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Without a Net 

click to enlarge Penguins fans watch on the edge of their seats as the Penguins battle the Hurricanes in game 4 of the Stanley Cup playoffs. - BRIAN KALDORF
  • Brian Kaldorf
  • Penguins fans watch on the edge of their seats as the Penguins battle the Hurricanes in game 4 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

It's easy to forget, what with the Detroit Red Wings being one of the most storied franchises in professional sports. But pro hockey was born in Pittsburgh ... and it almost died here. Twice.

Devised by Canadians (of course) in the 1870s, hockey took hold in Pittsburgh in the mid-1890s, when artificial ice-making allowed the game to be played indoors. The city's first indoor rink, the Casino, was located near the entrance to Schenley Park. Ironically enough, after two years the rink burned down -- because of an explosion in the ice-making equipment.

But the Casino was soon replaced with Duquesne Garden, a sports palace located just a few blocks away. The Garden later boasted of being the birthplace of professional hockey, because local clubs who played there began paying players, even recruiting them from Canada. ("Pittsburgh is the very heart of corruption," one Toronto newspaper fretted in 1903.)

"We were paid $10 to $15 a week," a former player told the Pittsburgh Press in 1961. "Each team had a manager who was paid a lump sum ... and the less he was able to pay the other players, the more he pocketed himself." It wasn't the last time such a management strategy has been tried out in Pittsburgh.

Over the years, Pittsburgh had several minor-league hockey teams: the Pirates, the Shamrocks, the Yellow Jackets and the Hornets, the most storied franchise until the Pens came along in 1967.

The Pens were named by the wife of a team co-owner. But some of their branding strategies went awry from the start, Tribune-Review hockey reporter Joe Starkey notes in Tales From the Pittsburgh Penguins. The team's first mascot, Pete the Penguin, died during the first season -- of pneumonia (!). At least Pete was allowed to keep his natural plumage: Early on, Pens uniforms were blue and white. It wasn't until 1980 that the team began wearing black-and-gold jerseys.

In many respects, the Pens were old-school. For better or worse, Starkey credits the team with resuscitating the popularity of Gary Glitter's "Rock & Roll Part 2" -- that would be the song where even drunk fans know when to shout "hey!" The Pens were the last to use a goalie, Andy Brown, who played without a mask -- and their owners often operated without a safety net.

In June 1975, the Pens filed for bankruptcy, after two of five owners died in a single month. Arguably, they got off easy: According to a 1995 Post-Gazette account, things got so bad the team stopped buying oranges for the players to eat between periods.

But at least everyone knew the owners' hearts were in the right place. You couldn't say that about some of their successors. In the mid-1990s, for example, co-owner Roger Marino claimed to be loyal to Pittsburgh -- even while shopping the team to places like Las Vegas and Kansas City. Partner Howard Baldwin, meanwhile, had offered star Mario Lemieux a contract he couldn't afford -- which drove the team into bankruptcy.

Lemieux ended up owning the team, in part because it was his only chance of getting the money it owed him.

In some ways, Marino was simply ahead of his time: To get the new arena he wanted Lemieux too would make noises about moving the team to KC. Still, Lemieux deserves credit. He'll always be remembered for his exploits on the ice -- but given the Pens' history, perhaps his most impressive accomplishment is putting together a solid team without bankrupting the franchise.

There are people in Detroit who ought to envy that -- no matter how the series with the Red Wings turns out.

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