Believe It Or Not, Pittsburgh Professional Hockey History Predates Even The Montreal Canadiens

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The first Piitsburgh Penguins team, 1967-68

When Canadian hockey fans are prone to consider the roots of U.S. hockey history and its origins, thoughts quite normally stop and land on the American teams of the NHL's inappropriately nicknamed Original Six.

For many, the cities of New York, Boston, Detroit and Chicago is where it all began in the states, and while there is some truth to that notion, many fans would be astounded to learn that the professional game of hockey began, not in Canada, but more specifically in the area of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the early 1900's.

To fans and supporters of the game in Canada, long quite boastful and chauvinistic in their aggressive patriotism in claims of superiority and ownership of the sport, such news would be a confounding curveball to their reality.

If you were told that pro hockey in Pittsburgh kicked in around 1904, a full five years ahead of the creation of the hundred year old Montreal Canadiens, would you believe it?

Canada may have bred the game into what it is today, but back in the early 1900's, Americans first caught the hockey fever and their zealousness for the game turned it pro a good few seasons before Eastern Canada followed suit.

Had those events not happened as they had, pushing the pro game forth, Montreal Canadiens fans may consider that their team may not exist in the manner it does today.

At the turn of 20th century, when the game of hockey was spreading like wildfire across Canada, the concept of amateurism reigned supreme in newly built arenas across the land. It was a different time. An athlete played a game, and it was felt that his honour should not be tainted by the stains of monetary renumeration. Professionalism was greatly frowned upon, especially by OHL founder John Ross Robertson, who promised to ban all the dirty "professionals" who sought pay for their employ.

Several leagues and teams in Canada had been accused of paying players under the table to perform for years, and with popular opinion for a time firmly behind Robertson's stand, leagues in the country suffered in maintaining a certain level of talent.

Soon, the demands of the paying customer, the pride of the players, and the requirements of ownership would all converge, and follow the game of baseball into the ranks of professionalism.

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The Schenley Casino Rink, 1895, burned to the ground 19 months after opening

In the case of pro hockey, it all began because of a gentleman named Jack Gibson, a dentist, and hockey player with an entrepreneurial spirit. Canadian by birth, Gibson missed competitive hockey greatly, and in that, saw a window of opportunity present itself in the early 1900's.

For hockey origins in the city of Pittsburgh itself, the love affair goes back even further, with a deep and rich history traceable back to 1893 when the father of hockey in the city, James Conant sought to place the game inside the Schenley Park Casino. Conant continued his association with the game after Casino burned to the ground and later formed the Pittsburgh Hockey League in 1900.

The birth of the Western Pennsylvania Hockey League, founded in 1901 by James R. Dee of Houghton, Pennsylvania in order to fulfill the entertainment bill at the spacious 5,000 seat Duquesne Arena in Pittsburgh, was the first of many steps that brought forth the professional game in the region. The Arena, first built in 1890 as a trolley barn, initially put on boxing events, rodeos and circuses for entertainment. An artificial rink, the first of its kind in the U.S., was added five years later in order to host ice shows. By 1901, hockey moved in, slow but sure.

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The Duquesne Arena, early 1900's and in 1956, Alex Liffiton, Pittsburgh HC 1907

The WPHL contained five teams upon its inception, playing from cities such as Pittsburgh, Portage Lakes, Calumet and Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Ontario. The league existed in various formations for eight season, and between those years include Pittsburgh named teams such as the Bankers, Keystones, Victorias, PAC, Lyceum, Duquesnes and Pirates.

In 1903, with the mining industry in the northern Michigan region experiencing a boom, the inevitable population and dollars followed. That year, Doc Gibson's professional Houghton hockey club were left without a league to play in, and along with Dee, began negotiations with the WPHL to form an even larger circuit, this one to be declared from far and wide as openly professional.

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Three Pirates; Tex White, Roy Worters, Rodger Smith

The game was still in its final stages of infancy back then, and attitudes concerning professionalism had been rapidly changing. With charges of players and teams in whole having been banned by the OHL in competing against other teams, a dearth of players, both tainted professionals and amateurs wanted in the new league. Cities and clubs from Montreal to Milwaukee applied for standing in the new rung, and several were turned away.

Nearing the end of 1904, after the Houghton clubs had played a series of exhibitions against varying WPHL teams, the new league was finally inaugurated. Named the International Professional Hockey League, the circuit lured the best players from Eastern Canadian ranks. Teams of the IPHL were located in westen Pennsylvania and northern Michigan state and included the Pittsburgh Pro HC, the Calumet Miners, Houghton - Portage Lakes, the Michigan Soo Indians and their northern counterparts, the Canadian Soo Algonquins.

