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The Penguins celebrate 43 years of black and gold

On January 30, 1980, the Penguins took the ice in black and gold for the first time.

Bruce Bennett Collection
Phil Borque skates for the Penguins in New York City in 1980. Before January 30 of that year, the team dressed in blue and white sweaters.
Photo by Robert Shaver/Bruce Bennett Collection/Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images

The city of Pittsburgh celebrated four Super Bowl wins and two World Series titles while wearing black and gold in the 1970’s.

By the end of the decade, the blue-and-white Penguins decided it was time for hockey to become part of the city’s winning color scheme.

“We’re going to jump on the bandwagon,” GM Paul Martha told The Washington Post. “It’s the perfect opportunity for us.”

The team was on board with Martha’s plan. “I think it’s important to do something our fans will approve of,” Penguins center Greg Malone told United Press International. “They’ve expressed an interest in changing to black and gold. I think everybody in Pittsburgh identifies with those colors, so why shouldn’t the Penguins identify with them, too?”

But the decision to change colors earned Martha and the Penguins some new enemies in the NHL.

Bruce Bennett Collection
Center Syl Apps poses in a blue and white Penguins sweater circa 1980.
Photo by Robert Shaver/Bruce Bennett Collection/Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images

Harry Sinden, GM of the Boston Bruins, tried to get the league to stop the switch. The Penguins were trying to steal colors the Bruins had claimed for sixty years, he argued to NHL Commissioner John Ziegler Jr.

“Pete Rozelle was NFL commissioner at this time. I said, ‘In our town, the Bruins are winners. We win all the time. If we don’t win championships, we win a lot of games, and we’ve won championships.’

What do you think Pete Rozelle would say if the Patriots — who were red, white, and blue — came to him and said, ‘The Bruins are winners, we’d like to have the same colors as the Bruins’? They would then have been the same colors as the Steelers, and Rozelle would have told the Patriots to take a hike. Which would have been the right thing to do.” —former Boston GM Harry Sinden on the Penguins color change, via the Boston Globe

Sinden even ordered a sweater to be made up with the Bruins logo stitched in Red Wings colors, intending to show it to the NHL Board of Directors in an example of what he saw as a theft of identity.

In the end, the NHL shot down Sinden’s attempt to block the color swap. The Bruins had entered the league in yellow and brown sweaters when they first joined the NHL in 1924, Ziegler Jr. told Sinden, and so Boston held no claim on the black-and-gold scheme.

And so on January 30, 1980, a Penguins team led by captain Orest Kindrachuk, 30-goal scorer Rick Kehoe and future Norris Trophy winner Randy Carlyle took the ice in black and gold for the first time.

The New Jerseys were meant to usher in an era of victories for the division-leading Penguins. They did not (at least not right away.)

The Penguins lost that first black-and-gold game to the visiting Blues, 4-3, then proceeded to drop eight of their next nine contests, including six straight losses and one of the worst shutouts in franchise history (a 9-0 loss in Buffalo which earned the Sabres a standing ovation on February 7.)

From the February 7, 1980 edition of the Courier Express, archived by Buffalo State:

For awhile it looked like the magic of being from Pittsburgh, the City of Champions, had extended to its hockey team. But whatever magic it was that put the Pittsburgh Penguins atop the Norris Division a month ago has deserted them.

The newly-uniformed Penguins never did regain their place atop the Norris Division that season. It would take 11 more years for the black and gold to work its championship magic.

The team finished the 1979-80 season third in the division and, in an ending Sinden no doubt considered poetic justice, were knocked out of the preliminary round of the playoffs by none other than the “brown and yellow” Boston Bruins.

1980 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Pittsburgh Penguins Vs Boston Bruins At Boston Garden
The Bruins’ Ray Borque collides with Penguins Rock Stackhouse, Mark Johnson and Greg Millen during Game 1 of the preliminary round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in Boston on April 8, 1980. The Penguins lost the round, 3-2.
Photo by John Blanding/The Boston Globe via Getty Images