The first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions the Pittsburgh Pirates is most likely images of Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente, and a younger, less buff Barry Bonds.
However, before the Penguins were the hometown team of NHL fans in Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Pirates sailed into the confluence of the three rivers and became the first professional ice hockey team in the state of Pennsylvania.
Up until 1924, the NHL didn't even exist in the United States. The Boston Bruins became the NHL's first United States based team at the start of the 1924-25 season, and were joined by the Pirates and the New York Americans—who became the Rangers—a year later.
The following season, the Pittsburgh Pirates joined six other teams to make up the NHL. The Pirates joined the Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Maroons, Boston Bruins, New York Americans, Ottawa Senators, and Toronto St. Pats—who became the Maple Leafs—to make up the National Hockey League during the 1925-26 season.
The Pirates' history traces back to the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets of the US Amateur Hockey Association. The Yellow Jackets were bought by Attorney James F. Callahan, and subsequently renamed after the city's baseball team.
When the USAHA folded, the Pirates were granted a franchise by the National Hockey League on November 7, 1925.
During the Pirates first season they posted a 19-16-1 record, which was third best in the league. The Pirates lost in the first round of the quarter finals in the playoffs, to eventual Stanley Cup Champion Montreal Monsoons. Their inaugural season would prove to be the best of their mere five-year existence.
After a promising first season, things started to go downhill for the Pirates. They would finish above .500 only two more times in the next five seasons, and fail to advance past the first round of the playoffs both times they earned a berth.
Odie Cleghorn, the Pirates' head coach, was a bit of a trailblazer in the NHL. He was the first head coach to change players on the fly and was also the first coach to use three set forward lines. Using three set lines was a huge contrast to the "just leave your best players on the ice for as long as possible" brand of coaching that was prevalent among coaches in the early days of the NHL.
The Pirates also set an NHL record for the largest salary ever given to a single player by signing defense-man Lionel Conacher to a three-year, $7,500 deal. Players make that kind of money in one shift now-a-days.
In 1928, financial problems caused Callahan to sell the team. However, the new ownership group, headed by Bill Dwyer and Benny Leonard (formerly a lightweight boxing champion), would not be capable of saving the team.
The 1929-30 season saw the Pirates post their worst record yet: 5-36-3.
With the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed, the owners found themselves $400,000 in debt. Attendance was down and the team tried to sell its star players to relieve some of their financial stress.
However, no feasible solution could be found, so the ownership was forced to relocate the team.
The team moved to Philadelphia and became the Philadelphia Quakers. The owners had every intention of moving the team back to Pittsburgh after a new arena was constructed. However, the Quakers, staying true to Philadelphia standards, had a wretched season in 1930-31 and promptly suspended operations.
This early move from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia may very well be the origin of the bitter cross-state rivalry that exists among Pennsylvanians today.
As fate would have it, a new arena wouldn't be built in Pittsburgh until the Civic Arena (now Mellon Arena) opened in 1961 to house the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The last active Pirates player was Cliff Barton, who played his final NHL game in 1940, for the New York Rangers.
The Pirates carried four future hall-of-famers on their roster. Lionel "The Big Train" Conacher, Frank Fredrickson, Mickey MacKay, and Roy "Shrimp" Worters, all Canadian-born players, make up the Pirates' hall-of-fame inductees.
Fredrickson went on to coach the Pirates during the 1929-30 season, their final season in Pittsburgh.
So, the next time someone mentions the Pittsburgh Pirates, don't think of the cellar-dwelling baseball team, but rather, think of the forefathers of those donning the black and gold flightless bird on their jerseys in the Steel City of Pittsburgh today.
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