Novice hockey fans will say that professional hockey officially arrived in Pittsburgh when the Penguins drafted Mario Lemieux on June 9, 1984. While Lemieux ?s arrival certainly changed the future of Pittsburgh hockey, the reality is that professional hockey debuted in Pittsburgh nearly 70 years before Lemieux ?s arrival. In fact, since 1925 Pittsburgh has been without a professional hockey team for a combined total of only 11 years.
On January 23, 1899 the Duquesne Gardens opened near what is today the University of Pittsburgh ?s main campus. At the time, the building was a modern marvel with an ice surface measuring nearly 50 feet longer than today ?s NHL rinks. The playing surface was considered to be the best in North America because of its technologically advanced refrigeration and resurfacing systems. Word spread throughout Canada about Pittsburgh ?s state-of-the-art arena and soon many elite Canadian players came south to Pittsburgh to play in front of capacity crowds of 5,000 at Duquesne Gardens.
While the Penguins have obviously been the city ?s most successful team, they were far from the first professional team in the Steel City. The first professional team to play in Pittsburgh was the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets of the United States Amateur Hockey Association (USAHA). The Yellow Jackets were formed in 1915 and went on to win back-to-back USAHA championships in 1924 and 1925 under head coach Dick Carroll, who had previously won a Stanley Cup coaching The Toronto Arenas in 1918. The Yellow Jackets were eventually sold to attorney James F. Callahan and he changed the team’s name to the Pittsburgh Pirates — the same as Pittsburgh ?s professional baseball team.
The Pirates became the NHL’s third U.S.-based team on November 7, 1925, joining the New York Americans and the Boston Bruins. In Boston, on Thanksgiving night 1925, the Pirates defeated the Bruins 2-1 in their first NHL game. Two nights later legendary Montreal Canadiens goaltender Georges Vezina played the final game of his career against the Pirates and lost, 1-0 in Montreal.
The Pirates played their first game in Pittsburgh on December 2, 1925. That night 8,200 fans paid $1.00 to see the Pirates take on the New York Americans. Unfortunately, the Pirates lost to the Americans 2-1 in overtime. The Pirates played in Pittsburgh until 1930 when the franchise was moved across the state to Philadelphia and played one season as the Philadelphia Quakers before folding.
However, the fact that the team decided to don the city ?s black and gold color scheme would eventually prove to help the Penguins decades later. When the Penguins decided to switch to a black and gold color scheme in 1980, the Bruins argued that black and gold was a color scheme exclusive to their franchise, but the Penguins argued that the Pirates wore black and gold during their tenure in the NHL. The NHL sided with the Penguins and allowed the Penguins to change their colors from blue and white to black and gold.
Another Penguins predecessor was the Pittsburgh Hornets. In October of 1936 Pittsburgh theatre chain owner John Harris purchased the Detroit Olympics hockey club, moved the franchise to Pittsburgh, then renamed the team the Pittsburgh Hornets. The Hornets would go on to be the most successful of the Penguins ? predecessors, claiming a hat trick of Calder Cup Championships in the American Hockey League in the 1951-52, 1954-55 and 1966-67 seasons. The team also appeared in three other Calder Cup Finals.
The team had to suspend its operations after the championship in 1954-55 because its home, the Duquesne Gardens, was being demolished. The team resumed operations in the 1961-62 season when the future home of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Civic Arena, opened. Knowing that the franchise was in its last season because Pittsburgh had been awarded an NHL franchise, the Hornets went out on top, capturing its third and final championship in 1966-67.
Four players from that Championship team, Val Fonteyne, Andy Bathgate, Ab McDonald and Hank Bassen landed roster spots on the inaugural Pittsburgh Penguins ? roster, thus holding the distinction as the only four players to have played in the last game in Hornets ? history and the first game in Penguins ? history.
In a long-overdue ceremony on February 3, 2001 the Pittsburgh Penguins minor-league affiliate, The Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins, played a tribute game at the Mellon Arena against Cincinnati. The AHL Penguins wore Hornets jerseys and a banner was raised to recognize the Hornets ? three Calder Cup Championships. The banner has since mysteriously disappeared, but should be displayed somewhere in PPG Paints Arena.
Today, professional hockey in Pittsburgh is all about the Penguins. Coming off back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships and poised to win another, the Penguins will continue to add to Pittsburgh ?s rich hockey history for many years to come.