SEATTLE—There’s talk throughout the sports world about protecting players from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — and Seattle has some unfortunate experience in that area.
With all the present-day talk of cancelling games and banning media and fans from stadiums and arenas, Seattle remains the only place where a major professional sports championship failed to conclude due to a global pandemic. The year was 1919 and the Seattle Metropolitans were locked in a titanic struggle of a rematch with the Montreal Canadiens for the Stanley Cup, having prevailed in their finals series two years prior.
But on April 1, 1919, when a decisive Game 6 was to be played, public health officials cancelled the series just 5 1/2 hours before puck drop.
Montreal players Joe Hall, Jack MacDonald, Newsy Lalonde, Bill Couture and Louis Berlinquette and coach George Kennedy had been hospitalized with fevers of 101 to 105 F (38 to 40 C) due to the Spanish influenza that ravaged the planet from January 1918 through December 1920. Two Seattle players, Roy Rickey and Muzz Murray, would also soon be stricken along with coach Pete Muldoon.
“The health department is the one that shut the series down,” said Kevin Ticen, author of last year’s Metropolitans book titled “When it Mattered Most: The Forgotten Story of America’s First Stanley Cup Champions.”
“They cancelled the last game because they didn’t want people in that close proximity,” Ticen said. “The players also all shared the same water, so they worried that they were contaminated.”
Hall, 37, a three-time Cup-winning defenceman and married father of three, would die four days later at the Columbus Sanatorium.
“Hall was a star of the first magnitude when many of the young players on his team were infants,” the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote in announcing the death. “Hall had been playing hockey continually for twenty years and he was still considered one of the best defensemen in the game.”
There were warning signs days ahead of the cancellation that something might be seriously wrong. On March 26, players had been collapsing on-ice during Game 4 of a scoreless goaltending duel between Georges Vezina of Montreal and Metropolitans counterpart Hap Holmes — one of the greatest netminder battles in Cup history.
Officials finally ruled it a draw after two sudden-death overtime periods and agreed to extend the best-of-five affair to a Game 6 if Seattle, leading the series 2-1-1, couldn’t wrap things up in Game 5. And that’s exactly what happened as the Metropolitans, ahead 3-0 in the third period of that March 29 fifth game, were overcome by more exhaustion and lost 4-3 in overtime.
At the time, the unusual fatigue in both games was attributed to the hard-fought nature of the series, especially the prolonged Game 4.
But in hindsight, given how the Spanish flu afflicted 500 million people worldwide — killing anywhere from 17 million to 50 million — it’s fair to ask whether something more should have been suspected sooner.
“I’d definitely thought of that,” Metropolitans author Ticen replied when asked. “I get the sense that they never connected it until everybody woke up sick. When you look back on it, it makes sense now — 100 per cent. But they didn’t think anything of it.”
U.S. cities saw outbreaks the prior summer as troops returned from the First World War overseas, where the virus is believed to have taken hold in battlefield trenches. Seattle by October 1918 had shut down public gatherings and schools and the illness would kill 1,441 of 315,000 inhabitants and cause more than 4,000 deaths statewide.
“The numbers are staggering,” Ticen said. “Five-hundred million people — a third of the world’s population — gets infected by this, so you’d think it would have been on their minds more.”
But public bans had been lifted and schools reopened by January 1919 — two months before the Cup final. Also, there’d been no flu outbreak near the downtown Seattle Ice Arena and the Metropolitans had played their entire season there without incident.
Historians have argued over the generally accepted theory the Canadiens contracted the illness in flu-ravaged British Columbia, where they’d overnighted for an exhibition game in Vancouver en route to Seattle. Seven members of the team in nearby Victoria contracted Spanish flu that season.
Also worth noting: A week before the Cup final opened, Seattle did, in fact, welcome home 1,500 overseas troops from the 63rd Coast Artillery regiment in a public ceremony attended by thousands of cheering spectators.
What separated the Spanish flu from previous pandemics and today’s novel coronavirus is that it impacted stronger, able-bodied people instead of mainly very old and very young populations. About half the estimated 675,000 U.S. deaths were people with ages 20 to 40.
Beyond Hall’s death, Canadiens coach Kennedy died two years later from Spanish flu at 39 after never fully recovering from his initial bout.
Metropolitans coach Muldoon died in Tacoma, Wash., of a heart attack at 41, a decade after the Cup final. It’s long been suspected his Spanish flu bout weakened his heart.
The Stanley Cup was redesigned in 1948 to include Metropolitans and Canadiens team names on it for 1919 along with a “series not completed” engraving.
Hall remains interned in the Mountain View Cemetery in his native Vancouver, enshrined posthumously in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961. Local entrepreneur Paul Kim, who owns the rights to the Seattle Metropolitans name, had worked with Hall of Fame officials on having some type of 100-year memorial event last year.
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Kim hoped the Stanley Cup could visit Seattle and either Montreal or Vancouver to commemorate the cancelled series and Hall’s death. But the plans fell through.
Ticen has some personal take-aways from that dark moment in our city’s sports history, whether it is memorialized or not.
“My biggest,” he said, “is that it’s better to be safe than sorry.”