By Gare Joyce | Illustrations by Kagan McLeod
By Gare Joyce | Illustrations by Kagan McLeod
How the 1919 Stanley Cup Final provides a window into modern-history's deadliest pandemic

More than a century later, the solemnity of the Montreal Gazette headline remains haunting, even if the phrasing is archaic.


The three sub-heads below it laid out the thumbnail details of a man’s demise in the chilly prose of an obituary writer. The first addressed the cause.

Noted Hockey Player a Victim
Of Pneumonia Following
Attack of Influenza

The next was a strange one, unflattering and maybe even inappropriate considering Hall’s passing.


The third and last deck filled in the personal history and significance of the deceased.

First Played with Brandon in
1900 and Has Figured in
Many Stanley Cup

And then, before a column of type that ran the full length of the old broadsheet, the dateline.

Seattle, April 6

Joe Hall’s death was the last awful twist in what stands, a century later, as the most curious of hockey springs, one that has to be mostly imagined because it played out before the advent of indoor sports on film. Summoning it in the mind’s eye is not so easy. That said, the experience of a fan or player in the spring of 1919 might be more easily imagined today than at any other point in the modern times.

The 1919 Cup Final was a series abandoned before its deciding game because of an outbreak of a virulent and potentially lethal influenza known as the Spanish flu. The games were slated to play out in a city, Seattle, with an all-but-forgotten association with the National Hockey League, and saw the hospitalization of future Hockey Hall of Famers drawn from the lineup of one of the earliest iterations of the Canadiens, and the death of their defenceman Joe Hall.

Born in England before his family moved to Canada and settled in Brandon, Man., Hall was known to all as “Bad” Joe Hall. By far the most penalized player of his era, and at 37 the oldest active pro, Hall had been a blood rival of the Canadiens in his years with the Quebec Bulldogs, but was claimed by Montreal when the Bulldogs went on a business hiatus before the NHL’s inaugural season of 1917–18.

Just days before he succumbed he had only rarely left the ice in a Game 4 that was called a draw after teams failed to score through three periods of regulation and two more of overtime. From the Seattle Times: “With the honors of the puck classic of the world within the grasp of the Seattle Metropolitans, and Les Canadiens making a last determined stand, the two put on one of the hardest fought hockey battles in the history of the game at the local Arena last night. The game ended in a scoreless tie, after 80 min of furious play, breaking the no-score overtime record for hockey … Every man on the ice gave the best that was in him and several dropped from exhaustion at the end of the struggle.”

Still, with two wins to the Canadiens’ one, the Metropolitans remained poised to raise the Cup in Game 5, what would have been Seattle’s second championship in three years. The home team seemed even closer carrying a 3-0 lead into the third period, but Montreal roared back in the final frame and sealed the win in yet another overtime. “I always claimed I had a game team,” Canadiens general manager George Kennedy told the Times, “and the boys certainly proved it … I expect them to win the championship now.”

The series stood at 2–2–1, likely never to be repeated. When the flu went through the lineup, Kennedy told the Metropolitans that his team couldn’t possibly take the ice. Passing thought was given to the idea of bringing in players from Victoria but it was quickly dropped. The Seattle team might have claimed the Cup via forfeit but Frank Patrick, the co-founder and president of Pacific Coast Hockey Association, took the high road and declined. Per the hyperbolic Seattle Times: “The greatest ice hockey series ever staged ends in a draw.”

In the past couple of years, this piece of history has been revived frequently, prompted first by Seattle’s successful bid for an NHL expansion team. These stories introduced some readers to the Spanish flu, and as recently as last year their reaction would have been almost universal: “How could this ever happen? How could this not be stopped?”

We are all finding out now.

“How could this ever happen? How could this not be stopped? We are all finding out now.”

The 1919 Stanley Cup is a piece of historic curiosity that has overnight become a cautionary tale that hits as close to home as anything can a century removed. A game couldn’t be played, and a player was struck down in the prime of his life. The comparisons are inevitable: The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed thousands of lives in short weeks. Already this coronavirus has crashed the stock market and drawn whole business sectors to a dead halt.

