A cursory glance of hockey history in Pittsburgh reads almost biblical, like Genesis with facewashing. For decades, it was a fringe sport without form and darkness was upon the old Civic Arena's center ice. But in 1984, the hockey gods said 'Fiat Pucks'-- and there was Mario Lemieux.
And behold, he was very good. And Lemieux lifted Pittsburgh from the dregs of the NHL. And the fans cheered, and ate Igloo nachos and the holy grail of hockey was delivered, not once, but twice. Skate ahead to 2005. Sidney Crosby arrives and within a few years the Stanley Cup is raised again.
But hockey in Pittsburgh dates to 1895. And while it would be easy to list 46 years worth of highlights and legendary players that have flamed this region's love affair with its Penguins, here's a crashing-the-net course of how has Pittsburgh has developed as a "Hawkeytahn" as we'd say around here.
That this weekend's action will take place in the comfort of a gorgeous climate controlled arena in mid-April and not, say, on the edge of a pond in International Falls in January is in no small part thanks to Pittsburgh, where North America's first indoor artificial ice surface was introduced at the Schenley Gardens Casino, a palatial social hall that once stood near Pitt.
A hockey exhibition was played there in December 1895 between a team from Queen's College in Ontario and a combined university squad from the schools that became Duquesne and Pitt.
No score was kept but its safe to say that the visiting Canadians had it in the bag, mostly because the Pittsburgh lads had never actually seen the game before.
But the game caught on and a four-team league called the Western Pennsylvania Hockey League began the next year and played nine games until the casino was destroyed by fire, caused by a leak from a pipe in the ice-making equipment.
Bankers deliver checks
The WPHL restarted in 1899 in a converted trolley barn, the nearby Duquesne Gardens. A handful of teams came and went, including the fearsome sounding Pittsburgh Bankers, who wore dollar signs on their sweaters (they should've played at the Mellon Arena!).
Though the league folded in 1910, what's noteworthy is its teams were the first to pay players and starting poaching talent from the top Canadian amateur clubs. The Canadian outfits eventually countered by paying their players and this culminated in the formation of the National Hockey League in 1917.
WPHL player Garnet Sixsmith changed the game in 1904 by becoming the first player to wear speedy aluminum skates, however they weren't fast enough to get him away from a player from a Michigan club who threatened to break his leg, and did -- in three places -- during a game. Sixsmith did, however, once score 11 goals in a game.
Yellow Jackets, Pirates, Shamrocks and Hornets, oh my!
In the fledgling early years of Pittsburgh hockey, numerous clubs came and went.
Founded in 1915, the Yellow Jackets were allegedly an amateur team, but it was suspected that they too were paid.
"They didn't come down from Canada because they thought Pittsburgh was a nice place," former hockey writer Paul Sullivan told the Post-Gazette in 1999.
Any doubt on the matter was removed in 1925 when the Yellow Jackets joined the NHL and were re-christened as the Pirates -- rather uncreatively named after the baseball team.
Though a successful team, their demise after five years was largely due to the Great Depression, but they'd given hockey a revolutionary strategic development -- line changes.
Despite their name and Kelly green logo, the Pittsburgh Shamrocks were an unlucky bunch. The International Hockey League team lasted only one season in 1935-36 and even had their game on St. Patrick's Day 1936 canceled because of a flood.
The Pittsburgh Hornets buzzed around the American Hockey League in two very successful incarnations -- from 1936 to 1956 at the Duquesne Gardens and again from 1961 to 1967 at the Civic Arena, winning three Calder Cups.
In 1967 the Hornets won their final Calder Cup then dissolved for good to make way for the Penguins' NHL expansion franchise. Forty-six years, three Stanley Cup titles, 14 hall of famers and plus some future shoo-ins for enshrinement, and the Penguins are squarely among the NHL elite.
Ancestor of the Miracle on Ice
OK, so it wasn't in Pittsburgh in 1980 that Mike Eruzione single-handedly ended the Cold War with a hockey stick (or so it seems, as that game's legend grows), but USA Hockey was born in Pittsburgh in 1920, put together by Yellow Jackets' founder Roy Schooley, who filled the roster with several of his Pittsburgh players.
Schooley put on several exhibition games in Pittsburgh featuring the team, using gate proceeds to fund their trip to the 1920 Summer (yes, Summer) Olympics in Antwerp where they won silver.
Herb Brooks, coach of the immortal 1980 team, was a longtime Penguins scout, an interim coach and the team's director of player personnel until his death in 2003.
His assistant coach, Craig Patrick, was also a Penguins head coach and then the longtime general manager of the team from 1989 to 2006 and the architect of two Stanley Cup winners.
Though he wasn't deported to Canada (which refused to accept him) Ogie Oglethorpe was real! Filmed about an hour east in Johnstown, the 1977 comedy classic Slap Shot! is loosely based on the Johnstown Jets team and the wild and wooly North American Hockey League.
The uber-goon Oglethorpe was based on an actual guy and portrayed by Johnstown player Ned Dowd. Dave Hanson, of the brawling, Buddy Holly-glasses wearing Hanson brothers in the movie is now the executive director the Robert Morris Island Sports Center, home to Colonials hockey.
The 1995 Jean-Claude Van Damme action thriller "Sudden Death" -- produced by former Penguins owner Howard Baldwin -- was filmed almost entirely in Pittsburgh at the Civic Arena during a fictional Penguins game, and featured Penguins announcers and former players as characters. Even the team's cute and fuzzy mascot, Iceburgh, turned out to be a terrorist.
Dating to 1925 and Pete Babando, a handful of NHL journeyman were born in or near Pittsburgh but raised elsewhere. The 'Burgh didn't have a true NHL native son until Ryan Malone (son of former Penguin and longtime team scout Greg Malone) was drafted by his hometown squad in 1999. He played here from 2003 to 2008.
The Blue Jackets' R.J. Umberger became the first Pittsburgh-born player taken in the first round of the NHL entry draft in 2001.
And not that we keep score of this kind of thing here, but according to Pro Hockey Reference there are 14 current and former NHLers born in greater Pittsburgh and only -- ahem -- 13 from the Philadelphia area.
The game continues to flourish at the youth and interscholastic levels, and high school leagues have existed since 1971, and, in 2004, Robert Morris became the first area school to have an NCAA Division I program.
Dan Gigler: email@example.com and Twitter @gigs412. First Published April 10, 2013 4:00 AM