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Hockey History: The Pirates - Pittsburgh’s First NHL Team

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For #ThrowbackThursday, let’s take a look at the first NHL team to play in Pittsburgh.

Colorado Rockies v Pittsburgh Pirates
Believe it or not, the Pittsburgh Pirates were once the name of a baseball team and a hockey team in the Steel City.
Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

In 1925, the Jazz Era was in full swing. Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as the 30th President of the United States, the first edition of the New Yorker was published, and the NHL was gaining traction across North America.

That same year marked the first time that major league hockey came to Pittsburgh.

Before 1925, the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets had been the local chapter of the U.S. Amateur Hockey Association. The team was bought by James F. Callahan when the current owner, Roy Schooley, ran into financial troubles. Shortly thereafter, the NHL awarded an expansion team to Pittsburgh on November 7, 1925.

Pittsburgh had been the first major U.S. city to professionalize the sport of ice hockey in the 1890s, partially in an attempt to lure unpaid Canadian and American players to join the local teams. As a result of this, in 1925 the current NHL President, Frank Calder, agreed to place an NHL team in Pittsburgh as a way to counteract the growing NHA teams (which included the Toronto Shamrocks and Toronto Blueshirts). The new NHL team in Pittsburgh were the third team from the States to join the NHL (after the Boston Bruins and the New York Americans) and the seventh team overall in the league.

James Callahan renamed the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets to the Pittsburgh Pirates as a nod to the city’s baseball team of the same name. His choice for the colors of the team jersey was also a tribute to the city of Pittsburgh. During the first season of 1925-1926, the Pirates wore bright yellow jerseys made of wool that had black trim stripes and a capital “P” stitched to the front of the jersey. The official colors on the city flag for Pittsburgh are black and gold — a color scheme that has become synonymous with Steel City sports in the 20th and 21st century, thanks to the Pirates.

Now here’s something that will win any sports round at pub trivia night for you: The team used city crest emblems from outdated police uniforms for the sleeves of their jerseys. This is thanks to James Callahan’s brother — a police officer in Pittsburgh — who supplied the team with surplus patches, all of which were in the city’s official colors of black and gold.

The 1925-1926 Pittsburgh Pirates team. Image courtesy of www.pittsburghhockey.net.

Ten players from the Yellow Jackets carried over to the Pirates and Odie Cleghorn signed on as head coach and part-time player. (Side note: Just imagine Mike Sullivan hopping the boards and playing a shift with the likes of Guentzel and Crosby. The early 20th century was truly a wild time for the nascent NHL.)

Not only was Cleghorn known for putting in time on the ice with his team, he also made hockey history for the use of line changes. That’s right, before Cleghorn, NHL teams would put their best players on the ice without break until the players had exhausted their energy reserves. Cleghorn decided to approach the games with a different tactic. Instead of icing his best players without a definitive stop time, he instituted the idea of changing players on the fly — something that would become known as the current line changes in the NHL.

The rules for Cleghorn’s model were simple. There were three lines of forwards and the forwards changed after six to eight minutes. The defensemen, however, wouldn’t change. Despite the change in ice time and the rotation of defensemen, the modern line changes are directly connected to Cleghorn’s idea of a power-heavy team.

On December 21, 1925, The Pittsburgh Press chronicled the use of Cleghorn’s line changes:

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.

The Pirates were also trailblazers in hockey history for two other reasons. First, they set an early NHL record for the largest salary paid when defenseman Lionel Conacher signed with them for a three-year $7,500 deal. While the current equivalent is $365,000, for the 1920s that was no small change. Cleary the Pirates were on to something with Conacher, as the defenseman became one of four Pirates players inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame, in addition to Frank Fredrickson, Mickey MacKay, and Roy Worters.

Second, the Pirates set a record for most shots in a game — a record that still stands today. The Pirates played the New York Americans on December 26, 1926 and New York recorded a 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh newcomers. Roy Worters, the Pirates goaltender, made 70 saves, while Jack Forbes made 67 saves for the Americans to create a combined total of 141 shots.

