gifting hockey with one of its greatest rivalries. And if you’re feeling extra snarky toward the Pens’ rivals in black and orange, those Quaker stats are pretty handy.