With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the league to pause things in March and effectively ending the regular season, this has been an unprecedented year.
Modern sports fans may not realize it, but a similar scenario has actually played out before.
Neither World Wars or the Great Depression could prevent the Stanley Cup from being awarded. A labour work stoppage wiped out the 2005 Stanley Cup playoffs, and the only other year that the Stanley Cup was never presented was 1919, due to the worldwide influenza pandemic.
That classic Final series, which pitted the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens against the Pacific Coast Hockey Association’s Seattle Metropolitans, was cancelled with just one more game left to play. Looking back, that situation is something the NHL is clearly hoping to avoid this summer.
Multiple players on both teams ended up infected by the flu 101 years ago, including Montreal defenceman Joe Hall, who died in a Seattle hospital four days after the final contest was supposed to have been played. Montreal general manager George Kennedy was also severely affected by it, and his death two years later was attributed to complications arising from his bout with the flu in 1919.
Seattle reacted relatively quickly to the worst wave of the pandemic in October 1918, closing schools and most businesses, and requiring people wear masks in public, effectively flattening the curve of the outbreak better than most cities. After shutting down for October and early November 1918, Seattle lifted the lockdown in time to celebrate the armistice ending World War I on 11 November, but there was another wave of infections in mid-December that forced another partial shutdown.
By March 1919, though, the disease was somewhat of an afterthought and Seattle had no restrictions on people gathering when the Stanley Cup series started there on 19 March. Reportedly about 3,500 hockey fans crammed into the 2,000-seat Seattle Arena to watch Game 1.
The NHL, with teams solely in the east, and the western-based PCHA were considered to be roughly on par with each other in terms of talent, and the leagues had an arrangement where their league champions would face off for the Stanley Cup. At that time, it took about five days to travel across North America by train, so they alternated hosting all games of the series. In 1918, every game was played in the NHL champion’s city, and the Toronto Arenas defeated the PCHA’s Vancouver Millionaires 3-2 in the best-of-five Final. In 1919, it was the PCHA’s turn.
Seattle, which had become the first American team to win the Stanley Cup in 1917 when they defeated the Canadiens (who then played in the National Hockey Association, the NHL’s predecessor) 3-games-to-1 in the Final, finished 11-9 in the 1918/19 regular season. The Metropolitans then beat 12-8 Vancouver in the PCHA Final, 7-5 in a two-game total-goals series, to earn the right to host the Stanley Cup. In the NHL, during its second season, Montreal went 10-8 that year and then beat the original Ottawa Senators franchise, which had gone 12-6, 4-1 in a best-of-seven NHL Final series.
The leagues played by different rules and agreed to play the best-of-five series alternating game by game. Games 1, 3 and 5 (if necessary) would be played by the host league’s rules.
At the time, the main differences were that the PCHA used six skaters on the ice (not including the goaltender) instead of five, and allowed forward passing in the neutral zone, whereas the NHL required the puck to be advanced by skating it. Neither league allowed forward passing in the offensive zone. After implementing forward passing in the neutral zone in 1927, the NHL expanded the rule to the offensive zone in 1929.
As one might expect, each team performed better using their familiar rules. Seattle blew out the Canadiens 7-0 and 7-2 in Games 1 and 3 under PCHA conditions, as star forward Frank Foyston scored three goals in Game 1 and four in Game 3. Montreal prevailed 4-2 in Game 2, with captain Newsy Lalonde notching all four goals. That set up Game 4 on 26 March when the Metropolitans could clinch the Cup.
Playing under NHL rules, Seattle appeared to take a 1-0 lead as the first period expired when Cully Wilson put the puck in the net, but it was waved off, deemed to have crossed the goal line just after the whistle. No one else could score, and in the end, the teams battled to a hard-fought 0-0 tie. That included two 10-minute overtime periods, but back then, teams didn’t play unlimited OT until someone scored, it was just left as a tie, probably due to deteriorating ice conditions, as the Zamboni had not yet been invented. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer described players as being so tired after the game that they just collapsed on the ice, attributing it to how hard they battled against each other.
It was also considered one of the greatest games ever played at that point. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote in the next day’s paper: “They may be playing hockey championships for the next thousand years, but they’ll never stage a greater struggle than that which held 4,000 spectators spellbound last night.”
