The NHL's 2011 Winter Classic will be played in Pittsburgh on January 1. The Steel City is a very appropriate setting for such a game, given the important place that it holds in the history of hockey, particularly professional hockey. This history goes back further than the Penguins' first season in 1967-68. It goes back further than the AHL's Pittsburgh Hornets, winners of the Calder Cup in 1952, 1955 and 1967. It goes back further even than the NHL's Pittsburgh Pirates, who played from 1925-26 to 1929-30, or the Pittsburgh Yellowjackets that preceded them in the United States Amateur Hockey Association. We're already back to the early 1920's, but we have to go back another 20 years before we can see the true importance of the city to the game of hockey.
Pittsburgh's Duquesne Gardens was one of the first artificial ice rinks in the world when it opened in 1896. Hockey matches were played at the time, and the city became hockey mad. Soon enough, the Western Pennsylvania Hockey League (WPHL) opened in 1901-02, featuring three Pittsburgh teams stocked almost entirely with Canadian players. At the time, Canadian senior hockey was a strictly amateur affair, which meant of course that if you were going to pay a player, you had to hide it well. The Ontario Hockey Association (OHA) in particular treated even the slightest of infractions with draconian measures, depriving players of the ability to play senior hockey in Canada. Some of these players found their way to the WPHL, over which the Canadian hockey associations had no influence. No one would admit to being paid, but why else would Alf Smith, eldest of the three legendary Smith brothers and one of the greatest turn-of-the-century players, find himself in Pittsburgh of all places, playing against other Canadians like Lorne Campbell and Bert Morrison? The sheer number of quality hockey players lured south suggests that while they might not have been overtly paying players, they were likely at least engaging in "shamateurism", for example by arranging lucrative jobs in the city for the players or simply paying them under the table.
Soon enough, though, they were found out. Harry Peel, formerly of the OHA and who played for the Pittsburgh Keystones in 1901-02, openly admitted that he had been paid to play hockey in Pittsburgh. The OHA suspended him indefinitely and professionalized anyone who had played with him or against him in the WPHL. Rather than cow to the OHA and beg forgiveness, however, the league and its players simply decided that getting paid to play hockey was not such a bad thing, and the league became fully and openly professional beginning with the 1902-03 season. The WPHL was the first openly pro hockey league, an honor that is usually attributed to the International Hockey League (IHL), a league which the WPHL would have a great effect on shortly. As friend and colleague Ernie Fitzsimmons stated, Pittsburgh is the cradle of professional hockey.
The success of the WPHL and the state-of-the-art Duquesne Gardens led to the creation of the IHL in 1904. Existing professional teams such as the renowned Houghton Portage Lakes and both the Michigan and Ontario editions of Sault Ste. Marie, which had previously only played exhibition games without a regular schedule, banded together with the best Pittsburgh had to offer to create the first intercity professional hockey league. This new league had plenty to offer top flight hockey players, such as handsome salaries and a high level of competition. Many future Hall of Famers would play in this league, including Cyclone Taylor, Jimmy Gardner, Didier Pitre, Jack Laviolette, and brothers Bruce and Hod Stuart.
Just how good was the quality of these leagues? We can make a rough estimate by comparing the goal scoring totals of players (adjusting for the scoring environment of each league) who played in both the IHL and the Eastern Canada Hockey Association (ECHA), which was the top Canadian league at the time and the destination of many of the US league's best players when it ceased operations in 1907, including the above-noted Hall of Famers. With this simple league equivalency calculation, we can estimate the IHL was about 90% of the quality of the ECHA, making it nearly equal to the Canadian circuit. Although few players moved directly to or from the WPHL from a Canadian league, many moved to or from the IHL. In this way, we find the WPHL and IHL were very nearly equal in quality to each other, meaning the WPHL was also about 90% of the quality of the ECHA.
This high level of competition is borne out by the results of the World Series professional championship played between the Pittsburgh Bankers (champions of the WPHL) and Stanley Cup holders Montreal Wanderers in March of 1908. The mighty Wanderers (featuring four future Hall of Famers in Moose Johnson, Ernie Russell, Art Ross and Riley Hern among their starting seven) posted an 8-2 record in the ECHA, then defeated the champions of the Manitoba league and OPHL to defend the Stanley Cup (winning all five Cup matches by a combined score of 47-16) before taking on the Bankers. Against this juggernaut, one would think the Bankers would do well to keep the games close. Pittsburgh did not only that, they actually won one of the three matches, losing by a combined score of only 11 goals to 16.
At the time of the IHL's operation, many Canadian senior hockeyists were in fact paid professionals, but this reality was disguised by the teams and the players because the game was ostensibly under the umbrella of amateur sport. The emergence of the IHL, however, created very real competition for the services of top flight players, and the US-based league was populated almost entirely by Canadians. Northern hockey moguls realized that in order to keep their talent from crossing the border, full and open professionalism would be required, allowing them to pay competitive salaries. Within a short time, not only did the Manitoba Hockey League and the ECAHA allow professional players in their ranks, but entirely new leagues (such as the Ontario Professional Hockey League) sprang up to take advantage of the new pro hockey environment. Now able to play professionally in their homeland, many IHL players left the US. This loss of quality hockeyists forced the IHL to fold after its third year of operation. Although this allowed the WPHL to revive for a few more seasons, ultimately the focus of high-level hockey shifted back squarely to Canada, where it would remain for some time. But without the WPHL and IHL, professionalism in Canadian hockey would not have arrived when it did.
Events in history often have a butterfly effect, with even the smallest ripple expanding over time to create great change. The WPHL led directly to the IHL, and the IHL led directly to the professionalization of hockey in Canada. Open professionalism in the game's home country had a very significant impact on the ECAHA, which soon became the ECHA, then the NHA and ultimately the NHL. If it were not for Pittsburgh and the first pro hockey league that called that city its home, who knows how different the path of hockey in Canada would have been. When you watch the Winter Classic this year, try to remember the vital role that the city of Pittsburgh played in the development of major league hockey, before there was even an NHL, nearly 110 years ago.