Pittsburgh Pirates Hockey program from the 1920s. (See full image below)

The original black and gold

Long before Lemieux and Crosby, a different hockey team played in this city, and its history helped shape the Penguins as we know them, and see them, today.

By Stephen J. Nesbitt



It was his interest in extinct hockey that brought John Hodgman to Pittsburgh in May. Hodgman, the American humorist and wise guy, came in search of remnants of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a forgotten NHL team that roamed Duquesne Gardens a little more than four scores ago.

Hodgman’s trip to Pittsburgh, documented in an episode of the podcast “Surprisingly Awesome,” also took him to Consol Energy Center, where he watched Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Penguins. It was Hodgman’s first time at a hockey game. He walked away believing both extinct and extant hockey are, indeed, surprisingly awesome.

Pittsburgh Pirates Hockey program from the 1920s.

Concerned he had cursed the Penguins by donning a Hartford Whalers cap in the waning moments of their overtime loss, however, Hodgman decided hockey’s past is for him; its present is not.

“I should just stick with extinct sports,” he concluded, “because I can just enjoy them without having to worry about the outcome, because it all happened a long time ago. Extinct hockey is like reading a tragedy, or watching a sad movie. But watching non-extinct hockey, it’s like living that tragedy.”

The story of the short-lived Pirates hockey franchise, which lasted from 1925 to 1930, has all the makings of a tragedy. It began with pluck and promise and a small headline on the seventh page of the Pittsburgh Gazette Times’ sports section Nov. 8, 1925: “Pittsburgh Admitted to Sports Loop.” It ended with persistent money problems, with nearly twice as many losses as wins, and with a relocation to Philadelphia in the throes of the Great Depression.

In many ways, though, the Pirates were a building block for Pittsburgh’s promising hockey franchise, the reigning Stanley Cup champion Penguins. For that reason, Hodgman and co-host Rachel Ward were disappointed to discover very little in the way of Pirates memorabilia on their visit to the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at Heinz History Center. Anne Madarasz, the museum’s director, told them not much has survived from that team. She seemed to recall one local collector who had a Pirates jersey and stowed it away in his man-cave. Hodgman bristled at the notion of another extinct hockey enthusiast hoarding Pirates booty, and issued this declaration:

“To the anonymous hoarder of Pittsburgh Pirates booty, this is John Hodgman, an extinct hockey fan just like you and an advocate on behalf of the city of Pittsburgh,” he said. “Let people see their hockey history. To quote Indiana Jones, that belongs in a museum.”

Colors on the comeback

The scuttlebutt that swirled the Civic Arena press box before the Penguins’ 5-3 victory against the Montreal Canadiens Jan. 3, 1980, was squashed by Pittsburgh Press writer Bob Black. His story in the next day’s newspaper began: “There is no truth to the rumor the Penguins will change to black and gold uniforms. And last night they proved the uniforms and their color are less important than the men inside them.”

He was wrong. On Jan. 10, Penguins vice president Paul Martha confirmed the color change. The Pirates had won the World Series three months earlier. The Steelers were 10 days away from another Super Bowl. “Black and gold has become Pittsburgh,” Martha said. “And the Penguins are Pittsburgh.” Martha said the black-and-yellow Boston Bruins had not objected — “not vehemently anyway.”

“Black and gold has become Pittsburgh, and the Penguins are Pittsburgh”

He too was wrong. The Bruins protested formally to the NHL contending their rights to the colors had been infringed upon. Martha’s trump card? The 1920s Pirates, who had worn black and yellow to match to city’s official flag. The Bruins, in fact, were brown and yellow until 1939. NHL commissioner John Ziegler ruled in favor of Pittsburgh.

“If it were not for the hockey Pirates, [the Penguins] would be blue and white,” Hodgman remarked. “Which is an appropriate color for penguins. But not for Pittsburgh.”

The Penguins, the Bruins and their cities’ columnists lobbed insults back and forth. Tension ratcheted when the Bruins learned the Penguins planned to debut their new uniforms Jan. 26 against the Bruins. The Penguins handed out “Love Ya Black and Gold” signs before the game, but the jerseys — which had been ordered through a Boston pro shop at Boston Garden — hadn’t arrived yet. On Jan. 27, before the Boston portion of a home-and-home series, Black wrote: “If he were to be involved in an election with Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini here, Ziegler might lose.”

Three days later, at home against St. Louis, the Penguins dressed in black and yellow.

“It’s a great Pittsburgh story,” Madarasz said. “Eventually, all these Pittsburgh professional teams come to identify with the colors that are in the city flag. That all three professional teams here wear the city colors as their identifier gives you a sense of that intersection between sport and identity and definition of community. It all goes back to these early Pirates teams.”

Canadian connection

When NHL officials and owners met at the Windsor Hotel in Montreal Nov. 7 and 8, 1925, there was one final hurdle in Pittsburgh’s request for inclusion. The Ottawa Senators had objected that Pittsburgh’s organization wouldn’t be strong enough, since it was primarily leftovers from the amateur Pittsburgh Yellowjackets. After a day of talks, Ottawa withdrew its objection.

The primary reason the Pirates got off the ground, Madarasz said, was this Canadian connection the franchise built. They hired Montreal native Odie Cleghorn, a 1924 Stanley Cup champion, to coach and play for the Pirates. He would introduce the idea of line changes to the league. They also were led by future Hall of Famers, both from Canada, goaltender Roy Worters and captain Lionel Conacher, who scored the franchise’s first goal on Nov. 26, 1925, Thanksgiving Day, against the Bruins.

At the Western Pennsylvania. Sports Museum is a silver medal from the 1924 Olympics that belongs to Herb Drury, a Canadian who gained citizenship in the United States. He saw the whole arc of Pittsburgh’s early hockey story, playing for the Yellowjackets, the Pirates and the Philadelphia Quakers. After hanging up his skates, Drury returned to Pittsburgh and worked as a steamfitter.

In the decades since, Pittsburgh hockey has been headlined by Canadians, from the days of Jean Pronovost to Paul Coffey to Ron Francis to Mario Lemieux to Sidney Crosby.

“This Canadian connection, really that’s what got the Pirates and the Penguins on the map,” Madarasz said. “… This sense of talent from our northern neighbor that come here and really interest people in the sport in a new way.”

And so the Pirates’ story may have been a tragedy, but its impact today is far from extinct.  

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