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How a virus ended the 1919 Stanley Cup Final without a champion

The Stanley Cup trophy.

The Stanley Cup trophy. Credit: AP/Jason Minick

The news merited only four lines in The New York Times of April 2, 1919, a brief notice about a faraway sports event that had been cancelled, with nary a mention as to why.

“The world’s championship hockey series between Seattle and Montreal has been called off, it was announced here today,” the brief dispatch from Seattle read.

Few New Yorkers had reason to know or care about the details then, but now the events of that early spring resonate as never before in the ensuing 101 years.

That is because the reason for the cancellation was a flu outbreak that hit the Canadiens hard, making the 1919 Stanley Cup Final the only time a health crisis stopped a major North American pro championship from being awarded.

It could well happen again this spring and summer, with the NBA and NHL both on hold and the resumptions of their seasons uncertain because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The good news is this time hockey officials acted more proactively, and the hope and expectation is the league’s players will come out of this healthy, Cup or no Cup.

Not so much in 1919. Officials did not call off the sixth and final game of the series until about 5 ½ hours before faceoff at Seattle Ice Arena, by which time workers had begun converting the facility to a roller-skating rink.

They did not have much choice. The Canadiens’ Joe Hall, Billy Coutu, Jack McDonald, Newsy Lalonde and Louis Berlinguette were hospitalized or bedridden, as was owner George Kennedy.

Some of the Seattle Metropolitans players also were ill.

By game day, only three Montreal players were healthy: Oldie Cleghorn, Didier Pitre and goaltender Georges Vezina.

Kennedy offered to forfeit the Cup to the Metropolitans, but their manager, Pete Muldoon, refused to accept under those circumstances and no champion was named.

(In 1948, both teams finally were recognized on the Cup above the inscription, “SERIES NOT COMPLETED.”)

The Canadiens did claim the National Hockey League championship that season, but in that era the achievement did not come with a Stanley Cup title.

Instead, the NHL champion had to face the Pacific Coast Hockey Association winner for the Cup. The leagues did not even use the same rules. The PCHA played with seven players on a side and the NHL with six.

PCHA rules were used in Games 1 and 3, and Seattle won both in blowouts. NHL rules were used in Games 2, 4 and 5, and Montreal won Games 2 and 5 while Game 4 was a scoreless, double-overtime tie.

Game 4 offered a sign of the trouble to come, as players from both teams collapsed from exhaustion when it was over. After Montreal won Game 5 in overtime, some had to be helped off the ice and/or be sent directly to the hospital.

As the Montreal Gazette wrote, “The great overtime games of the series have taxed the vitality of the players to such an extent that they are in poor shape indeed to fight off such a disease as influenza.”

PCHA president Frank Patrick said, “This has been the most peculiar series in the history of the sport.”

The Spanish flu outbreak, part of a pandemic that killed tens of millions worldwide from 1918-20, was not the only thing to complicate that series.

There were key injuries and the loss before it even began of Metropolitans star Bernie Morris, who was arrested for alleged draft dodging and served time at Alcatraz before having the charges dropped two years later.

Game 6 was to decide the Cup winner, but it became increasingly clear that playing it would be impossible. Kennedy even floated the idea of borrowing players from the PCHA’s Victoria team, but was rebuffed.

Local officials finally called the whole thing off. Four days later, Hall died at age 37 of pneumonia.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer obituary read, “Hall was a star of the first magnitude when many of the young players on his team were infants. Hall had been playing hockey continually for 20 years, and he was still considered one of the best defensemen in the game.”

He also wasn’t shy. That season he played in 16 games and amassed 130 penalty minutes.

Wrote the Gazette, “Not in the history of the Stanley Cup series has the world’s hockey championship been so beset with hard luck as this one.”

You could say that. Two years later Kennedy died at 39, having never fully recovered from the flu. His widow promptly sold the Canadiens for $11,000.

Last week, The Athletic spoke to a Vancouver Island anesthesiologist named Sarah Hall, who will be on the front lines among health care workers combating COVID-19 in Western Canada. She is Hall’s great-granddaughter.

“I have to say, I did think about that,” she said of the connection to the 1919 Final, “because of the way he died.”

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