For Game 5, there was initially some disagreement over whether it should be played under PCHA or NHL rules, but eventually Seattle agreed to play under NHL rules again, since it was technically considered a continuation of Game 4. So on March 29, under NHL rules, the teams played again with Seattle still having the opportunity to claim the Stanley Cup.
What followed was another classic battle, as Seattle jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the second period. With its fans ready to start celebrating, the Metropolitans seemed to wear down after that, though, and the Canadiens battled back in the third period, eventually tying it 3-3 on Lalonde’s goal with just 3:52 remaining.
The game again went into overtime, and as the exhausted players once again pushed for the game-winner, Montreal’s Jack McDonald ended it at 15:53 of OT, sending home 4,000 disappointed fans.
The Seattle Daily Times the next day: “Thrills and more thrills were on tap at every stage of the battle. The breaks were against the Seattle skaters. They fought like fiends but the hardiness of the invaders stood the endurance test to better advantage and pulled out one of the most spectacular games staged at The Arena. … The Montreal club must certainly be given credit for the scrap they put into the mixup last night. With the odds against them and fighting with their backs to the wall, they showed a never-say-die spirit that brushed aside all obstacles and stepped out ahead.”
In retrospect, as tired as the players were from the extended battles of Games 4 and 5, it appears that a number of them were already weakened by the flu.
So one more game, to determine the Stanley Cup champion, was scheduled for 1st April, but was never contested. In the hours after Game 5, multiple players on both clubs developed fevers and became sick, including Hall. Five or six Canadiens player were determined to have the flu and, since their entire roster consisted of just 13 players (there were very few line changes in those days – players were substituted out infrequently, like in basketball), it became clear they wouldn’t have enough healthy players to ice a team for Game 6.
Some options were considered such as letting the Canadiens use ‘replacement’ players from other PCHA teams, or even Montreal simply forfeiting the game, and the Cup, to Seattle. But in the end, the Metropolitans wanted to win the Cup legitimately or not at all. After a couple of days, the ice was removed from the Seattle Arena, but there was still the possibility days later of reviving the battle and playing in nearby Vancouver, but that never materialized, because some additional players (and family members) got sick, and Hall’s condition worsened. On 4 April, PCHA president Frank Patrick declared the series finally and officially over, confirming that the Cup would not be awarded.
“This has been the most peculiar series in the history of the sport,” Patrick said when announcing the cancellation. “Precedent after precedent has been broken. There will never be another series of games like the present one. We are sorry that the Seattle fans could not witness the deciding struggle, however confident they were of winning, but the circumstances were such that it would have been impossible to play the game.”
Seattle did feel very confident, especially with the final game to be played under PCHA rules, as many viewed the decision as robbing the Metropolitans of the Cup.
“The unexpected development cheated the Mets out of the big honors, in the opinion of close followers of the game,” the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote the next day. “With the game schedule to be played under Western, or seven-man, rules, the Seattle men were big favorites to win, and every one of the local team expected to emerge from the game a champion.”
Confirming that the correct choice was made, Hall, who was 37, died the next day, on 5 April. A physical, bruising blueliner who was considered one of the league’s fiercest hitters, Hall led the NHL in penalty minutes that season with 130 (in just 16 games!), while the second highest total was 55. Hall, who had won the Stanley Cup three times before, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961.
Following that series, the Canadiens went on to become hockey’s most storied franchise, winning 21 Stanley Cups over the next 60 years, and 24 overall.
Seattle was back in the Final series the following season, but fell 3-games-to-2 against Ottawa and never played for the Stanley Cup again. Both the club and the PCHA folded in 1924, and after two years competing against teams in a newly-formed Western Canada Hockey League, the NHL absorbed most of the players and the Cup became its sole property in 1926/27.
The city will finally return to major league hockey with the NHL expansion club Seattle Kraken that begins in 2021/22.
Of course, the parallels to the current situation are striking. And with a sophisticated return-to-play program and safety zones at the two arenas in Edmonton and Toronto, the NHL will do everything to prevent any COVID-19 cases when the season resumes on Saturday.