Cancel Culture: Lessons Should Be Learned From The 1919 Stanley Cup Finals
Minute by minute it seems that the world is going in the wrong direction. Rising authoritarianism across the globe. The gap between 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 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 the pandemic that swept across the globe 100 years ago. Turns out invisible enemies have been spoiling our sporting events for a while now.
The Spanish Flu of 1919 didn’t originate in Spain, its 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 to some. 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 global conflict was a particularly good conduit for the virus to spread. 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 and 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 through 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 just being 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 6 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, Spanish Flu ravaged the young as well. People ranging from their late teens to their 40’s were particularly affected 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 the factories supplying the war and yes, the athletes playing sports for a rattled public.
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, 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. Washington was hit with at least three waves (medical records from the time are notoriously unreliable) in 1918-1919, between periods of social distancing. One of the waves hit Seattle in the spring of 1919 just before the Stanley Cup Finals were being hosted.
All the games were played in front of packed crowds. The Canadiens stayed in a hotel downtown and neither team was given any quarantine directions. The series was played within in a city that had seen at least 1,400 deaths from flu between October and mid-March. When 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.
By the day of the deciding Game Six, the Montreal Canadiens had 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 infection, but it damaged his body so severely, he died from complications a few years after. 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 season. President Trump recently held a conference call 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 the NHL ponders a 24-team playoff, Commissioner Gary Bettman and the rest of the NHL’s brass can be reminded of this fact should they take a quick visit to the (temporarily closed) Hockey Hall of Fame. No engraving was made to mark the 1919 cancellation on the original Stanley Cup. But in 1948, when the cup was remodeled into its iconic form, a simple message was etched into the trophy:
Series Not Completed
If that is too subtle for them, perhaps it should be changed to this:
Lives Not Completed