Jack Riley, Penguins’ 1st general manager, dies at age 97
Jack Riley, who never played in the NHL but became the first general manager of the Penguins, died Wednesday. He was 97.
Riley twice held the Penguins’ GM post, from the team’s 1966 founding to 1970 and from 1972-74. In between, he was interim president and executive director. Riley later scouted for the club and served as commissioner of the Southern Hockey League and president of the International Hockey League.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Jack Riley,” the Penguins said in a statement. “Jack served as the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first general manager in 1967 and played an important trailblazing role in the club’s history. He occupied a regular seat in the press box until just a few years ago, was a proud and beloved member of the Penguins alumni association and is fondly remembered by former players, coaches, scouts, office staff, arena workers and fans.
“As the Penguins approach our 50th anniversary season, we are humbled to know that the franchise was built on the shoulders of hard-working people like Jack. We send out condolences to his family and many friends, both in Pittsburgh and throughout the hockey community. Jack Riley will be missed.”
Personable and candid, Riley owned a wealth of knowledge, and he was more than happy to share. Tom McMillan, the Penguins’ vice president of communications, called Riley “a walking encyclopedia of hockey.”
Born on June 14, 1919, in Toronto, John Thomas “Jack” Riley made, and kept, many friends. He was an active member of the Penguins Alumni Association and made public appearances into his 90s, remaining “sharp as a tack,” said his friend, former Penguins coach Eddie Johnston. Riley was inducted into the Penguins Hall of Fame in 2000.
“He’s done so much for us,” Johnston said in 2014. “There’s no better gentleman than Jack. They don’t come any better. Jack’s a jewel.”
McMillan said, “Jack in many ways was the original Penguin. He was there when it all began. It’s why it was so great he was around for the (Stanley) Cup in 2009. He got to see the growth of the franchise through many ups and downs.”
He added, “Jack is not in the (NHL) Hall of Fame, but the sport was built on the shoulders of guys like him.”
When the NHL in the mid-1960s decided to double its size from six to 12 teams, then-state Sen. Jack McGregor fronted a group of investors that landed an expansion franchise for Pittsburgh. As team president and CEO, McGregor hired Riley, an American Hockey League executive who played 11 seasons in the minors, as general manager.
Riley picked the original colors — columbia blue, navy blue and white — hired the first coach, George “Red” Sullivan and stocked the club for its inaugural 1967-68 season with free agent minor leaguers and players picked in the expansion draft.
Riley also boldly requested that the Penguins play their first game against a member of the NHL’s “Original Six,” specifically Montreal. As he explained to the Trib in 2007, “I thought we might catch them off guard.”
On the night of Oct. 11, 1967, before a Civic Arena crowd of 9,307 (more than 3,000 below capacity), the Penguins tested the vaunted Canadiens before losing 2-1.
“We played pretty well,” Riley recalled years later.
But building the team was a challenge, and not just for the Penguins. The NHL made it hard for the new clubs, all grouped in the new Western Conference, by limiting the number of quality players the established teams could leave unprotected in the expansion draft.
The NHL also made untouchable the two developmental teams controlled by each of the Original Six. The new teams depended on minor league talent, and several free agents signed by Riley played for the Pittsburgh Hornets, the defending AHL champions. The Penguins payroll that first season was $350,000.
The first player to sign was Les Binkley, a 33-year-old minor league goaltender who minded the nets for the Penguins for parts of five seasons. Former New York Rangers star Andy Bathgate became the Penguins’ marquee player during their first season, leading the conference in scoring at age 34. McGregor hand-picked Bathgate in the expansion draft, which was no accident given management’s win-now approach. The Penguins had the oldest team in NHL.
“My owners wanted experience when the Penguins were formed,” Riley told the New York Times in 1970.
The team finished fifth at 27-34, narrowly missing the playoffs, and tied for fifth the next season despite Riley’s active deal-making. In Year 3, the Penguins finished second in the West Division and beat the Oakland Seals, 4-0, in the first round of the playoffs before losing to St. Louis in six games in the league semifinals. The club by then had new owners and a new coach, Red Kelly. Riley had been promoted at midseason to interim president.
A big star during that 1969-70 season was rookie Michel Briere, a smallish but dynamic forward taken by Riley in the third round of the 1969 draft. Briere was the type of player a franchise could be built around, but he was critically injured in a car crash in Quebec a few weeks after the season and remained in a coma for 11 months before he died. He was 21. Riley was a frequent visitor to the hospital.
“I’d grab his hand, and I’d say, ‘Let’s go, Mike, we’ve got to play St. Louis tonight’ — that was our biggest rival — and he’d grab my hand tight,” Riley told the Trib in 2006. “But as the visits went on, there was no communication at all.”
The Penguins never seemed to recover, and the club continued to struggle, on and off the ice. Attendance lagged. There was front-office turmoil. In 1973, owner Tad Potter publicly ripped the team, saying “the players think the energy crisis means them, so they only give 85 percent now.”
Riley, who returned to his GM post the year before, told reporters at one point, “Maybe we think too much of our players.”
By January 1974, Riley was gone, replaced by his 34-year-old assistant, Jack Button. He remained with the team, helping with an innovation called “computer scouting.”
“It’s been a culmination of losing, of course, and probably the fact that my image has been tarnished pretty badly by bad publicity,” Riley said after resigning under pressure. “I’ve never been a public relations man, but I’ve always been able to get along pretty well with people.”
That never changed.
As a 5-foot-9 right winger, Riley played in the minors from 1938 to 1950, doubling as a player-coach for several seasons. After retiring as a player, he coached for one season and later was a coach and executive in the AHL before joining the Penguins. Decades later, he worked as a replay judge during Penguins games at Mellon Arena and as a consultant to the IHL and AHL into his 80s.
Riley was preceded in death by his wife, Jeanne, and son, John. He is survived by his son, Thomas, of Toronto, and daughter, Barbara Ann, of Scott. Friends will be received from 2-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. Monday at Laughlin Memorial Chapel in Mt. Lebanon. Mass of Christian Burial will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Our Lady of Grace Church.