New research shows Pittsburgh to be birthplace of pro hockey
A historical marker on Pittsburgh’s North Side denotes the spot of the first professional football game played, coming in 1892.
If Perrysville native John Schalcosky has his way, a similar marker soon will be erected in Oakland, noting the city as the birthplace of professional hockey, as well.
Schalcosky is the proprietor of the Odd Pittsburgh historical brand, which includes Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts as well as a podcast distributed by KDKA radio.
He recently uncovered newspaper clippings that prove players in the Western Pennsylvania Hockey League were being paid for their services in 1901. It’s the earliest known documentation of professionalism in hockey.
“That would be a good place for a marker, saying, ‘The birthplace of professional hockey happened here, and you should think about that,’ ” Schalcosky said. “The Duquesne Garden had so many firsts, a hockey monument in general should be there.”
For years, the birthplace of pro hockey was believed to be the town of Houghton, Mich., which is where the International Hockey League was formed in 1904.
As Schalcosky began to research the origins of pro hockey in Pittsburgh, he realized he could beat that date.
He found accounts in Canadian newspapers from the first few months of the 20th century describing strange transactions involving some of the best hockey players in the world.
Take the case of Charlie Liffiton. In 1901-02, he finished in the top 10 of the Canadian Amateur Hockey League in scoring for the third straight season and helped the Montreal Hockey Club beat the Winnipeg Victorias to capture the Stanley Cup.
A few months later, he disappeared, leaving his home country to play for the Pittsburgh Bankers of the Western Pennsylvania Hockey League.
It wasn’t hard to see what was going on. Liffiton left his club in a league with the word “amateur” in its name to play for a team called the Bankers. Pittsburgh teams were paying their players, whether via straight salaries or no-show jobs.
This development enraged Canadians, who felt it was scandalous for hockey players to be paid. They opened investigations. Players who had received money were barred from the Ontario Hockey Association. Teams were banned from competing against Pittsburgh clubs.
The newspaper accounts of those investigations were the smoking guns Schalcosky needed.
He found an article about an investigation into the amateur status of rover Bert Morrison, who played on the Pittsburgh Keystones with goalie Riley Hern and cover point Harry Peal, players who had already admitted to being paid.
Schalcosky found a clipping in the Ottawa Journal that purported to reprint a letter Pittsburgh clubs would send to players they were recruiting.
He presented those articles and several others to Wikipedia, which subsequently changed its entry on the birthplace of pro hockey to reflect the game’s Pittsburgh roots.
“(Wikipedia is) first on purpose because if you’re going to Google it, that’s usually the first thing you’re going to click on,” Schalcosky said. “Because you can source it with the direct link to the newspaper clipping, that seals the deal.”
Schalcosky figures hockey historians around the globe will set out to try to beat the 1901 date he unearthed in an effort to claim the pro game was born elsewhere. He is hopeful and confident, though, his documentation will hold up.
“People have been publishing articles through the (Society of International Hockey Research) since the beginning of that organization, trying to find the proof that was needed to finally put the nail in the coffin that says, ‘This is the first mention of people being paid to play the game,’ ” he said. “Three minutes after I posted it, people were trying to debate it. But so far, so good.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .