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The Philadelphia Quakers: One season wonders

They were the city’s first NHL team

Public Domain

The year is 1929. Most of the world is in the midst of the worst economic crisis in the history of civilization, and nearly every institution across the United States feels the full effects of the stock market crash. However, just four years earlier, the NHL was becoming a success and expanding. New franchises were granted almost yearly, and the Pittsburgh Pirates were minted into the NHL under the ownership of James F. Callahan, a wealthy lawyer and frugal businessman. Callahan had purchased the club when it was known as the Yellow Jackets, and competed in the US Amateur Hockey Association. Frank Calder, then President of the NHL, had granted Pittsburgh a spot in the NHL to thwart the plans of disgraced owner Eddie Livingstone, who wished to set up a rival league in the city of Pittsburgh after he was unanimously dropped from the NHL. The Pirates, named with permission from the eponymous baseball club, started their first NHL season in 1925, and competed against all the other American NHL teams in a single division along with the Boston Bruins and New York Americans.

In their first game, on the 26th of November, they beat the Bruins 2-1 on the road. Their captain, Defenseman Lionel Conacher, scored the club’s first ever goal. Conacher, who was also an avid football player, scored at the 17:50 mark of the second period on Boston net-minder Charles Stewart to tie the game at one. The Pirates’ 23 year old Left Wing, Harold Darragh, scored the winner 9:20 into the third period. Their goaltender, Roy Worters, stopped 26 of 27 shots to record the first NHL win in franchise history, though Worters may best be known for being the shortest ever player to lace up his skates in the NHL. He stood at just 5’3”, and would record 66 shutouts in his 12 year career. Just two days later, the Pirates would beat the Montreal Canadiens 1-0 in what turned out to be the final NHL game for legendary goaltender Georges Vezina. At their home opener, 8,200 fans paid just $1.00 a ticket to see their club lose in overtime to the New York Americans.

That first season, the Pirates would find themselves in the semifinals of the playoffs against the Montreal Maroons, the largely English-speaking side of the Canadian city. Playing at home, however, the Pirates lost two straight games to the Maroons as they eventually took the cup back to Montreal, beating the Victoria Cougars of the WHL. They were powerless to stop the Maroons’ Nels Stewart, who registered nine points in eight playoff games. The next season, the Pirates would miss the playoffs, and would only qualify for the postseason one more time in the next four years.

By the end of the 1920’s, the Pirates found themselves struggling financially. In those early days of the NHL, financial difficulties were not only easy to come by, as most teams operated at a loss, but teams could often fold midseason. James F. Callahan was forced to sell the club in 1928. He sold the club to a consortium which included bootlegger and gangster Bill Dwyer, who was a major figure in the underbelly of Prohibition era crime. The 1929-30 season would end up being the last for the Pittsburgh Pirates. They compiled a 5-36-3 record, and following the 1929 Wall Street Crash, attendance for games was decreasing rapidly and the club were $400,000 in debt by the end of the season.

One of the members of the group Callahan sold the Pirates to was Benny Leonard, a fight promoter and former boxer. On October 18, 1930, at the NHL Board of Governors’ meeting, Leonard moved the team to Philadelphia and named the the Quakers. Many of the Pirates players transferred to the new Philadelphia franchise, and soon enough, the Quakers were set to begin the 1930-31 NHL season. However, a change in scenery did not improve the team’s fortunes. It took them three games to score a single goal, and six games to record a win, 2-1 over the Maple Leafs. They would only record four all year. The team would finish with a 4-36-4 record, even worse than the previous season when they were in Pittsburgh. Their winning percentage was 0.136 which stood as the lowest single season record in NHL history until the 1974-75 Washington Capitals only won 0.131 percent of their games. The Quakers scored 76 goals and let in 184, which gave them the worst offense and the worst defense.

23 players ever skated for the Quakers. The most famous of them, and the last active Quakers player left in the NHL, was Syd Howe. He last iced for the Detroit Red Wings of which he was a veteran of 12 seasons, in 1946. He is the only Quakers player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. The Quakers’ captain was 31 year old Hibbert “Hib” Milks, a Left Winger from Eardley, Quebec. That season, he scored 23 points in 44 games, which was second most on the team behind fellow winger Gerry Lowery who had 27. In his NHL career, Milks scored 87 goals and totaled 128 points in 317 games. The team’s starting goaltender was Wilfred Reginald Cude, often called Wilf. Born in Barry, a town in the Republic of Wales, United Kingdom, Cude was just 24 and in his second NHL season when he took the starting job in Philadelphia. In 30 games, his goals against average was 4.22. Cude would go on to be the backup goaltender in Montreal behind star George Hainsworth, though he only lasted one season before moving to Detroit, and then Montreal again. He played well in Detroit during the 1933-34 season, and led the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup Final, though they lost that series to Chicago. Though he led the league with the lowest goals against average, he also surrendered the first overtime Cup clinching goal in NHL history, when he was beaten by Mush March of the Blackhawks in double overtime.

At the end of the season, the team received permission from the NHL to temporally cease operations while they sought a new permanent arena, located in either Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. That arena would never come. Due to the Great Depression, the NHL was in peril as four teams were forced to fold, including the Quakers. Leonard would surrender the control of his franchise in 1936, and Philadelphia would not see another hockey team until a group of businessmen, led by Ed Snider, would bring the NHL back to the city in 1967. The Quakers may not have been very good, though in their defense, they were historically bad, and for this reason will forever hold a place in my memory at least.