The businesses of sport are fairly minor players in global economies, but they have been canaries in the coal mine and windows into the immediate effects of this first wave of a pandemic: the images of soccer games in Europe being played in empty stadiums; and then, in a wave late last week, executives of major professional leagues announcing that seasons were postponed (MLB), suspended (the NBA and the NHL) or cancelled outright (most recently the East Coast Hockey League).

COVID-19 is so easily communicated that it has made gatherings of even seemingly healthy people perilous, and no gathering of people is quite as unnecessary as the crowd at sporting events. Even games played in isolation were too dangerous a hazard — any doubt of that was eliminated after the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert and then Donovan Mitchell tested positive for the disease, which in turn sent the Toronto Raptors and other NBA teams that had played the Jazz to testing and into isolation. When a UFC card went off on schedule on March 14 without a live crowd, it evoked the band playing on as the Titanic sunk beneath them.

We can only presume that it was nothing more than coincidence or eerie parallel that an outbreak in the Life Care Center, a home for the elderly in suburban Seattle, has proven to be North America’s first hotspot for COVID-19. Yet just as sports provide a window into the current contagion, so too does the 1919 Stanley Cup Final offer another into the Spanish flu, the first pandemic of the H1N1 virus.

The scale and mortal effect of the Spanish flu is only estimable —and barely so. Some who have tried counting the worldwide dead based on research of real-time documents and newspaper accounts have cited 21 million over a two-year period. But it was a different time and probably less than half of the dead left a paper trail. “Epidemiologists today estimate that influenza likely caused at least fifty million deaths worldwide, and possibly as many as one hundred million,” John M. Barry wrote in The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Epidemic in History.

Just as the COVID-19 cluster at the Life Care Center demonstrates the risks posed to the elderly, so does the death of Joe Hall suggest how Spanish flu put an entirely different demographic at risk. Joe Hall was 37 when he died. His teammates were younger when they started to run temperatures of 101 to 105 and were moved out of their hotels to Seattle’s Columbia Sanitarium. In fact, Barry says Hall and the Canadiens might have been among those most at risk. “Roughly half of those who died were young men and women in the prime of their life, in their twenties and thirties,” he writes. “If the upper estimate of the death toll [100-million] is true as many as eight to ten percent of all young adults then living may have been killed by the virus.”

Thus, the awful math: Given the pathology of the disease and the numbers of players in the Stanley Cup Final, it’s not surprising that Joe Hall was a victim. What is surprising is that only Hall died.

How Spanish flu tracked so was a mystery. No one can say conclusively why it preyed on young adults in particular but one theory has emerged: With most viruses strong immune systems are an asset, but with others the body’s defence systems becomes its worst liability. Thus it might have been that many who died during the pandemic in 1919 died not of the strain of H1N1 itself but rather the overkill of their immune system’s reaction to an attack on the body. That would seem to be what made the Spanish flu so deadly and, perhaps, a key difference between that killer of millions a century ago and COVID-19.

The details of the influenza that claimed Joe Hall’s life and ended the hockey season that spring are slight because the old newspapers gave it far less play than you’d imagine a century later. The postponement of the series ran in the middle of the Seattle Times sports page, under the long shadow of a report of the Seattle Purple Sox signing an outfielder from the New York Giants and a cartoon lampooning heavyweight boxing champion Jess Willard.

In the Montreal Gazette, the Canadiens were more of a priority but still the story of the postponement ran as little more than a brief halfway down the second column, below a notice that the annual meeting of the Caledonia Curling Club was set for 8 p.m. at Burnside Place. The last of the report’s five paragraphs was speculative but ever-plausible: “The great overtime games of the series taxed the vitality of the players to such an extent that they were 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 in attendance at all times on them and every other attention is being shown the stricken players.”

There was no hint that the situation was grave. There was no mention of Joe Hall. He wasn’t listed among the stricken.

A couple of days passed and then the report of Hall’s death appeared — running in a more prominent place on the Gazette’s sports page but nothing beyond it. What would be breaking news on cable today, what would be trending on Twitter — the death of a local sports hero — seems to have been little more than an afterthought in 1919.

