Before the NHL: Western Pennsylvania Hockey League, International Professional Hockey League

In our series of articles tracing the precursors of the National Hockey League, we’ve seen the game grow and change from its origins as an amateur sport toward the game as we recognize it today through a handful of leagues. To date, these teams have all been Canadian, but the game spread to the United States as well, particularly as the professional era was dawning.

One of the first of these ventures was the Western Pennsylvania Hockey League, which was born in Pittsburgh in 1900, but first took the ice in 1901. The games were played at the Duquesne Gardens, the second artificial ice rink to be built in North America— Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park Casino housed the first, but was destroyed by a fire in December 1896. This rink had housed games for university teams and the first unaffiliated team assembled from players from Western University (now the University of Pittsburgh) and the Carnegie Technical Schools (later Carnegie Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University).

The Pittsburgh Bankers, Pittsburgh Athletic Club, Pittsburgh Duquesne and Pittsburgh Keystones would be the four teams in the league’s inaugural season. Many players were ‘imported’ from Canada- lured to the area with the promise of high paying jobs and a living stipend. Pittsburgh Athletic Club would claim the league’s first championship. The Duquesne team would not return for the 1901-1902 season, leaving the league with just three teams. They Keystones would take the title in that season. In the summer of 1902, one of the players who came to play- Harry Peel of the Keystones- disclosed that he was paid $35 a week to play for the team- a violation of the team’s amateur status. As a result, both Canadian and US officials disallowed all amateur teams to play against the Keystones and Peel’s amateur status was revoked by the Ontario Hockey Association.

It proved to be too late, however. Professional hockey was here to stay, and the WPHL embraced its new status, expanding again to four teams by adding the Pittsburgh Victorias, and openly enticing the best talent it could, including Hockey Hall of Fame members Hod and Bruce Stuart from the Quebec Bulldogs, Alf Smith from the Ottawa Hockey Club and goalkeeper Riley Hern from Ontario’s Stratford Legionnaires. The Pittsburgh Bankers would claim the title and face off against the Houghton, Michigan Portage Lakes Hockey Club for the title of top professional team in the United States. The winner of that series is unclear- Portage Lakes would win two of the four games and tie a third, but the Bankers claimed the edge in total goals, 11-6. Unfortunately for the WPHL’s future, playing Portage Lakes raised the profiles of some of the Pittsburgh players, who were lured away after the season for the promise of better pay in Michigan.

The 1903-1904 season started despite the depleted talent pool, but it had left its mark, and the Keystones would dissolve on 17 January, 1904, dispersing their players to the remaining three teams. All three of these sides would eventually challenge Portage Lakes, with the champion Victorias faring the best but still losing a three-game series 2-1.

During the first meeting between Pittsburgh an Portage Lakes, Houghton businessman James R. Dee had floated the idea of forming a professional league with the Pittsburgh interests, but nothing of came of it until  after the 1904 season. Meanwhile, the Portage Bay existed as a team without a league, although they did play exhibition games against teams from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and Michigan- resulting in officials revoking the amateur statuses of both clubs and their players, leaving them in limbo with Portage Lakes.

In that off-season, however, Dee’s talks with the Pittsburghers and with Houghton, Michigan dentist (and former hockey player) Jack ‘Doc’ Gibson came to fruition, and led to the formation of the International Professional Hockey League, featuring five teams- Portage Lakes, the banished American ‘Soo’ Indians and the Sault Ste. Marie Marlboros (also known as the Canadian Soo Algonquins), the Calumet-Larium Miners, along with the Pittsburgh Pro Hockey Club. The new league had significant initial interest, but settled on these initial five over applicants from Montreal, Detroit, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Chicago, Grand Rapids and Duluth.

The IPHL would only survive three seasons, with Calumet claiming the initial title and Portage Lakes the last two, but would provide the final blow marking hockey as a professional sport. The league had a minimum salary of $15 a week (which rose to $40 by the final season of 1906-07), but paid some significantly more- Hod Stuart setting the initial gold standard, hauling down $1800 from the Calumet Miners for the 1904-05 season, and rising as high as the $3000 paid to Fred “Cyclone” Taylor for the 1906-1907 season.

All in all, sixteen members of the Hockey Hall of Fame would play in the IPHL over its three seasons of operation. Aside from Cyclone Taylor and Hod Stuart, these include Hod’s brother Bruce, “Bad” Joe Hall, Didier Pitre, Newsy Lelonde, Jack Laviolette, Russell Bowie, Jimmy Gardner, Jack Gibson, Hugh Lehman, George McNamara, Oliver Seibert, Tommy Smith and Marty Walsh.

The league had a revenue sharing system in place, allowing teams to travel without incurring prohibitive cost, particularly to Pittsburgh, which was remote from the other four teams but had the largest arena. Granting the visiting team forty percent of the gate receipts, however, made it an equitable proposition. Eventually, though, the revenues would prove inadequate to maintain player salaries, particularly with the advent of other professional leagues. This led to the IPHL’s collapse, but from its ashes the WPHA was reborn, this time as a fully professional league.

Unfortunately for the WPHA, it was no longer the league it once was, and no longer were salaries a novelty to attract Canadian talent. Many players signed up, particular since the WPHA played on artificial ice and was not therefore dependent on the elements to provide a naturally frozen surface, but as winter dawned and Canadian rinks became available, the players would just flock north to teams closer to home. By late December 1907, fully a third of the players in the league had ‘jumped contract’ and returned home. Something similar would happen in the 1908-09 season, and after Pittsburgh Lyceum folded, citing a lack of available players on 23 December 1908, it was just about all over for the IPHL, which would drop the professional game in favour of strictly local, amateur talent. The WPHA did introduce one groundbreaking concept- the trade, with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Bankers swapping six players on 28 January 1908.

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