Pittsburgh Sports Report
March 2008

Sports History
On Ice. Remembering Duquesne Gardens
By Anne Madarasz

As this article headed to press, the Penguins had just recorded their 45th straight sell-out game. Crowd reactions to the team this season recall an earlier day when the Toronto Globe newspaper reported, "Pittsburgh is hockey crazy. Over 10,000 turned out for our three games there…the Pittsburgh rink is a dream."

The year of that report: 1902!

Pittsburgh has a long hockey history. Then, as now, an important factor in bringing the sport to town was the quality of the hockey venue. First played in the city in 1895, ice hockey garnered notice when Duquesne Gardens opened in 1899. The facility offered something most other American cities lacked: artificial ice. And with 26,000 square feet of ice surface, the rink-home to the world's first semi-pro hockey league-dwarfed all others.

In the early 20th century, the city's cultural and sporting life centered in the East End neighborhood of Oakland. With the racing oval and golf course in Schenley Park, as well as Forbes Field and Duquesne Gardens, Pittsburghers had many opportunities to both view and participate in sports.

The Gardens, with the world's largest indoor rink and a second floor ballroom, became a premier indoor venue. Transformed from a trolley barn, and located on Craig Street near Fifth Avenue, the facility provided a multitude of activities for the growing population of middle-class residents in the city's East End. Some 10,000 attended on opening night, some to look, and some to skate. The first competitive hockey game followed on January 24, 1899. Speed skating, roller-skating, dance contests, musical performances, roller derby, bicycle racing, boxing and college basketball - all had a home at Duquesne Gardens.

From 1925-30, the Gardens featured Pittsburgh's first National Hockey League team, the Pirates. In their inaugural season the Pirates, anchored by two future Hall of Famers in goalie Roy Worters and defenseman Lionel Conacher, qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Even with this talent (Conacher was later named Canada's athlete of the half-century) the team experienced regular financial difficulties and folded after five seasons. Both Worters and Conacher had earlier played for the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets, a U.S. Amateur Hockey Association team. They led the Yellow Jackets to a national title in 1924, this city's first major hockey championship, and successfully defended that title the following season.

In 1935, the Pittsburgh Shamrocks, one of eight teams in the International Hockey League, played a season at Duquesne Gardens. The following year brought the debut of the Hornets, an American Hockey League team that played for 26 seasons in Pittsburgh, garnering Calder Cup championships in 1952, 1955, and 1967. Competing both at the Gardens and the Civic Arena, the Hornets served as the minor-league affiliate for the Toronto Maple Leafs and later the Detroit Red Wings. A number of talented young players captivated fans here before moving on to the NHL and, in many cases, the Hall of Fame.

The Gardens had another claim to ice fame. Looking for a way to draw larger crowds to hockey games during the Depression, venue owner/operator John H. Harris hired legendary skater Sonja Henie to entertain crowds between periods. Having found success with figure skating, Harris developed the idea of the Ice Capades, which premiered in September 1940. The skating corps of 150 young women clad in elaborate costumes captivated audiences. Harris's Ice Capades, founded in Pittsburgh with an $85,000 investment, was sold in 1963 for $5.5 million.

In the 1960s, Pittsburgh's locus for hockey shifted from the Gardens in Oakland to the Civic Arena uptown. Though time and the wrecking ball have claimed the Gardens, its role as home to Pittsburgh's on ice history for seven decades lives on.

Anne Madarasz is Director of the Western PA Sports Museum which features this rich hockey and ice history.

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