Series Not Completed: How the flu disrupted the 1919 Stanley Cup Final
The staffers found out first. Upon clocking into work the morning of April 1, 1919, they were soon handed an unexpected assignment: strip away the temporary ice sheet from the arena in downtown Seattle, and instead begin laying the foundation for a roller rink. Why the sudden change? A few hours later, at 2:30 p.m., an official announcement came down from management. The sixth and decisive game of the Stanley Cup Final had been canceled on account of influenza.
Across the street at the Georgina Hotel, the block of rooms reserved for the visiting Montreal Canadiens had morphed into a sickbay. There, five Habs players and manager George Kennedy stayed bedridden, temperatures ranging between 101 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit, according to The Toronto World. It was reported that all but four Canadiens had fallen ill, which left the NHL champions far short of a full roster to face the host Seattle Metropolitans, representatives of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, for the ultimate title.
“Not in the history of the Stanley Cup series has the world’s hockey championship been so beset with hard luck as this one,” wrote The Montreal Gazette, though such hardships were hardly confined to sport. At the time, the pandemic logged in history as the Spanish Flu was ravaging post-World War I society, eventually affecting an estimated 500 million, one-third of the entire population, and killing around 50 million. “Medical science for four and one-half years devoted itself to putting men on the firing line and keeping them there,” read an editorial in the Dec. 28, 1918 edition of Journal of American Medical Association. “Now it must turn with its whole might to combating the greatest enemy of all—infectious diseases.”
By no means would this mark the last time that a viral outbreak infiltrated the NHL’s sweaty, germy ranks. At least 23 players league-wide—plus one linesman and one referee—came down with the mumps in late 2014. Earlier this week, the same contagious illness befell Vancouver defenseman Troy Stecher, Minnesota forwards Zach Parise and Jason Pominville, and Wild assistant coach Scott Stevens.
But, as the league continues celebrating its centennial anniversary, the disease that disrupted its third season remains the only cause for an outright cancelation of the championship. It’s why the official ledger lists Montreal and Seattle with two wins apiece, plus a tie in Game 4. And why both team names were eventually engraved on the Stanley Cup above the words “SERIES NOT COMPLETED.” And why, on an even more crushing level, the NHL lost one of its most tenured and decorated veterans, a 37-year-old defenseman for the Canadiens named Joe Hall.
He was an Englishman by birth but immigrated to Canada when he was young, first settling in the Manitoban city of Brandon. Even though Hall took up hockey full-time at 19 years old, he never forgot his humble roots. During the offseason, according to the World, he often returned home to toil on the railroad gangs, eventually saving enough to buy a home for his wife, two sons and one daughter. “In comfortable circumstances,” the newspaper noted.
On the ice, Hall developed a reputation as an equally hard, often physical worker whose effort ascended him up hockey’s ladder. “Hall played the game for all there was in it, and although he checked hard and close, he was never known to take a mean advantage of a weaker opponent,” the Globe would write in his obituary. “He was popular with his club mates, and made many friends in the cities in which he played hockey.” It even earned him a nickname, though friends disputed its accuracy. “As far as I’m concerned he should have been known as ‘Plan’ Joe Hall and not ‘Bad’ Joe Hall,” Canadiens forward Joe Malone once said, according to Stan and Shirley Fischler’s 2003 book Who’s Who in Hockey. “That was always a bum rap.”
From 1900-1902 Hall skated with Brandon’s intermediate team before joining the senior Winnipeg Rowing Club, with whom he faced defending champion Ottawa HC for the 1904 Stanley Cup, back when the chalice was up for grabs via interleague challenge. From there he bounced around, suiting up for squads in Brandon (again), Winnipeg (again), Houghton, Mich., Montreal, Quebec, and Edmonton. Finally, when the National Hockey Association shuttered its doors and the fledging National Hockey League formally opened for business in 1917, Hall found a home with the Canadiens. It would, unfortunately, be his last.
For two regular seasons in Montreal, Hall led the league in penalty minutes, first posting 100 in 1917-18 and then an absurd 135 over 16 games in 1918-19. “Long and checkered,” the World would call his career. Still, it was widely acknowledged that no other player had appeared in more Stanley Cup games than Hall, who eventually won three times with Kenora (1907) and Quebec (1912 and 1913). The cruel, ironic twist? On some level, by virtue of his style and endurance, Hall might’ve become more susceptible to the virus that claimed his life.
The day before Game 6, on March 31, the flu’s potentially fatal effects were treated like afterthoughts. Betting lines pegged the Mets as slight 5-to-4 favorites at home, according to the Gazette. Local talk, meanwhile, focused on the rules under which the game would be governed. Since Montreal and Seattle hailed from different leagues, they had been alternating between the Pacific League's seven-on-seven format (Games 1, 3 and 4) and the NHL's six-on-six (Games 3-5). With the Cup at stake, the home team's style would again be employed, to its presumed benefit.
“The Mets will be able to use their passing game once more, and the penalty system of the [Pacific] League will discourage rough play,” the Gazette wrote in its April 1 edition. “Despite their defeat on Saturday, when the Frenchmen came from behind and won in an overtime struggle, every one of the Seattle men are expected to be champions of the universe after Tuesday’s game.”
Even so, both sides had been decimated throughout the punishing series. Five Seattle players were nursing ailments, including defenseman Bobby Rowe (ankle) and winger Frank Foyston (thigh). Montreal, meanwhile, was expected to dress only eight skaters, not including Hall, whose condition was ruled as “seriously ill and…unable to leave his bed.” Reported the Gazette: “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. However, the Canadiens are being given the very best of care, nurses and physicians being in attendance at all times on them and every other attention is being shown the stricken players.”
Better safe than sorry, of course, and so it was that the April 2 headlines declared, “World’s Hockey Series Cancelled.” This went over far better than one assumes it might in, say, the Twitter age. Kennedy, the Montreal head coach, suggested borrowing several players from a local club in Victoria, B.C., and continuing the game that way, but was overruled. (This likely would’ve been a terrible idea; it was believed that the Canadiens had contracted the disease in that very city.) Proceeds were evenly divided between the two clubs, instead of the initially planned 60-40 split. And since Toronto had beaten Vancouver for the 1918 title, the Stanley Cup was ruled to remain back east, under the NHL’s claim; sportsmanly enough, Mets manager Pete Muldoon passed on the opportunity to protest the split decision on his team’s behalf.
“This has been the most peculiar series in the history of the sport,” Pacific League president Frank Patrick said. “Precedent after precedent had been broken. There never was 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.”
Two days later, the truly tragic news landed. “Veteran Joe Hall Called By Death,” read the Gazette’s headline. And then the subhed: “Noted Hockey Player a Victim of Pneumonia Following Attack of Influenza.” Along with winger Jack McDonald, Hall had been checked into a local Seattle hospital after the cancelation of Game 6. But while McDonald—plus Kennedy and the other Canadiens—recovered, Hall died on April 5 at 3 p.m., at the Columbus Sanitarium. His body was scheduled to return to his family in Brandon. And in 1961, the year the Hockey Hall of Fame opened its museum doors in Toronto, Hall was posthumously—and appropriately—inducted.
“One of the real veterans of hockey,” Patrick said at the time. “The game suffered a loss by his passing. Off the ice he was one of the jolliest, best-hearted, most popular men who ever played.”