The short, sad history of Philly's first NHL team

27Quakers
1930-31 Philadelphia Quakers team photo.

Though Philadelphia hasn't witnessed a Stanley Cup parade in four decades and this year's Flyers have been lifeless, the Wells Fargo Center was filled and alive for a recent game with San Jose.

Many of the fans had been going since they were youngsters. They proudly wore team gear and followed the action as knowingly as they might a football game. And while the home team lost again, its loyal supporters will return.

Two years from now, the Flyers will celebrate their 50th anniversary. By almost any marketing measure, they've been an NHL success story.

Who could have envisioned that when the league awarded Philadelphia an expansion franchise in 1966? The outlook was far from rosy on Oct. 19, 1967, when the Flyers debuted before a disappointing crowd of 7,812 in the brand-new Spectrum.

Hockey was an alien sport here, and those then old enough to have remembered the city's brief and embarrassing first NHL experience could not be blamed for ignoring the second.

In this annus horribilis for Philadelphia sports, it's instructive and somewhat reassuring to remember that we've been miserable before. And no matter how bad things might get, these Flyers will never challenge the 1930-31 Philadelphia Quakers.

That NHL team won just 4 of 44 games. Its average attendance was 2,500, less than the minor-league team that shared its West Philadelphia arena. The Quakers lost $500,000 and forced their financially strapped owner to climb back into the boxing ring at 36. And their lone season ended with a sportswriter in goal.

So awful was the Quakers' short life that traumatized league owners, rather than continue to expand the 10-team NHL, began to contract it. By 1942, there were only six teams, a number that would remain unchanged for 24 years.

The NHL, just seven years old then, had expanded to the United States in 1924, when the Bruins joined. A year later, New York and Pittsburgh were added, and in 1926 Detroit and Chicago. At that point, the league split into two five-team divisions, American and Canadian.

The hockey Pittsburgh Pirates, owned by ex-lightweight boxing champion Benny Leonard, foundered from the start. In 1930, Leonard moved them east to Philadelphia and renamed them the Quakers.

"I am confident Philadelphia will take to hockey in another year or two," he said. "It can't miss."

But it did miss - and badly.

The Quakers played in the 6,000-seat Arena at 46th and Market Streets, the league's smallest facility by far. Among their cotenants were the Philadelphia Arrows - later dubbed the Ramblers - of the Canadian-American League.

"We will build a Madison Square Garden-like facility in three years or so," Leonard forecast. "It will be the kind of place where women can come in evening dress without fear of being hit in the face with a frankfurter."

But by the time Convention Hall opened in 1933, the Quakers were history.

Things had begun reasonably well. They attracted what would be their largest crowd of the season, 5,000, to their Nov. 11 home-opener, a 3-0 loss to the New York Rangers.

If any of those opening-night fans were inclined to return, the Quakers did their best to discourage them, going winless over the next two weeks.

They finally won, defeating Toronto, 2-1, at home on Nov. 25. Whatever enthusiasm and momentum that victory created disappeared during the 15-game losing streak that followed.

The team's most memorable moment occurred in Boston. There, on Christmas Day, no less, the Quakers were involved in what one writer termed "the most disorderly hockey scene ever staged in Boston."

The Bruins were rolling, 8-0, in the third period when an understandably frustrated Hub Milks, Philadelphia's captain, leveled Boston's George Owens. Both benches spilled onto the ice. Every player but Philadelphia goalie Wilf Cude engaged in the wild brawl that ensued.

Unable to stop it, the officials summoned Boston police for assistance. Eventually the bloodshed ended, but wary officials declared the game over.

Philadelphia's only road victory came at Detroit on Feb. 17, and the final win of its truncated existence took place at the Arena on March 12. By then, 1,500 was a good-size crowd.

The brief, forgettable existence of the Quakers concluded on March 14 in Montreal, quite fittingly as it turned out.

Late in the second period of what would be a 4-4 tie, Cude, the Quakers goalie, suffered a severe facial laceration. In serious cost-cutting mode by then, Philadelphia had not brought along a backup goaltender.

Amid talk of a forfeit, Hugh McCormack, an Ontario sportswriter who had been a minor-league goalie, volunteered to fill in. Both teams agreed, and McCormick played better than Cude, allowing just one goal in a 4-4 tie.

The 4-36-4 Quakers' winning percentage of .136 would stand as the worst in league history until the 1974-75 Washington Capitals went even lower, .131. They had given up the most goals in the NHL and scored the fewest. Their demise came swiftly.

On Sept. 26, 1931, the NHL announced that the Quakers and the Ottawa Generals were suspending play for a year. The Generals did return for the 1932-33 season. The Quakers, though technically a dormant franchise until 1936, were never to be seen again.

Other NHL clubs purchased a few of Philadelphia's players. Of the 23 who had donned the same black-and-yellow uniforms they'd worn in Pittsburgh, only Cude and center Syd Howe would have noteworthy careers.

Their coach, J. Cooper Smeaton, who had been a respected official until Leonard lured him away, returned to Toronto to become the league's referee-in-chief.

Meanwhile Leonard, who'd retired from an unbeaten boxing career as a wealthy man, told reporters he'd dropped half-a-million dollars on the failed hockey experiment. So, despite not having fought since 1924, the 36-year-old returned to the ring with a vengeance.

He fought 20 bouts in 13 months, winning 16.

Even at age 36 and after a seven-year layoff, he had a better record than his Quakers.

ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz