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Relocated NHL Teams: The Pittsburgh Pirates

Between 1925 and 1930 the NHL had a team known as the Pittsburgh Pirates, one of at least four major sports teams to use that very name since the turn of the 20th century. The team was named after the baseball team by the same name and which still exists today. The franchise can be traced back to the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets, a team that played in the US Amateur Hockey Association. After the Yellow Jackets folded in 1925 due to financial problems, they were sold to James Callahan who had been grant an NHL expansion franchise for Pittsburgh. The franchise was only the NHL’s third American team after the Boston Bruins and the New York Americans. The team was based at the Duquesne Arena, an old trolley barn in the Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood that was redesigned into a sports Arena. As is tradition with all major Pittsburgh teams, the Pirates wore a black and gold strip. The Pirates started that tradition and were in fact regularly referred to as the “Black and Gold” in the press.

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The Pirates’ return on ice was no where near impressive. They only managed two playoff appearances during their five seasons in Pittsburgh and never advanced past the first round. They began their competitive life well with their first of two playoff appearances coming during their first season. In the playoffs the Pirates were eliminated by eventual Staley Cup winners Montreal Maroons. In only their second game, George Vezina, a legendary goaltender started the game with severe chest pains and was substituted after developing a high fever. Vezina would never return to action again as he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and died four months later.

During their second season, they missed the playoffs but would make a blip on history in the course of the season by being part of a game that yielded the highest ever shorts in a singe game. In a 3-1 loss to the New York Americans, the two teams combined for 141 shots with the Pirates contributing 68 of these. Goalie Roy Worters’ 70 saves during the game is also a record that stands to date. A third place finish in 1927/28 with a 19-17-8 record saw them return to the playoffs. However they were downed by the New York Rangers 4-2 over two games. They would not return to the playoffs again as they dropped to fourth and then last during their final two seasons.

Despite their lean success on ice, the team is credited with pioneering first line changes. With team rosters considerably smaller than they customarily are today, teams would keep the same players in play for as long as possible. Under player-coach Odie Cleghorn, Pittsburgh made regular line changes and relied heavily on reserve players. This strategy helped to keep players fresh and the results were evident as the Pirates had seven players score at least seven goals (none of the other league teams had more than five players achieve that milestone) in 1925/26 and the team making the playoffs.

Why were the Pittsburgh Pirates Relocated?

The Pirates’ financial struggles began early, with the outdated Duquesne Gardens being the main culprit. The stadium could only seat 5,000 fans, significantly below league average. Forced to sell some star players including Lionel Conacher in order to raise cash, the team’s performance deteriorated and complicated their financial situation further. The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression ravaged the NHL and the Pirates were not spared. The team owners, who relied heavily on the devastated steel industry were $400,000 in debt and could not financially support the team much longer. Bill Leonard, who had acquired the team in 1928 alongside Bill Dwyer, put in a request with the NBA to be allowed to relocate the team. His request was granted on October 18, 1930 and the team was moved to Philadelphia and renamed the “Philadelphia Quakers.” The relocation had actually been mooted as a temporary measure to help the team weather the storm of the Great Depression after which the team would return to a new arena in Pittsburgh. However they continued struggling in Philadelphia and folded barely a year later. The NHL would return to Pittsburgh in 1967 when the city was granted an expansion franchise which became the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Pittsburgh Pirates Notable Players

Lionel Conacher D 1925-1927

Roy Worters G 1925-1928

Frank Fredrickson C 1928-1930

Mickey MacKay C 1928/29

Duke McCurry LW 1925-1929

Herb Drury D 1925-1930

Hib Milks C 1925-1930

Rodger Smith 1925-1930

Johnny McKinnon D 1926-1930

Tex White RW 1925-1928, 1928-1930

Rodger Smith D 1925-1930

Baldy Cotton LW 1925-1929

Gerry Lowrey LW 1928-1930

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