The Cancelled Cup

The Spanish Flu in the 1918/1919 Hockey Season

Eric Zweig

The Montreal Canadiens faced elimination on March 29, 1919. After four games in their best-of-five series with the Seattle Metropolitans, Montreal had only one win. Seattle had two. The fourth game ended in a 0–0 tie after 20 minutes of overtime. The Canadiens had to win game five to stay alive. If they did, they’d force one more game – a sudden-death sixth game for the Stanley Cup.

The Canadiens needed a victory, but the Metropolitans came out flying. Seattle’s Frank Foyston got the first goal at 5:40 of the first period, and the Canadiens were down 2–0 by intermission. It was 3–0 Seattle after two periods, but Montreal fought back. They tied the game late in the third and won it 4–3 after nearly 16 minutes of overtime.

Frank Foyston

Game six to decide the Stanley Cup was scheduled for April 1, 1919, but the long games were taking a toll. Players on both teams were injured and exhausted. Still, there wasn’t much cause for concern. No one suspected the real problem. These fierce competitors weren’t just tired, they were sick – and the consequences would be deadly.

The game of hockey looked very different a century ago. The arenas were more compact and darker. The players wore little protective equipment, and they were smaller, averaging only about 5-foot-9 (175 cm) and 160 pounds (72.5 kg).  Even so, the best ones played close to 60 minutes a game. That meant teams had to have only about 10 men in their lineups to get through a season that was much shorter than today. NHL teams played just 18 games in 1918/1919. Small rosters with few substitutions meant that players had to pace themselves. This made for a slower game, but it was still plenty rough.

Ottawa Hockey Team (National Hockey Association): World Champions and Stanley Cup Holders, 1911.

The NHL had just three teams in 1918/1919, and the league champion didn’t automatically win the Stanley Cup. Even after winning the NHL playoffs in 1919, the Montreal Canadiens had to face the Seattle Metropolitans, champions of the rival Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA). Because it took almost a week to travel across North America by train, the entire 1919 Stanley Cup Final took place in Seattle in 1919.

The Canadiens and Metropolitans were well matched. Of the 17 players who competed for the 1919 Stanley Cup, seven would make it to the Hockey Hall of Fame: Montreal’s Newsy Lalonde, Georges Vézina, Didier Pitre, and Joe Hall, and Seattle’s Frank Foyston, Jack Walker, and “Hap” Holmes. Both teams had talent and speed. Seattle may have been a little bit faster, but NHL teams played a rougher style than PCHA teams, and Montreal fans hoped that hard hitting would slow down the Metropolitans – even though it hadn’t happened when the two teams met before. 

Montreal had won the championship of the National Hockey Association in 1917, but they’d lost the Stanley Cup to Seattle that year. Canadiens fans were looking for revenge this time, but things looked bad when the Metropolitans won the opening game 7–0. Montreal scored a 4–2 win in game two, but Seattle roared back for a lopsided 7–2 victory in game three. The Canadiens finally got even with those two long overtime games, and although the odds still favoured Seattle in the final game, everyone knew that anything might happen – yet no one expected what actually did.

On the morning of March 31, 1919, two members of the Montreal Canadiens became quite sick. Joe Hall and Jack McDonald both had high fevers. That evening, teammates Newsy Lalonde, Louis Berlinguette, and Billy Coutu developed high fevers, too. So did team owner George Kennedy. It was a return of the dreaded Spanish flu.

The first case of Spanish flu hadn’t hit Seattle until October 3, 1918. That was more than a month after the flu had appeared in the east. City leaders in Seattle knew all about the horrors eastern cities had faced, and they tried their best to keep their city safe. Even so, mid-November to mid-December proved to be a deadly time in Seattle. Life finally seemed to get back to normal in January, and everyone hoped that the disease had disappeared for good in March. There wasn’t a single flu-related death reported that month, so what happened next was shocking.

On the night of April 1, 1919, when they should have been playing the final game for the Stanley Cup, Joe Hall and Jack McDonald had to be rushed to Providence Hospital, with temperatures reaching 105°F (40.5°C). The other stricken Canadiens were too weak to leave their beds at the Georgian Hotel, so the league cancelled the game. And due to fears that the arena might be a breeding ground for further infection, the series would not be completed.

Joe Hall, courtesy of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

While the series was over, the eyes of hockey fans were still on Seattle. Only now, instead of waiting to get the score, they waited for medical reports. Telegrams and telephone calls whirred across the wires between Seattle and Montreal. Newspapers all across Canada did their best to keep readers up to date.

Over the next two days, Montreal’s Odie Cleghorn and a few Seattle players developed symptoms, but these soon passed. By April 4, almost everyone was recovering. Only Hall had failed to improve, and his temperature continued to hover around 103°F (39°C). Like so many flu victims, Hall soon developed pneumonia. As fluid built up in his lungs, his breathing became increasingly laboured. He died at 2:30 p.m. on April 5, 1919, in Seattle’s Columbus Sanitarium.

There was talk of trying to resume the series later, but no Stanley Cup winner was ever awarded for the 1918/1919 season.