The league was created with a shared revenue policy in mind, an idea not all that far ahead of its time, and initially players were awarded contracts in the $15 to $30 per week range. Several star players, sacrifing their amateur status in Canada, needed more to entice them. Ottawa`s Hod Stuart tore south, upon being offered $1,800 to manage the rink and play for the Calumet Miners. Legend has it that Cyclone Taylor, hockey`s first superstar commanded a $3,000 salary.

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Hib Milks of the Philadelphia Quakers, 1931; a younf Tim Horton, with the AHL Hornets, Parker McDonald

The IPHL was a trailblazer in many fashions, awarding assists to players a full ten years before the National Hockey Association considered the idea. Sixteen future Hockey Hall of Famers cut their teeth in the IPHL including hockey great Cyclone Taylor and future Montreal Canadien immortals Jack Laviolette, Didier Pitre and Newsy Lalonde. The IPHL lasted until the end of 1907, when Canadian leagues began repatriating their players with under the table lures. 

The creation of the Ontario Professional Hockey League, essentially to suit the Toronto Professionals Hockey Club, spelled doom for the IPHL. The Toronto Pros had played a series of exhibitions against IPHL clubs and when the games turned into money making ventures north of the border, it was realized that the time had come for the professional game in Canada. In Quebec and Eastern Ontario, the Federal Amateur Hockey League and the Eastern Canada Hockey Association were also beginning the semi-illicit habit of paying players, further weakening the Pennsylvania link.

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Artifacts from the 1923-24 Yellowjackets national championship

A mere two seasons after the OPHL's beginnings, pro hockey in the province of Quebec gained prominance. It was November of 1909, and the time of the Montreal Canadiens unveiling, created to soothe the demand for an all french club in a rival hockey league.

The enthusiasm for hockey in Penn State could not be quelled however, and inner city leagues and amateur circuits continued on. The formation of the USAHA (United States Amateur Hockey Association) in 1915 gave birth to the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets, who would later win the National Championship in 1923. The team folded with the league one year later, and James Callahan, a Pittsburgh lawyer, purchased the club.

The National Hockey League meanwhile had grown from four to six teams with the additions of the Boston Bruins and Montreal Maroons in 1924-25. They continued in that manner in 1925-26, moving the Hamilton Tigers into Madison Square Garden and renaming them the New York Americans. A second U.S. expansion team was added, Callahan`s newly named Pittsburgh Pirates.

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Coach Odie Cleghorn and player Leonard; the first Hornets team in 1936

The Pirates were never an NHL powerhouse. During their brief five year NHL existence, the team coached by former Canadiens star Odie Cleghorn went from a 19 win peak in 1926 to a 5 win nadir in 1930. With the stock market crash of 1929, the club found itself $400,000 dollars in debt and the Duquesne Arena in a state of disrepair. The owners transferred the team cross state and to become the Philadelphia Quakers for one season, before finally shutting down operations in 1931.

The Great Depression did not simply stall professional hockey in Pittsburgh. By 1942, it had wiped the NHL from a ten team league back down to a six circuit. Promises and hopes to build a new arena in Pittsburgh during this interim never materialized, and the NHL revoked the franchise priveledges left dormant until then.   

For the time being, Pittsburgh hockey interests were picked up and carried by several college and high school teams, as well as by the Pittsburgh Shamrocks (IHL 1935-36) and the Hornets (AHL 1936-1956).

The Hornets first era ended with the demolition of the Duquesne in 1956, but the club returned in 1961 as a farm club for the Detroit Red Wings in the newly built Pittsburgh Civic Arena, known today as the Mellon Arena.

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The final Hornets team; the building of the Pittsburgh Civic Arena

Things ended on a high for the Hornets as they won their second Calder Cup in 1967, just months after being awarded a second shot at an NHL franchise with the Penguins.

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Penguins Les Binkley, Michel Briere and Andy Bathgate

Pittsburgh hockey tradition is not at all a deeply kept secret to locals of the region. It has been greatly celebrated through the years and fans of the game would be more enriched to become better aquainted with it.

It is a commonly heard but terribly false phrase that "Americans don't know hockey." While the general assumption may hold true for the odd beach bum taking in some rays on a Florida beach, it is far from a sensible broad statement.

Next time you catch yourself or someone else about to utter it, hold your breath, and think of this article and Pittsburgh hockey history going so far back in time, and being in fact, part of the game's origins itself. 

I've learned a great deal in the five years running this site, and if there is a simple thing that remains true, it's that the more you learn about hockey, the more you realize you do not know. I wish that attitude were contagious.

For some great reads on the net, four Wiki links helped with researching this page, and they are the WPHL page, OPHL page, IPHL page and the Duquesne Gardens page. The mother of all Pittsburgh hockey history sites however is Pittsburgh Hockey.net, a virtual museum and historical shrine that speaks of Penn state and the steel city`s love of the game. 

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