Pro hockey in Philly, before the Flyers

Photos – user-contributed – Tex+White83
Philadelphia Quaker Tex White, right-wing, in 1931.

The Philadelphia Flyers turned 50 this year. Throughout the last five decades, the team has had an enormous impact on ice hockey.

While the sport has long tolerated violence outside of the physical contact associated with regular play (the NHL established Rule 56 in 1922, which codified fighting), the Flyers brought hockey’s peculiar tradition of league-sanctioned brawling to an all new level. Jack Chevalier and Pete Cafone of the Philadelphia Bulletin nicknamed the team the Broad Street Bullies in 1973, a moniker that captured the team’s propensity for brute force.

The Flyers’ playing style, which made heavy use of “enforcers,” had a ripple effect, ushering in an era of physicality hitherto unseen in the league during the 1970s and ’80s. Some decried the Bullies’ tactics, but when the Flyers were in town, tickets sold well; when they were televised, ratings went up.

The storied hockey club cannot be reduced to this reputation, though, having won two Stanley Cups and fielded some of the most legendary talent in NHL history, from Bobby Clarke to Eric Lindros. Additionally, the Flyers are the only NHL team that managed to defeat the USSR’s near-unbeatable Red Army (though the 1976 matchup was notable for a rather questionable hit levied by Flyers defenseman Ed Van Impe against Russia’s Valeri Kharlamov).

Intrinsic to Philly’s sports culture, the Flyers have defined the city’s hockey legacy. A little-known Philadelphia NHL team, however, predates the Flyers.

The Philadelphia Quakers occupy a curious chapter in the city’s sports history. The NHL expanded into the United States in 1924 with the entry of the Boston Bruins. In the 1925 expansion, the league welcomed the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Americans.

By 1926, the league included 10 teams. The Pirates proved somewhat competitive early on, narrowly clinching playoff spots in 1926 and 1928. The team, however, ultimately fell into a rut, and had the lowest attendance rates in the league despite Pittsburgh’s passion for hockey. Relocation rumors circulated virtually from the team’s founding.

In 1928, an enterprising group ostensibly led by the famous boxer Benny Leonard purchased the team. In reality, Leonard was merely a front man. The real ownership fell to the notorious mobster William Vincent Dwyer, who used the windfall generated by his bootlegging operations to buy sports teams.

An abysmal 1929-30 season sealed the team’s fate and — after briefly considering Cleveland as a new home — the Pirates’ management decided to move across the Keystone State to Philadelphia, renaming the team the Quakers in the process. Leonard was bullish about the team’s prospects: “I am confident Philadelphia will take to hockey in another year or two.”

Unfortunately, his ambitions were thwarted by the Quakers’ spectacular failure of a debut season. Relegated to a small 6,000-seat rink in West Philly, the team was atrocious, losing game after game as its already small fan base shrank throughout the season.

A minor-league team also played in the West Philly Arena — the Arrows of the Canadian-American Hockey League (a precursor to the American Hockey League). The first professional hockey team in Philadelphia, the Arrows actually had better attendance rates than the Quakers, evidence of the latter’s dismal performance.

The Quakers went 4-36-4 during the 1930-31 season, at one point stumbling through a 15-game losing streak. In a display of vexation (and, perhaps, a prelude to the Flyers of the 1970s), the Quakers initiated a team-on-team brawl against the Bruins in Boston after falling behind eight goals. The Quakers’ goaltender, the English-born Wilf Cude, looked on as Philly’s only nonparticipant in the fight as NHL officials solicited the assistance of the Boston police to deal with the mayhem.

As the Great Depression wore on, the NHL retracted. Among the casualties were the Quakers, whose NHL record for lowest winning percentage lasted until the 1974–75 Washington Capitals claimed the dubious honor. Though management and the league attempted to resuscitate the Quakers over the next few years, the team officially folded in 1936.

Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.