When the Stanley Cup Final Was Canceled Because of a Pandemic
In 1919, a second wave of cases of the previous year’s flu lead to the sudden death of the hockey championship
Midway through a marathon hockey game, in the midst of what is still regarded as one of the most intense championship series in the history of the sport, Joe Hall skated off the ice, exhausted and feverish. It was March 29, 1919, and Hall, a 37-year-old defenseman, was one of the stars of the National Hockey League’s Montreal Canadiens, who were in Seattle to play the Metropolitans of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association on their home ice for the Stanley Cup. The teams had already labored through four grueling contests of the best-of-five series; Game 4 had ended three days earlier with both teams literally collapsing onto the ice following three periods and a pair of overtimes, after no one on either side could muster a single goal.
As Hall retreated to the locker room, Game 5 took a dramatic turn. Montreal, trailing 3-0, tied the game at 3-3, and then pushed one last goal past a drained Seattle squad to win 4-3. The series was tied 2-2-1, and the local newspapers began looking toward a deciding game. “Players Are in Poor Condition for Game 6” read a headline in the March 31 edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. And yet even as it listed Hall and another of his teammates as struck by “high fever,” there was no mention, nor even any speculation, about the underlying cause of that fever: A deadly strain of influenza, known as the “Spanish flu,” that had already struck millions of Americans of all ages, and would end up killing roughly 675,000 Americans.
In a way, this was understandable. The flu’s second and deadliest wave--which followed a less severe outbreak in the spring of 1918--had peaked the previous fall, as World War I neared its end. In the midst of the panic, a number of sporting events were canceled, and the college football season was largely abandoned. On January 28, 1919, Seattle’s health commissioner announced that the epidemic was over, though isolated cases would remain. By the time of the Stanley Cup Finals, the concern over the flu had largely faded from the public consciousness, and the front pages.
“By March, it wasn’t really in the headlines anymore, and part of that is because people were really anxious to get back to their normal lives.” says Nancy Bristow, history professor at the University of Puget Sound and author of American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic. “But people were continuing to die, even though the emergency was off.”
The presumption of prominent sportswriters like the Post-Intelligencer’s Royal Brougham (a key character in The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown’s best-seller about a crew team competing in the 1936 Olympics) was that both teams had simply worn each other out. But it soon became clear that this was a late and high-profile resurgence of the flu in the United States—and it would claim the life of a prominent figure who was cut down in the prime of his life. It would also result in the only unfinished Stanley Cup Final in history, one that’s still memorialized on the trophy’s face with both teams’ names and three engraved words: SERIES NOT COMPLETED.
The Stanley Cup was commissioned in 1892, and in its earliest years it was awarded via “challenges” between rival leagues. In 1907, the Kenora Thistles, based in tiny Kenora, Ontario, defeated the Montreal Wanderers in a two-game, total-goals challenge series (the Thistles would cede it back to Montreal in a rematch two months later). Among the players on the Kenora roster: Joe Hall, who was born in Britain, raised in Canada, and took up hockey at the age of 19.
Hall quickly developed a reputation as a hard-hitter, as one of hockey’s first “enforcers,” and while he was well-liked off the ice, his playing style earned him the nickname “Bad Joe.” He bounced from one team to another as leagues and clubs came and went in those early days; when the National Hockey Association dissolved and gave way to the National Hockey League in 1917, Hall found a place with the Canadiens, where he led the league in penalty minutes for two seasons in a row. By then, the NHA (and eventually the NHL) had formed a gentleman’s agreement with the PCHA: The champions of each league would face each other for the Stanley Cup. The NHL’s ranks, wrecked both by the war and the presence of rival leagues like the PCHA, had dwindled to just two teams—Montreal and Ottawa—after the Toronto Arenas ceased operations, and the Canadiens beat the Senators in a best-of-seven series four games to one.
The Seattle Metropolitans had already defeated the Canadiens in 1917 to become the first American team to ever win the Cup. They upset regular-season champ Vancouver to win the three-team PCHA once again in 1919. But as the Stanley Cup Final opened, Seattle had a pronounced disadvantage—not because of the flu, but because of the lingering shadow of World War I. The Metropolitans’ star player, Bernie Morris, was arrested and charged with draft evasion.
Morris insisted it was a simple mistake. He pleaded his case to the authorities, stating that the notice had been sent to his home in Seattle while he was in Vancouver during the offseason. But after the military learned that Morris had testified to living the past three years in Seattle, Morris was detained and prosecuted during divorce proceedings against his wife earlier in 1919. The Army apparently sought to make an example out of him, according to Kevin Ticen, author of a book about the Metropolitans. (Morris was sentenced to two years of hard labor at Alcatraz, though he was eventually transferred to an Army unit and granted an honorable discharge.)
So Seattle entered the series short-handed, but that didn’t dampen the fans’ enthusiasm. Standing-room crowds jammed into the Seattle Ice Arena (capacity 2,500) to watch those Stanley Cup games, seemingly oblivious to any fears about the last vestiges of the flu spreading to them. What they witnessed was a war of attrition that climaxed in Game 5, when Seattle, on the verge of clinching the Cup and battling exhaustion brought on by its lack of depth, couldn’t hold that 3-0 lead.
Two days later, on the morning of April 1, the news began to leak: Game 6 would not be played at all. By then, five Canadiens players had been hospitalized, along with coach George Kennedy (who never fully got over his symptoms and died a couple of years later); the flu had also hit at least Seattle players, as well. But Hall—who would be voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961—was the hardest hit of them all. Five days later, on the morning of April 6, the Post-Intelligencer ran a banner headline: “JOE HALL, FRENCH HOCKEY PLAYER, IS DEAD.”
The paper called those Stanley Cup Finals “the most unusual world’s series in history” and “the hardest fought series since the Stanley cup was put up for competition.” Wrote the Seattle Times: “Not in the history of the Stanley cup series has the world’s hockey championship been beset with hard luck as has this one.”
By the following year—when the Ottawa Senators defeated the Metropolitans for the Stanley Cup—the NHL had grown to four teams, and it would continue to mature in the post-war era. The Metropolitans would fail to compete for another Stanley Cup after 1920; in 1924, after their arena was knocked down to build a parking garage for an adjacent hotel, the franchise disbanded.
More than a century later—as Seattle grapples with its place as the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak and prepares to launch its own NHL franchise in 2021, and as the NHL itself suspended its season to "flatten the curve"—those Finals remain utterly unique, their forever-unfinished status a reminder that the ramifications of the Spanish flu epidemic extended beyond the natural chronological boundaries that it’s typically associated with. “There were thousands of orphans, and thousands of people who suffered a complete breakdown of family,” Bristow says. “It was a complete social change, even after the rest of the community had moved on.”
In fact, Hall’s final days coincided with perhaps the most consequential flu case of all: Just two days before the hockey star’s death, president Woodrow Wilson, travelling to the Paris Peace Conference, fell ill with symptoms believed to be caused by influenza. A number of historians and advisers believe that it impacted Wilson’s ability to negotiate a proper treaty, and that the president was never quite the same again.