New book details fascinating stories about Philly’s pro-hockey history, including a team that conjures ‘Slap Shot’ memories | Sam Carchidi
Alan Bass has written the definitive book on the history of hockey in Philadelphia, featuring chapters on the 11 pro teams that played in the city, including one that set two dubious NHL records.
Back in 1996, 6-year-old Alan Bass went with his father to a reverberating building that was then known as the CoreStates Center and attended his first Flyers game.
He was mesmerized by the game’s speed, by the rush of bright white ice that jolted his eyes, by the sounds of the raucous crowd that witnessed the Flyers’ 7-3 whipping of Pittsburgh. He was fascinated as he watched Flyers goalie Ron Hextall rock back and forth in his crease, and impressed by how John LeClair muscled his way around the net. He was confused, until his father, Mike, gave him an explanation, when fans threw perfectly good hats and caps onto the ice after the Flyers’ Dale Hawerchuk scored his third goal of the night.
“I fell in love with the sport instantly,” Bass said this week. “After seeing a game, I became obsessed.”
Bass, 30, now works with his wife and his father in a thriving, third-generation family business, AAA Hobbies and Crafts, in Magnolia, N.J. He puts in long hours and enjoys the challenges the job brings, especially during the busy holiday season.
But the hockey bug, well, it never left him.
Which is why the Wenonah, N.J., resident has managed to write two hockey books in his spare time and is currently writing one on the life and times of Flyers co-founder Ed Snider. His latest book, Professional Hockey in Philadelphia: A History, documents the intriguing history of the sport in the city.
Long before the Flyers became a staple on the local sports scene, there were numerous pro hockey teams in Philly, starting in 1900-01 with the Quaker City Hockey Club
In later years, Philly was home to the Ramblers, the Rockets, the Falcons, and the Arrows; the Comets, the Blazers, the brawl-happy Firebirds (Bass’ chapter on them, he said, “is like reading a script from Slap Shot”); and the Phantoms.
Oh, and the forgettable Philadelphia Quakers, the city’s first NHL team. The Quakers won just four of their 44 games. Four.
Newspapers add flavor
Bass writes about all these teams in a fascinating, brilliantly researched book that includes tidbits of corny-but-amusing copy from local newspapers. The newspaper accounts, written in an old-timey manner, give the flavor of those eras.
Over the years, Bass has written for the Hockey News, Bleacher Report, and Hockey Buzz, and along the way has developed a deep interest in the sport’s history, triggering his first book, The Great Expansion: The Ultimate Risk That Changed the NHL Forever.
About a decade ago, as Bass did research for that book about the 1967 expansion that featured the Flyers, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Oakland, “I got a little bit into the history of hockey in Philadelphia,” he said. “It went way further back than I had realized, and I started looking into it in my free time, and the idea of another book kind of sat in the back of my mind for a while.”
As he talked with colleagues and friends “and even some of the media,” he discovered that not many people were aware of pro hockey in Philadelphia before the Flyers. “And I thought if people in the media weren’t aware of it, this is something Philadelphia hockey fans are going to want to know about,” Bass said. “I know I did.”
The impetus for the book, which includes a chapter on each of the 11 pro hockey teams in the city’s history, was in place.
“It was fun, from a nerdy-research perspective, to try to delve into some teams that really got little or no coverage here,” Bass said.
He also delved into NHL franchises that almost landed in Philadelphia. In 1924, Jules Mastbaum, owner of the Philadelphia Arena, applied for an expansion team, but the NHL board of governors passed. In the mid-1940s, the Montreal Maroons – who had played in the NHL from 1924 to 1938 and had won two Stanley Cups – wanted to come to Philly, but Len Peto couldn’t get an arena built to accommodate the league. Peto, who had been a Maroons executive, was trying to build a $2.5 million arena at the site of the old Baker Bowl, between Broad and 15th Streets.
Philadelphia is, when you get right down to it, a hockey town. When the Flyers are performing well or making a deep run into the playoffs, the city transforms in a way that is unparalleled When the Flyers won their first Stanley Cup, in 1974, an estimated two million fans attended the parade, nearly triple the number that attended the Eagles’ Super Bowl parade in 2018. This is not to take away from the accomplishments of the other sports teams that call South Philadelphia home. Rather, it is a comment on the importance of ice hockey to the culture of Philadelphia.
-Alan Bass in Professional Hockey in Philadelphia: A History
While the Flyers became Philadelphia’s model hockey franchise, they weren’t the first one to reach the big time. The Flyers started in 1967 – 37 years after another Philadelphia team began a brief NHL stay.
The Pittsburgh Pirates NHL team, which was struggling at the box office and crippled by the Great Depression, became the Philadelphia Quakers in 1930. Pittsburgh had flirted with moving to Atlantic City, but ended up shifting to Philly for just one season. There was an understanding between the league and the Pirates – who had 12 of their players transferred to Philly’s roster – that the team would return to Pittsburgh when a new arena was built, according to Bass.
Philly became a temporary home for the Pirates and joined a 10-team NHL that included the Boston Bruins, New York Americans, New York Rangers, Detroit Falcons, Chicago Black Hawks, Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Maroons, Ottawa Senators, and Toronto Maple Leafs.
All of which raises the question: Why do the teams that played before the 1967 expansion proudly proclaim themselves to be the Original Six?
But I digress …
The Quakers, who wore orange and black jerseys (sound familiar?) and actually had future Hall of Famer Syd Howe on the team, finished with a .136 winning percentage (4-36-4) during a season that included a 15-game losing streak and lots of empty seats at The Arena. They were both dubious NHL records until broken by Washington in 1974-75.
The Philadelphia/Pittsburgh franchise was suspended for the 1931-32 season. Both cities didn’t get an NHL franchise again until the league expanded in 1967.
The Flyers are, by far, the most successful of the 11 professional hockey franchises to have played in the city. But, as Bass writes, the foundation for their success was helped by their Philadelphia predecessors – even though most of them played in the minors, most struggled, and none lasted more than nine consecutive years.
“I wrote this with full knowledge of the Flyers’ history and how successful they are, so you know what eventually happens in Philadelphia in regards to hockey,” Bass said. “One of the interesting things to me is that you could see why the Flyers were successful and why other teams before them were not. There was a pattern of the proper ownership group, the proper product you put on the ice, the proper building. If all of those came together, you had a very successful franchise. But when one, two or three of those were missing, you had a team that really couldn’t last very long.”
The pre-Flyers teams that played in Philadelphia deserve credit for something else, Bass said: They whet the fans’ appetite for the sport.