Minute by minute it seems that the world is going in the wrong direction. Rising authoritarianism across the globe. The gap between the have’s and have not’s has become a canyon. And now, a killer virus is sweeping the globe, praying on the most vulnerable of us. If my aunts on Facebook are to be believed, we better make right with our maker, because the end of days is on the horizon.
These are tough times, but they are not the end times. The 20th century alone had two world wars, the rise of global terrorism, and a cold war that threatened the legitimate end of the world for nearly a half-century. That’s a lot to live through. Oh, and I forgot about the pandemic that swept across the globe 100 years ago, killing millions. Turns out random strips of genetic code have been spoiling our sporting events for a while now.
The Spanish Flu of 1919 didn’t originate in Spain. The name was a xenophobic measure taken by leaders trying to pin the illness on “The Other” as they tried to catch up to an event whose power they didn’t respect.
That may sound familiar.
The first case was reported on a military base in Kansas in March of 1918. The United States had joined “The War to End All Wars” almost a year earlier and the global conflict was a particularly good conduit for the virus. In North America, wartime life had become a new normal. Canadians had been fighting on behalf of Britain since the beginning of the war. American involvement was finally turning the tide. With all the death, rationing, and stress of not knowing when or if “normal” would ever return, people looked for outlets, and during WWI, that outlet for many was sports. This was when boxing and baseball boomed in the states. And in Canada, hockey was being played at a high level from coast to coast despite a generation of men being taken from the sport for the war effort.
When the flu first started to spread, the NHL was yet to be born, but the Stanley Cup had been handed out to Canada’s best hockey team for two decades. 1917 saw the first US-based team take the Cup. The Seattle Metropolitans beat the Montreal Canadiens (yes, those Canadiens) to claim the silver. Neither team played for the Cup the following season, but in 1919, the pair made it back to the finals, and the rematch lived up to the hype.
The teams traded wins in the series, with a double-overtime tie in Game Four (leagues hadn’t really figured out the whole playoff series thing yet back then). Montreal tied the series at two apiece, forcing a deciding Game Six to be held on April 1st in Seattle. That sixth game was never played. You’ve probably figured out why.
The strain of H1N1 flu remembered as Spanish Flu was particularly savage because of the people most susceptible to it. Unlike most illnesses that impact mainly the elderly, the sick, and small children, the Spanish Flu attacked the young as well. People ranging from their late teens to their 40’s were particularly impacted by the sickness. An estimated 500 million people worldwide were infected between 1918 and 1920. A large number of those were the soldiers fighting the war, the workers in factories supplying the war, and those living in cities.
The Seattle area was particularly hard hit at the end of 1918. At the end of September 1918, the University of Washington’s Naval Training Station suddenly reported more than 650 cases of the flu that month, which had largely been confined to military bases (some studies suggest that nearly 40% of US troops may have contracted the virus during the pandemic) and the east coast. The flu would come to the area in waves, as local authorities tried to figure out how to slow the spread of the virus. The State of Washington was hit with at least three large waves (medical records from the time are notoriously unreliable) in 1918-1919, between periods of nice weather and successful social distancing. Social distancing would eventually waiver as people resumed their normal patterns of living and the virus would come roaring back once more. One of these cycles began to surge in Seattle during the spring of 1919, just before the Stanley Cup Finals were to be hosted.
There was no talk of delaying the games or the series. All of the Seattle Metropolitans' games were played in front of packed crowds. The Canadiens stayed in a hotel downtown and neither team was forced to follow quarantine guidelines, which very much existed by this time in the pandemic. The series was played within in a city that had seen at least 1,400 deaths from flu between October and mid-March. By the time members of the Montreal hockey club began getting sick after the first pair of games, the die had already been cast. It was just a matter of bearing witness to the damage done.
On the day of the deciding Game Six, the Montreal Canadiens had just three players healthy enough to play. Several of their players had been hospitalized and their General Manager, George Kennedy, had no choice but to forfeit the Cup to Seattle. The Seattle player-coach, Pete Muldoon, refused to accept the Cup in a forfeit victory. It was decided that there would be no Stanley Cup winner in 1919. Kennedy soon after became so sick from the flu, his wife was called from Montreal to be at his bedside. He would survive the initial infection, but it damaged his body so severely, he died from complications a few years after. Tragically, four days after the cancellation of the series, Canadiens defenseman Joe Hall would die from the virus. He was 37 years old.
Now 100 years later, the NHL and leagues around the world are staring down the possibility of canceled seasons. President Trump held a conference call in April with almost every league which plays in the United States. It was reported that he stressed his desire for sports to resume as quickly as possible. We find ourselves squarely in the first wave of the current COVID-19 pandemic, it should be stressed that rushing back to normalcy too quickly can have profound consequences.
As cases surge and the leagues weigh the financial costs of protecting players and staff with the risks of not playing at all, it is worth remembering the mistakes made in 1919. All indications pointed to a potential tragedy in Seattle. Science was ignored and people lost their lives because of it. There is a haunting reminder of this legacy teach on the most famous trophy in sports.
No engraving was made to mark the 1919 cancellation on the original Stanley Cup. But in 1948, when it was remodeled into its current iconic form, a simple message was etched into the trophy where the winner should have been:
Series Not Completed
If that is too subtle, perhaps it should be changed to this:
Lives Not Completed