Why you should care
Because actions have reactions.
When the Montreal Canadiens pulled into Victoria, British Columbia, six days before the 1919 Stanley Cup Final, they had rest and relaxation in mind. Manager George Kennedy planned the layover as they waited for their opponents to emerge from the Pacific Coast Hockey Association finals. But after the Seattle Metropolitans won that awaited battle, another adversary — a demon claiming victims worldwide — reared its vicious head. Montreal’s Stanley Cup dreams quickly turned to simply surviving the plague.
This season marks the NHL’s centennial — 100 years in business since it picked up where the National Hockey Association had left off in 1917. As the league celebrates, it also examines the formidable moments throughout NHL history, from Wayne Gretzky’s 50 goals in 39 games to the 1967 expansion of six new teams in America. But one that is often forgotten is the first and only time that no Stanley Cup champion was crowned because playing the final would have meant risking players’ safety. The Spanish Flu, combined with an NHL rule change, left one hockey legend dead and many demanding change.
The 1918-19 NHL campaign was only the second season for the fledgling league. After the NHA disbanded in 1917, the three remaining teams — Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa — formed the NHL. Led by goal-scoring center Newsy Lalonde and defensive bruiser “Bad Joe” Hall, the Canadiens defeated Ottawa four games to one in the league finals. From there, Montreal headed west to take on the PCHA champions, with the victor claiming the Stanley Cup. The West Coast league — in operation since 1911 — had teams in Vancouver, Victoria and Seattle, and while they celebrated their sport spreading coast to coast in Canada, they would soon be mortified to learn that a deadly virus had followed suit.
Team hotel rooms became makeshift infirmaries, and doctors finally declared that hospitalization was necessary.
The 1918 flu pandemic, aka the Spanish Flu, was one of the most vicious pandemics in human history. From January 1918 to December 1920, more than 500 million were infected, and nearly 5 percent of the world’s population, an estimated 50 million, were left breathless. The rise of accessible international travel coupled with World War I military movement accelerated the spread of the flu like never before: Soldiers and civilians succumbed at record rates, and professional athletes were no exception. “This was a major, league-wide health threat,” says hockey historian Stan Fischler. “Theaters were closing, and they were trying to avoid gatherings at major venues.”
The Mets and Canadiens played five games, resulting in two wins each and a tie before the flu-forced halt. Before the decisive Game 6, all hell broke loose inside Seattle’s Georgina Hotel. Five Canadiens players, including Hall, Lalonde, Jack McDonald, Billy Couture and Louis Berlanquette, fell ill, along with their manager. Team hotel rooms became makeshift infirmaries, and doctors finally declared that hospitalization was necessary. With only four healthy players, according to the Montreal Gazette, the league had no choice but to call off the remaining game and etch both organizations onto the trophy. “SERIES NOT COMPLETED” serves as an all-caps asterisk.
“Not in the history of the Stanley Cup series has the world’s hockey championships been so beset with hard luck as this one” read the Gazette. But that history was likely low on the list of the Canadiens’ concerns. To contain the outbreak, doctors worked to retrace Montreal’s steps. The six-day layover in Victoria, where seven members of the local hockey team, the Victoria Aristocrats, had been hospitalized by flu, was the likely culprit, according to Michael McKinley in Hockey: A People’s History.
But another factor — this time, on-ice — may have played a role. In 1919, the PCHA invented the forward pass, allowing players to pass the puck forward, rather than simply (and more slowly) back and forth — considerably speeding up play and tiring players out. “A full-speed shift in today’s NHL is only about 45 seconds,” says former NHL player and current ESPN broadcaster Barry Melrose. “Players weren’t nearly as fast back then.”
Current 23-man rosters are more than capable of handling exhaustion, but the eight- to 10-man teams of the early 1900s meant that players rarely left the ice, leaving little opportunity for rest and recovery. By 1919, when the virus blew through the Great Northwest, the Canadiens “might have been exhausted and more susceptible to the outbreak,” says Fischler. Had the NHL roster size been increased or the forward pass come along a decade later, disaster might have been avoided.
On April 5, less than a week after falling ill following a Game 5 overtime victory that kept his team alive, a depleted Joe Hall, 37, died. The 16-year professional enforcer was one of the longest-tenured hockey players of his era and, to this day, is one of only 45 British-born NHL players. “You can often tell how significant a player is by whether he had a nickname,” Fischler says. “Hall was a superior player and an incredibly tough player. Otherwise he wouldn’t have had the name Bad Joe.”
While Hall’s death rocked the hockey world, the NHL remained slow to institute change that would allow for more rest. In 1925, maximum players in uniform were boosted to 12 — just two full lines — compared to today’s 23.