The first game the Pirates played was a road game against the the Boston Bruins on November 26, 1925 on American Thanksgiving. The Pirates notched their first NHL win, 2-1, over the Bruins. Lionel Conacher, captain of the team, scored on Bruins goaltender Charles Stewart in the second period to tie the game. Harold Darragh, the Pirates left winger, scored the first ever game-winning goal for the Pirates in the third period. Roy Worters, the Pirates goaltender, made 26 saves on 27 shots for the first NHL win for the franchise.

Two days later found the Pirates in Canada to face the Montreal Canadiens. The Pirates stunned the Canadiens 1-0. The loss was also the final career game for Canadiens goaltender Georges Vezina. Montreal media were also impressed by the American newcomers, as the Montreal Gazette wrote that “These youthful Pirates are a young lot of speed-demons and they simply dashed over the ice in a dizzy fashion.” Despite 93 years of difference, that statement still rings true for the current Pittsburgh team.

Just under a week later, on December 2, 1925, the Pirates returned to Steel City for their first home game. The first game at Duquesne Gardens — the Pirates’ home ice for the remainder of the 1920s — didn’t go according to plan for Cleghorn and his team. Despite a goal from Conacher, the Pirates lost 2-1 against the New York Americans in overtime.

Regardless of the loss, fans were excited to see professional hockey in Pittsburgh. Records show that 8,200 fans purchased tickets for the game with a selling point of $1 ($14 at today’s value) for the game against the New York team.

The Pittsburgh Pirates, circa 1925-1926. Image courtesy of www.pittsburghhockey.net.

The first season of 1925-1926 yielded more success than failure for the Pirates. The team finished the regular season with a record of 19-16-1 and were third best in the NHL. The Pirates squared off against the Montreal Maroons in the playoffs in a best-of-three semifinal series. The Pirates lost two in a row at home in Pittsburgh to put them out of contention for the final, while the Maroons went on to win the Stanley Cup.

The five seasons the Pirates played in Pittsburgh were full of ups and downs. After their hot start in their first season, the Pirates finished fourth in the league in the 1926-1927 season and missed the playoffs altogether. The next season (1927-1928) saw them finish third in the league once more and make the playoffs — only to lose in the semifinals. The Pirates finished fourth and fifth respectively in the 1928-1929 and 1929-1930 seasons and did not make a playoff appearance in either season.

Their overall record after five seasons and 212 games was 67 wins, a staggering 122 losses, and 23 tied games. The team recorded 157 points total and 376 goals for. Meanwhile, the goals against was 519 and the PIM was a massive 1,597. While the team record isn’t stellar, it certainly isn’t far off from the records of early seasons by other expansion teams throughout the history of the NHL.

James Callahan sold the Pirates in 1928 due to personal financial problems. The team was bought by a noted early Prohibition bootlegger and gangster, Bill Dwyer, and his frontman, a fight promoter and former lightweight boxing champ Benny Leonard.

To compound the woes of the Pirates, after the 1928-1929 season, Cleghorn left the position of head coach to become a referee with the NHL. To make matters worse (or recall images of the Philadelphia Flyers’ colors), the team changed their colors from black and gold to black and orange. For the icing on the cake, the fifth and final season for the Pirates in 1929-1930 saw a franchise-worst record of 5-63-3.

By the end of the 1929-1930 season, owners Dwyer and Leonard were forced to sell the team due to the stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression. By early 1930, the team was $400,000 in debt — a mind-boggling $5.87 million in today’s market.

As a result of the financial troubles, the team was relocated to Philadelphia and rebranded as the Philadelphia Quakers — complete with black and orange jerseys. That’s right, technically the Flyers can trace their lineage back to the Quakers née Pirates. The intention was to bring the team back to Pittsburgh in a few years once a new arena had been built. The Duquesne Gardens were badly in need of a renovation and the city had approved a new hockey arena. However, due to the Depression, a new stadium was not built — until 1961 when the Civic Arena was completed.

While the Pittsburgh Pirates may have experienced a short-lived and somewhat dismal career, the team left an indelible mark on the city and its residents. It is thanks to the Pirates that the Pittsburgh Penguins boast the black and gold colors once more on the team jersey. The long tradition of professional hockey in Pittsburgh — and the avid fanbase — are also attributed to the likes of the Pirates and their successors.