Pittsburgh’s First NHL Team: The Pirates

By Greg Enright

When the Pittsburgh Penguins entered the NHL in 1967, it marked the return rather than the birth of big league hockey in the Steel City.

Forty-two years earlier, in 1925, the Pittsburgh Pirates joined the NHL as part of the league’s first expansion wave from Canada into the U.S. During this era, professional sports were becoming extremely popular across America, largely due to heroes such as baseball’s Babe Ruth and boxing’s Jack Dempsey.

The NHL hoped to cash in on this growing interest and began to seek out American investors. In some cities, such as Detroit, Boston, New York and Chicago, the experiment succeeded. Boston entered the league in 1924 and the other three cities fielded teams two years later. All remain in the league to this day.

The Pirates were not nearly as successful, eventually falling on hard times both on and of the ice. Their short rollercoaster ride, however, is one of the most colorful tales to emerge from this early era of NHL history.

The first Pirates’ roster was comprised mainly of players from a Pittsburgh amateur club called the Yellow Jackets that had disbanded at the end of the 1924-25 season. Among the players were Hib Milks, Duke McCurry and Harold Darragh, all swift-skating forwards. Milks would emerge as the leading scorer.

Roger Smith, a rangy defenseman, supplied size and strength, but the anchor of the defense was Lionel Conacher, arguably the finest athlete Canada has ever produced. It was Conacher, nicknamed "The Big Train", who formed the Yellow Jackets while a student at Duquesne University in the early 1920s. [Editor's Note: According to Pittsburgh sportswriter Bob Grove, the Yellow Jackets were in existence before Conacher came to Pittsburgh.] He had already established himself as a premier football and lacrosse player in Canada before coming to Pittsburgh.

In addition, he was a standout in boxing, soccer and baseball. While hockey was not his best sport, he had sufficient talent to become a member of the Pirates in their first season and went on to play 12 NHL campaigns.

In net was Roy "Shrimp" Worters. At 5’-3" and 135 pounds, he was one of the smallest pro players to ever lace up a pair of skates. Worters made up for his lack of size with great agility and quick reflexes, and he would quickly emerge as the Pirates’ most valuable player.

Odie Cleghorn was signed as the coach. A former player with the Montreal Canadiens, he also appeared in 17 of the club’s 36 games that season.

The Pirates, sporting canary yellow uniforms with black horizontal stripes and a large "P" on their jerseys, played at Duquesne Gardens, a converted streetcar barn that had served as home to the Yellow Jackets.

Little was expected from Pittsburgh’s new team for its inaugural season in 1925-26. Most observers felt that a team of former amateurs would have trouble adjusting to the pro game. The consensus was that the Pirates would do well to escape last place.

They quickly began to prove their critics wrong, however. Cleghorn realized that his squad did not possess talented scorers or a rock-solid defense, but he knew it was fast. He devised game plans to maximize the speed of his players, thus turning them into a competitive club. Relying on furious backchecking and darting rushes into the offensive zone, the Pirates beat Boston 2-1 in their inaugural game.

During the season, Cleghorn began using two sets of forwards instead of just one line. During the mid-20s, teams usually relied on six players for an entire game, substituting only occasionally when play was stopped. Cleghorn not only used two lines, but he changed them while the game continued. While a common practice today, this strategy was quite radical in 1925 and it proved to be effective.

As the Montreal Gazette reported, "These youthful Pirates are a young lot of speed demons and they simply dashed over the ice in dizzying fashion."

Although the Pirates would eventually fall on hard times during their stay in the NHL, the multi-line system quickened the pace of the game and became their most important contribution.

The Bucs hovered around the .500 mark for most of the season, becoming involved in a battle with Boston for the third and final playoff spot. In their last eight regular season games, they went 7-1 and advanced to a two-game, total-goal semi-final playoff series against the Montreal Maroons.

Playing before a packed house at Duquesne Gardens in Game One, the Pirates emerged with a 1-0 lead after the first period, but appeared tired the rest of the way and lost 3-1. In Game Two, they quickly fell behind and lost 2-0, giving the Maroons a 5-1 edge in goals. The game ended in a 3-3 tie, but Montreal won the round with its 6-4 goal advantage and eventually claimed the Stanley Cup.

With the addition of the Chicago, Detroit and New York franchises, the Pirates were placed with them in the American Division as part of an NHL realignment. The year started badly for the Bucs when Conacher reported two weeks late to training camp and was fined $200.

On December 16, 1926, they shipped the disgruntled defenseman to the New York Americans for Charlie Langlois, whose presence in the lineup had little impact. The Bucs never recovered from the loss of Conacher and finished in fourth place, eight points out of the playoffs.

After a disastrous 11-game losing streak to start their third NHL season, Cleghorn made a series of trades designed to bolster the club’s attack. The revamped lineup, which included the addition of an aggressive winger named Bert McCaffrey, worked well and the club climbed back into playoff contention.

The Pirates held off Detroit to gain the final playoff spot, qualifying for post-season play against the New York Rangers. Again, the semi-final round was a two-game, total-goal series. Due to a lack of interest in Pittsburgh, both games were scheduled for the Big Apple.

The series was decided in the opening period of Game One when the Rangers scored three unanswered goals. The Bucs lost the round 6-4, in what would be their final playoff appearance.

A new group of owners led by former boxing champion Benny Leonard was in place for the start of the 1928-29 season. Leonard had lost none of the feistiness he had displayed in the ring and immediately got into contract squabbles with his top players, including goaltender Worters. "Shrimp" was soon traded to the New York Americans for Joe Miller, a competent but unspectacular goalie.

The troubles off the ice were nothing compared to those on it as the Bucs won just nine games in the regular season. The Pirates failed to score more than three goals in any game and were shut out an incredible 18 times. They were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs by Feb. 18.

The outlook for their fifth and final season was bleak. A group comprised largely of average veterans and unproven youngsters, Pittsburgh lacked a superstar a Howie Morenz or a Frank Boucher. Not even a switch to black and orange uniforms could help this collection of kids and castoffs.

Cleghorn left the organization to become a referee and was replaced by Frank Fredrickson, who had made his reputation as a player in Western Canada and the 1920 Olympics. Fredrickson, who became player/coach of the Pirates, scored nine goals in the team’s first three games, but like so many Pittsburgh players that season, was sidelined by an injury, one which would eventually end his playing career. He remained in the game as a coach and was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958. By the end of the 1929-30 season, however, his Pirates had managed only 13 points.

The team drew sparse crowds both at home and on the road, and it seemed certain that the city would lose its NHL franchise to Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago or even Atlantic City. Leonard expressed an interest in keeping the team in Pittsburgh, provided a new arena was built. Duquesne Gardens, which lasted until the late 1950s, was then described as "antiquated, with no facilities whatsoever for caring for crowds."

A new complex was planned, but Leonard grew impatient and moved the club to Philadelphia. Renamed the Quakers, they proved to be more inept than the Pirates, finishing their lone NHL campaign with just 12 points.

Leonard had lost $100,000 with his hockey investment, and with the Great Depression setting in, the team’s financial picture became even worse. The Quaker franchise was shelved for the 1931-32 campaign, with the players being distributed to the league’s other clubs. Despite efforts over the next few years to revive it, potentially back in Pittsburgh, the team never took to the ice again, being formally dissolved in 1936. The franchise that began as the Pittsburgh Pirates had become only a memory.

Greg Enright is a writer and journalist in Toronto.