The forgotten story of ... how Spanish flu tore apart the 1919 Stanley Cup final

Joan Niesen
The Guardian

The disease known as the “Spanish flu” was first reported in North America in January 1918 in Kansas. By the time owners and organizers began to prepare for the league’s second season, the flu was becoming a specter. Due to the virus, only three delegates were able to attend an October 1918 meeting that was required to transfer team ownership and settle on the final number of teams in the league. That same month, Hamby Shore, a star player for the Ottawa Senators, died from the Spanish flu. The rest of the fall would see deaths across sports in North America: a famous curler in Manitoba, an American League umpire in Boston, the president of the Alberta branch of the AAU, the secretary of the Montreal City Amateur Hockey League and the Eastern Hockey Association.

News about the league planning for its season was printed next to columns advising citizens to wash their hands, keep healthy diets and find cures for the flu in nature. “Evidence seems to prove that this is a germ disease, spread principally by human contact, chiefly through coughing, sneezing or spitting,” the Leader-Telegram in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, wrote. “So avoid persons having colds – which means avoiding crowds – common drinking cups, roller towels, etc.” Bowling alleys, the sites of competitive tournaments, were mandated to close. “I understand that preparations are being made for different rugby and other games this week,” Toronto health officer Dr Charles Hastings said. “These games must be discontinued. They only jeopardize people’s lives. It is inconceivable that the people in charge of them have not more judgment.”

Still, NHL play began on 21 December 1918, in part because of the minimal crowds it drew compared to today. (Attendance numbers from 1918-19 aren’t readily available, but for context, in 1926-27, Ottawa averaged 85 fans per game.) At the time, the NHL season was divided into two 10-game halves, and only three teams would compete: the Senators, the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Arenas. The Canadiens won the season’s first half, finishing with a 7-3 record. The defending Stanley Cup champions, Toronto, struggled, winning three games in the first half. By the time they announced their intention to shutter amid chaos behind the scenes after 17 games, they had logged only two more wins. NHL president Frank Calder convinced the Arenas to hold on for an 18th game, but that was as far as they – or the regular season – would go. The league pivoted, announcing that Montreal would face Ottawa in a seven-game series to determine which team would advance to play the Pacific Coast Hockey Association champions in the Stanley Cup final.

Montreal won that series, four games to one. In the one game they lost, fans of the Senators threw lemons and turnips onto the ice, aiming for Montreal’s Bert Corbeau, who had levied a hit against one of the Ottawa players. Still, Ottawa couldn’t make a comeback in the series, and the Canadiens players packed their bags for Seattle, where the series would be played against the hometown Metropolitans. Seattle had an interesting journey of their own to the final. They had faced the Vancouver Millionaires in a two-game playoff without their star player, Bernie Morris, who was arrested for draft dodging hours before the start of the series. They still squeezed through 7-5 on aggregate.

Now it was time for the finals. The Metropolitans blew out the Canadiens 7-0 in Game 1, before Montreal won Game 2. Seattle were on top after Game 3, and after a scoreless tie in Game 4, the Canadiens came back to win Game 5, tying the series at 2-2-1. But in the Montreal dressing room after the game, emotions were mixed. Despite winning, the team had lost one of their best players early in the game. Veteran defenseman Joe Hall had collapsed on the ice.

The teams had two off days scheduled between Games 5 and 6, and during that break, players on both squads started to experience flu-like symptoms. Hall was already hospitalized, suspected of being infected and with a temperature of 104F (40C), and the Montreal roster was hit harder than Seattle’s. By the day of Game 6, four more Canadiens players and the team’s general manager, George Kennedy, had joined Hall in hospital.

To the public, it still seemed unimaginable that the next game would be postponed or the series canceled. The day before Game 6, oddsmakers gave Seattle a slight edge, and behind the scenes, the two teams were working on contingencies should players still be sidelined. Montreal had tried to simply forfeit the series, but the Seattle general manager, Pete Muldoon, didn’t want to win the Stanley Cup under those circumstances. Muldoon suggested Montreal try to enlist players from the Victoria Aristocrats, who played just across the water from Seattle in British Columbia. The idea was a stretch, and Calder rejected it. By then, the puck was scheduled to drop in just five hours, and the teams had run out of solutions. Seattle still refused the Montreal forfeit, and the series was simply canceled.

The Canadiens remained in Seattle, waiting for their players and general manager to recover. Little information circulated about the players’ condition, but the Winnipeg Tribune reported that Kennedy’s condition was worsening. His wife was on her way from Montreal to Seattle, and the paper said that the team was considering chartering a train to take everyone, invalids included, back home.

The train journey never happened. Kennedy’s wife made her way west, and most of the Canadiens began to improve. One did not: Hall. He’d contracted pneumonia as a result of the flu, and on 5 April 1919 he died in the Columbia Sanitarium in Seattle. His mother was at his bedside, but his wife and children were nearly 1,300 miles away in Brandon, Manitoba. Hall was 37 years old.

“Joe Hall loved hockey so much that his death, practically in harness, would, without a doubt, have been the death he would have chosen were it within the power of human beings to so choose,” the Vancouver Sun wrote the day after his death. “Whenever Joe Hall played a game of hockey he played it for all he was worth. Though not a big player physically, the severest knocks never dampened his ardor. As recently as in the recent world’s series he was hit on the face a terrific crack with the puck, and though it could be seen that he was suffering he kept right on as if nothing had happened.”

Hall was eulogized in papers across Canada, where he’d spent most of his life after emigrating with his family from England as a toddler. The Winnipeg Tribune called him “one of the greatest exponents of the hockey game,” and a “remarkable and brilliant athlete.” It continued: “Joe never spared himself while in a game; he always gave his best and never hesitated to mix things. It is a wonder that a player who received so many hard jolts and slashes as he did, could continue in the game for so long.”

The Montreal Gazette described how each summer Hall worked on the railroad, which allowed him to purchase a home for his family and leave them in “comfortable circumstances.” After his death, his body was shipped back to his hometown in Manitoba, and the Stanley Cup headed back east as well. (It returned to Toronto, the previous winner, where the team had disbanded.) The trophy is still engraved with words that detail a tumultuous year:

1919
Seattle Metropolitans
Montreal Canadiens
Series Not Completed



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