Pittsburgh has had a long and distinguished history in the game of hockey. The first team to play in the city was the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets. They started as an amateur club but evolved to the semi-pro level, playing in the US Amateur Hockey Association, which was founded in 1920. During their time in the USAHA the Yellow Jackets won the championship in 1924 and in 1925 with Dick Carroll at the helm. When the team's owner, former referee Roy Schooley, ran into financial trouble he sold the team to attorney James F. Callahan. Callahan renamed the team the Pirates, stealing the name from Pittsburgh's baseball team.
On November 7th, 1925 the Pirates were granted a franchise by the National Hockey League, becoming the NHL's third US-based team along with the Boston Bruins and the New York Americans. The first roster was organized by Henry Townsend, a Pittsburgh politician and president of Duquesne Gardens Co. The roster featured 10 former Yellow Jackets players including Roy Worters, Hib Milks, and Lionel Conacher, who started the Yellow Jackets when he was attending Duquesne University in the early 1920s. The Pirates home was Duquesne Gardens, a late 1800's trolley barn converted to an arena which could hold up to 5,000 spectators. The Gardens was one of the first arenas to have artificial ice-making.
Former Montreal Canadiens player Odie Cleghorn was signed on as coach. He also played in 17 of the 36 games of the Pirates first season. He was the first NHL coach to use three set forward lines. At the time most teams played their best players for as long as they could, substituting only during breaks in play. Not only did he use set lines but he also changed players on the fly. These were both very radical strategies at that time in the NHL but proved to be very effective and are common place in today's game of hockey.
The Pirates played their first game on November 26th, 1925 in Boston, taking the ice in canary yellow uniforms with black horizontal stripes and a large "P" on their jerseys. They defeated the Boston Bruins 2-1 quieting all critics who had not believed that the former amateurs wouldn't be able to adjust to the professional level. Two nights later the Pirates shut out the Montreal Candiens 1-0 in what would be goalie Georges Vezina's last appearance between the pipes. Venzina started the game with chest pain, left the game in the first intermission and died four months later of tuberculosis. On December 26, 1926 the Pirates and New York Americans set an NHL record, which still stands today, by combining for 141 shots. The Americans won the game 3-1 as New York had 73 shots and Pittsburgh had 68. Roy Worters made 70 saves for the Pirates and Jake Forbes made 67 saves for NY. The Pirates stayed around the .500 mark for the rest of the season and beat out the Boston Bruins for the final playoff spot that season, advancing to a total-goal semi-final playoff series against the Montreal Maroons. The first game was played in front of a sell out crowd at Duquesne Gardens. After a good first period the Pirates seemed tired and lost 3-1. They again lost in game two 2-0 and tied in game three 3-3 but Montreal had a 6-4 goal lead in the series, moving on and eventually taking the Stanley Cup.
With the addition of the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, and New York Rangers franchises, the Pirates were placed with them in the American Division as part of an NHL realignment. The year started poorly for the Pirates when defenseman Lionel Conacher reported two weeks late to training camp and was fined $200. They shipped the disgruntled defenseman to the New York Americans for Charlie Langlois, whose presence in the lineup had little impact. The Pirates 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 take the last playoff spot in the 1928 season but again lost in the first round, this time to the New York Rangers in what was to be the Pirates last playoff appearance.
The Pirates were bought by a new group of owners led by former boxing champion Benny Leonard before the 1928-29 season. Leonard immediately got into contract squabbles with his top players including goalie Roy Worters who was traded to the New York Americans for unspectacular goalie Joe Miller. The problems didn't end off the ice, but spread onto it. The Pirates won only nine games in the regular season 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 February.
For their fifth and final season the Pirates were made up of veterans and untested youngsters. Coach Odie Cleghorn left the club to be a referee, and was replaced by Frank Fredrickson, who had made his reputation as a player in western Canada and the 1920 Olympics. Fredrickson became player/coach, scoring nine goals but was sidelined, like many of the Pirates players, with an injury. By the end of the season the Pirates had only managed 13 points. The team drew thin crowds at home and on the road and it seemed that the city would lose its NHL franchise to Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago or even Atlantic City. Leonard expressed a desire to keep the team in Pittsburgh but only if a new arena was built. A new complex was planned but Leonard grew impatient and moved the team to Philadelphia, renaming them the Quakers. They proved to be even more inept than the Pirates, however, in their one season existence 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 disbanded in 1936. The Pittsburgh Pirates club became only a memory.