Updated: 1:30 p.m.
The playoff beards had barely surpassed the five-o’clock-shadow stage when the Pittsburgh Penguins found themselves bounced from contention in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. As far as end-of-season elegies go, this year’s was very brief.
But all may not be lost.
Because Pittsburgh has something that few other teams in the NHL can claim — a role in the birth of professional hockey as we now know it.
What started here as an upstart, fast-paced, and particularly violent sporting spectacle would go on to become one that’s worth big money and beloved around the world.
It began here with the Western Pennsylvania Hockey League and teams like the Pittsburgh Bankers. And it started with Arthur Sixsmith, a Candian hockey player and businessman who came to Pittsburgh to play for one of the region’s fledgling teams and who helped cement the city’s hockey legacy in the process.
So if watching the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues duke it out for the Cup this year isn’t sitting well with you, join us for a trip down memory lane. It’s not like the Penguins are on anyway.
First in the world
Arthur Sixsmith is buried in Homewood Cemetery in an unmarked grave. The lack of acknowledgment is unusual, especially given Sixsmith’s bio.
He was a well-known hockey player in Canada by the age of 20 and won two Canadian-American hockey league titles during his time with the amateur Ottawa City Hockey League, this according to Homewood Cemetery’s director of programming, Jennie Benford.
Besides having a particularly impressive last name, Sixsmith was considered one of the best shots in the sport, per Anne Madarasz, director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at Heinz History Center.
In 1901, Sixsmith married and swung through Pittsburgh while traveling stateside on his honeymoon.
At the time, there were several promising hockey teams in Pittsburgh playing well-attended games in the Duquesne Gardens arena in Oakland.
After meeting Duquesne Gardens owner Arthur McSwigan, the Sixsmiths decided to stay in Pittsburgh, and the two Arthurs went on to found the Western Pennsylvania Hockey League (WPHL) in 1901-1902. It was, and is, considered the first professional hockey league in the world.
Banking by day, hockey by night
Sixsmith started as a player with the WPHL and recruited other Canadian players, including his brother Garnet, to join him in Pittsburgh, then the 10th largest city in America. The WPHL is considered the first professional hockey league because it was the first to openly hire and pay players. And that may be a story of its own.
The Pittsburgh Bankers team, for example, was named for the wealthy financiers who started the franchise with local men employed at their banks. It began as its own amateur league before becoming part of the WPHL.
Now, if you’re wondering why banks and bankers were so closely associated with early hockey here, you’re not alone. In truth, it was mostly a promotional stunt.
If you’re also wondering how these banks just happened to have a white-collar workforce this gifted at ice hockey, the answer is they didn’t. It wasn’t a coincidence.
According to Paul Sullivan, who covered hockey for the former Pittsburgh Gazette-Times, “Some of the banks … brought Canadians down and gave them jobs in the banks. They were down here to play hockey but in order to qualify and play for the bank they had to be an employee of the bank. I don’t know what they gave them to do at the bank, but it wasn’t much.”
Canadians, meanwhile, scoffed at the concept of professional hockey and the act of paying players, John Schalcosky of Odd Pittsburgh reports. Citing Pittsburgh Press articles from 1902, Schalcosky says players who received money to play in the states — as much as $40 a week in some cases — were threatened with suspension from amateur leagues up north. Amateur teams in Canada were also barred from competing against clubs in Pittsburgh — then spelled Pittsburg.
Ethical considerations aside, players like Sixsmith flourished.
While playing with the WPHL, Sixsmith became a prized player and manager with several Pittsburgh hockey teams, including the Keystones, the Professionals, the Victorias, and, perhaps most notably, the Bankers, the former Pittsburgh Press reported.
The teams — and league itself — had more trouble.
By 1904, the WPHL suspended operations and consolidated its teams into one outfit, the Pittsburgh Professionals — arguably the dullest name in the history of sports — which played in the International Professional Hockey League, a misnomered collection of teams from the central and eastern United States, Madarasz explained.
The WPHL was revived in 1907 but ultimately folded a year later.
As for the style of hockey it helped cultivate here …
Early news coverage of the WPHL and that era of hockey often noted the game’s level of violence, Madarasz said.
“For example, they remark that one game was ‘a clean game’ on this date or ‘here’s a game where there were major penalties and rough-housing,'” she explained.
On Dec. 29, 1906, it all came to a head during a Pittsburgh Professionals game in Michigan that devolved into what Madarasz describes as “a mini-riot.”
Citing a newspaper article that followed, Madarasz said of the piece, “It talked about the players having to fight their way off the ice and the crowd jumping on the ice and the players having to fight their way to the locker room.”
Madarasz continued: “Police cleared the ice and then the players had to fight their way to the hotel. There were 23 penalties for the Pittsburgh team alone in that game.”
While violence wasn’t necessarily a feature of the game then, it also wasn’t a quirk.
Adam Gopnik, a writer for The New Yorker, has hypothesized that violence in hockey is likely an outgrowth of organized hockey’s origins in late-19th-century Montreal, where ethnic groups formed rival clubs that gave the game a “my gang versus your gang” feel.
In western Pennsylvania in the early 20th Century, the game remained physical and fans responded. But more than anything, Madarasz said, they responded to its speed.
“When the Western Pennsylvania Hockey League comes back in 1907 and 1908 for that first season, when it returns, they specifically talk about building a club on a style of hockey that’s faster and very popular with fans,” Madarasz added.
In the WPHL, teams played for the Spalding Cup — a silver trophy, roughly a foot tall, donated by sporting goods tycoon AG Spalding.
Seasons were 15 weeks long and games at Duquesne Gardens often preceded public skating sessions.
“‘Pay to come watch a game and stay to skate afterwards’ was seen as a way to get people in and attract new business,” Madarasz explained.
Still, WPHL-era professional hockey was an uncertain prospect, experimental even.
Leagues came and went, and so did teams.
The rise of spectator sports in Pittsburgh at the time meant plenty of options for fans.
But hockey stuck around and continued to gain an American following. This culminated in the Boston Bruins becoming the first American team to join the National Hockey League in 1924.
And simply put, this American popularization of hockey can be traced back to one man, Arthur Sixsmith, and one city.
City of Champions
During his time in Pittsburgh, Sixsmith won a number of league titles as both a player and a manager. In 1909, he retired from competitive play.
Later in life, Sixsmith became a secretary, first to railroad magnate Robert Pitcairn and then for Andrew Mellon.
He’d managed to amass a personal fortune of over $10 million dollars during his life, only to lose it in the stock market crash of 1929. He retired to Florida, later lived with a son in Wyoming, and died in Florida in 1969.
Sixsmith, his wife and daughter are buried in Homewood Cemetery. Only daughter Gertrude’s name appears on the marker.
The cemetery’s director of programming, Jennie Benford, said she’s sought to honor Sixsmith and his role in the rise of ice hockey in America through a photo op with the Stanley Cup at his gravesite.
She said she reached out to the Penguins a few years ago after they claimed the Cup for Pittsburgh, but never heard back.
And while the opportunity definitely won’t present itself this season, there’s always next — which Arthur Sixsmith knew as well as anyone.