Pittsburgh’s first main hockey rivalry: The Needle and the Nice Wall of China

By the 1950s, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns were well on their way to what would eventually become known and hailed as the Turnpike rivalry. But that wasn’t the only rivalry between Pittsburgh and Cleveland sports teams at the time. While Pittsburgh’s sports fans were in the early stages of hating the Cleveland Browns, they already had reasons to hate the Cleveland Barons, the Pittsburgh Hornets’ main competitor in the early 1950s for hockey supremacy in the American Hockey League.

Long before Mario Lemeiux and Sidney Crosby led the Penguins to Stanley Cup championships, Pittsburgh played an important role in the early history of professional hockey, winning a franchise in the National Hockey League in 1925. The Pittsburgh Pirates, who played in a rundown and undersized Duquesne Gardens that was a tram barn before being converted into an ice rink, struggled financially and left town to become the Philadelphia Quakers at the end of the 1929-30 season.

For the 1935/36 season, theater magnate John Harris bought the Detroit Olympics, a subsidiary of Detroit Red Wings in the American Hockey League, and moved the franchise to Pittsburgh. The team was renamed Hornets and struggled in the early years until 1945 when it switched to the NHL Toronto Maple Leafs.

With the help of future and fading Maple Leaf stars, the Hornets became an AHL power in the early 1950s, playing in four Calder Cup finals from 1951 to 1955. During those championship seasons, the Hornets sent future NHL Hall of Famers George Armstrong and Tim Horton to the Toronto Maple Leafs, while fading NHL veterans like Howie Meeker and Wild Bill Ezinicki helped the Hornets into championship seasons.

Although they never became famous in the NHL, the Hornets had future AHL Hall of Famers in Will Marshall, the greatest goalscorer in AHL history, Frank Mathers, one of the league’s greatest defenders, and Gil “the Needle” Mayer. whose duels with the goalkeeper of Cleveland Barons, Johnny Bowers, the most successful goalkeeper in AHL history, became the focus of the rivalry.

Gil Mayer, dubbed “the Needle” because of his 5-foot-6,135-pound frame, made his Hornet debut in 1949 after popular goalkeeper “Baz” Basien lost some of his eyesight when he was off hit a hockey puck in the eye was shot on goal. Mayer, who wore the number “0” to denote his uncanny ability to keep goals, was an instant hit with the Hornets, winning his first of five Holmes trophies in the 1950/51 season, awarded by the AHL for the fewest allowed goals were awarded.

Mayer’s success, however, was more than surpassed by the Cleveland Barons’ veteran goalkeeper, Johnny Bower, dubbed the “Great Wall of China” by sports journalists for his goalkeeping skills. Bower had led the Barons to a Calder Cup title in 1950 and brought the Barons back in the 1951 Calder Cup final against the Hornets. The series became a showcase for Mayer and Bower’s goalkeeping community, but with a 3-3 draw with Bower, Bower prevailed in the Barons’ 3-1 win in the crucial game against Cleveland, securing Cleveland its second Calder Cup title as a result.

The following season, the Hornets, trained by the hockey legend King Clancy, played their way back to the Calder Cup finals, this time against the Providence Reds. The Hornets led 3-2 in games and won their first Calder Cup in their 16-year history with a dramatic 3-2 win in extra time after a goal from Ray Hannigan. The 1952 AHL championship was particularly enjoyable for Baz Bastien, the team’s then business manager, and Clancy, who was promoted to coach of the Maple Leafs

Returning to the Calder Cup Finals in 1953, the Hornets had the opportunity to defend their title while seeking some measure of revenge for their 1951 loss on their archenemy, the Cleveland Barons. With Gil Mayer and Johnny Bower, who played brilliantly in goal, the series came 3-3 in seventh place and the decision was made in Cleveland.

Both Mayer and Bower were unbeatable in regular time and sent the championship game 0-0 into overtime. In one of the most heartbreaking moments in Pittsburgh sports history, Cleveland Barons defenseman Bob Chrystal tossed the puck off the ice into the center of Hornets Territory. When Gil Mayer ran off the net to correct the puck, it took a strange jump from Mayer into the Hornet network to give the Barons a breathtaking 1-0 win and the Calder Cup championship.

Gil Mayer and Johnny Bower would face each other again in the regular season but would never meet again in a Calder Cup final. The following season, the Barons faced the Hershey Bears in the Calder Cup Finals, beating the Bears 4-2 for the second time in a row and for the fourth time in five seasons. In the 1954-1955 season, the Hornets, trained by Howie Meeker, returned to the Calder Cup Finals, defeating the Buffalo Bisons 4-2 for their second Calder Cup championship.

After defeating the bison, Howie Meeker, who repeated King Clancy’s feat of winning a Calder Cup in his first season as coach of the Hornets, praised his players and “hoped we can do it again”. In 1956, however, the Hornets failed to make it back to the Calder Cup in what turned out to be their final season in the AHL for five years, when the city, as part of its ongoing renaissance, demolished Duquesne Gardens to make way for the Plaza Park Apartments and one Stouffer’s Restaurant.

When the Hornets left Pittsburgh after the 1955/56 season, their star players, including Gil Mayer, signed with the Hershey Bears and led the Bears to two AHL championships. While Mayer played only a handful of games in the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs, despite his brilliant years in the AHL, his arch-rival Johnny Bowers was led by the Maple Leafs and drafted after leading the Barons to another AHL championship in 1957 she to four Stanley Cup championships. At the time of his retirement at the age of 46, Bower was the oldest goalkeeper in NHL history and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

After completing the construction of the Civic Arena, the Hornets returned to Pittsburgh in 1961 and won another Calder Cup in 1965 under the leadership of Baz Bastien. After the 1966-67 season, the Hornets ended a story that dates back to the past. In the 1930s, the NHL saw a significant expansion that included the Pittsburgh Penguins.

After struggling in their early years, the penguins eventually won the Stanley Cup in 1991. In one of the most haunted ironies in hockey history, the Penguins won their first Stanley Cup by defeating the Minnesota North Stars, an NHL franchise that merged with the Cleveland Barons in 1976, when the Barons folded after just two years in the NHL . Over 25 years after losing to the Barons for a crazy goal, Gil Mayer of the Hornet finally got his revenge.

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