Going through the archives of the old broadsheet newspapers from 1919 is an exercise in time travel. The NHL is a multi-billion-dollar business today, but the league was in its infancy back then — the puck was dropped in the first NHL game barely 17 months before the cancellation of the 1919 Final and the death of Joe Hall. At the time, even in thriving markets, hockey was a novelty, one set of rules in the east (six men per side) and another in the west (a seventh man being a rover). Boxing dominated the sports pages, pro wrestling was news nearly as serious as the Great War. The NHL, this league in its second season, could not yet beat out the Caledonia Curling Club for attention.

What was, for me, more surprising than hockey’s short shrift looking at those old broadsheets was the coverage of the Spanish flu itself — surprising because there wasn’t any at all. I presumed that the pandemic would have gained blanket coverage. Far from it. The story of Hall being “called” was the only mention of influenza in the Gazette that day.

It wasn’t an oversight. It was a combination of circumstance and strategy.

Circumstance: The spawning ground of the Spanish flu is unclear other than the fact it didn’t originate in Spain. The timeline is clearer. The U.S. Smithsonian Institute’s magazine suggested that the first recorded outbreak was in Kansas in January of 1918 and it spread from a farming community to a nearby army base. More than 1,000 soldiers at the base were hospitalized. From the Smithsonian: “[Though] influenza was not then a ‘reportable’ disease, a local physician named Loring Miner … who became a doctor before the acceptance of the germ theory of disease … went to the trouble of alerting the U.S. Public Health Service.” According to the Institute’s voluminous archive, this was “the first recorded notice anywhere in the world of unusual influenza activity that year.”

The illness that Joe Hall and his teammates contracted moved at an awful rate and took victims in a matter of days. Yet by the time the Canadiens landed in Seattle for the Cup Final, the Spanish flu had passed its most deadly phase, having reached its full, tragic strength the previous fall. Wrote Barry: “[The victims} died with extraordinary ferocity and speed. Although the influenza pandemic stretched over two years, perhaps two-thirds of the deaths occurred in a period of 24 weeks and more than half of those deaths occurred in even less time, from mid-September to early December 1918.”

Strategy: The Spanish flu was doubtlessly underreported, subject to voluntary embargo. In those early months of 1919, the world remained unsettled in the immediate wake of World War I. Even after the Armistice, political leaders in Europe and North America believed any coverage of an unfolding health crisis would give comfort to the enemy — even a vanquished one — so newspapers fell in line. It wasn’t a disinformation campaign nor a cover-up; call it avoidance in the name of patriotism. Only when H1N1 reached Spain, a neutral country where no such embargo was placed on newspapers, was it labelled elsewhere the “Spanish flu.”

When Montrealers picked up the Gazette to read about the Stanley Cup in the spring of 1919, the front pages were dominated by coverage of world leaders meeting at the Peace Conference in Paris; a temperance referendum in Quebec that the Pope would not be drawn into; and soldiers still returning home even months after the war, including one who claimed to have rowed across the Atlantic. Over the course of the year before, the world order and everyday life had changed so as to be almost unrecognizable from what came before. It was bigger news in Montreal when Joe Hall went in the Hall of Fame in 1961 than when the Canadiens couldn’t ice a team in the deciding game of the Final — or even when Hall passed away in a sanitarium in Seattle. His remains were dispatched to Vancouver where he was buried.

The 1919 Stanley Cup Final played out as far as it could in the spring. Its suspension was a terrible surprise but one better understood at the time than it would be for much of the century that followed. The 1919–20 season started on schedule and played without interruption, but the Spanish flu wasn’t finished with the Canadiens: A couple of years after George Kennedy told Seattle that his players wouldn’t be able to play in Game 6, the Canadiens manager died, having never fully recovered from the physical ravages of his bout with the same influenza that had claimed Joe Hall.

Time had taken the tragedy and rendered it into something akin to a footnote. Today it stands as something else yet again. The death of Joe Hall suggests that even the toughest are vulnerable, that we can’t be brash in the optimistic belief that everything will turn out okay in days ahead. The death of George Kennedy suggests that a contagion casts shadows well after what is supposed to be the end, that even survivors are ever changed. There was never any thought about a replay or rematch; we’re learning right now that for some things in life there are no make-up games.

Photo Credits

Illustrations by Kagan McLeod