A look back at the NHL during the 1918 pandemic
This isn’t the first time the NHL has suffered from a viral outbreak. For us younger fans, who
can forget the mumps outbreaks? Yes plural. In case you did forget, in both the 2014 and 2017 seasons, the NHL was hit by the grotesque virus, leading to a cluster of fans clamouring for a temporary league shutdown to minimize the infection rate. In 2014, over two dozen players were infected by the disease. So when it resurfaced in 2017, NHL teams were more prepared. They instituted a mandatory five day quarantine for those that exhibited symptoms.
But this feels different. While those two outbreaks infected more NHL players than the-now-infamous Covid-19 (as far as we know), they were handled as far less severe. The obvious difference was the reality of a pandemic. Non-essential businesses in Canada are closed. Social distancing has entered everyone’s lexicon. Parts of major cities around the world now look like ghost towns. The once infuriatingly-populated Don Valley Parkway - the only highway into downtown Toronto - is now empty (relative to its standards). Oh, and there are literally no sports, with the exception for a pesky Belarussian hockey league. These are unprecedented times.
Or are they?
In one of his addresses to the media, Dick Pound, the Canadian representative to the International Olympic Committee, likened the current outbreak to the Spanish Influenza pandemic from 1918-1920. Whether he meant to draw a comparison to, literally, the most devastating period in human history is neither here nor there. What is important is that the connection was made. Is it fair?
In some ways, absolutely not. The 1918 outbreak killed, conservatively, 50 million people, and infected 500 million, the latter of which accounted for one third of the world’s population at the time. Covid-19’s virulency certainly poses massive threats to the population, but its capacity for carnage doesn’t come close to the Spanish Flu.
But through a more social lens, the comparison holds up. When was the last time the majority of the globe was in quarantine? We experienced significant outbreaks in recent memory including H1N1, Ebola, and SARS, but for one reason or another, they didn’t reach this echelon.
The only times the NHL didn’t hand out the Stanley Cup were in 1919, for reasons we know, and 2005, for petty reasons we won’t get into here. 2020 stands to join their century-old compariate in this category. So, with the reality of a Cup-less season on the horizon, let us look back at the 1919 season to see how the cancellation of a season came about.
Some background first. The Spanish Flu first came up towards the end of the First World
War. It is believed that it originated in the French trenches, where the state of filth and vulnerability of the soldiers served as an excellent opportunity for the virus to strike. It adopted the name of the Spanish Flu because Spain was one of the very few European nations to not participate in the Great War. For this reason, they were the first and most often to report the virus' destruction, therefore giving the global impression that it originated there. To limit this historical inaccuracy, the rest of the article will not refer to it as the Spanish Flu, but instead as other variations, such at the 1918 influenza or the Flu pandemic.
What made the 1918 influenza so devastating was its apparent choice in primary target: healthy men and women between the ages of 16 - 40. This was contrary to everything they understood about viruses, having never seen a strain attack the least vulnerable population. This placed people that often wouldn’t worry about such illnesses in the virus’ crosshairs.
As for the NHL, the 1918-19 regular season began with three teams: the Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadians, and Toronto Arenas. 18 games into the season, following months of legal back-and-forth, the Toronto Arenas suspended hockey operations. This was the best of a bad situation, as the Arenas sat last place with a record of 5-13 with a -28 goal differential (typical).
So the league made the decision to play their first ever seven game series to decide who would win the NHL Championship, and gain the right to play the defending Cup champs - Seattle Metropolitans - for Lord Stanley (the playoffs were all wonky back then).
Ottawa was somewhat reeling at that time, as they were the first team to have felt the impact of the viral influenza: the death of their forward Hamby Shore a couple months prior. Shore had helped the Senators to three Stanley Cups, including scoring the Cup-winning goal in 1911.
Ottawa was impacted further by the outbreak, as they were without star forward Frank Nighbor, who had led the team with 19 goals and 28 points in 18 regular season games. He had missed the first three games of the series, all of which Montreal won, due to a family member falling ill with the virus.
Nevertheless, the Senators ultimately fell in five games, setting up a rematch of the previous year’s final between the Canadians and Metropolitans. The finals were set to take place in late March, early April, 1919. This would coincide with one of the deadliest waves of the Influenza pandemic.
After three games, the Metropolitans led the Canadians two games to one. In a crucial game four, the Canadians leaned heavily on defensive stalwart Joe Hall. The veteran defenceman seldom left the ice in what turned out to be a double overtime draw, as neither team could find the back of the net. Many fell to their knees with exhaustion once the game was called, but Hall was the equivalent of a human truck. He hardly wavered, and would recover nicely the following day and be prepared to stave off elimination in a crucial game five.
But a number of players on the Canadian’s lineup began to exhibit flu-like symptoms,
including Hall. Despite this warning, the game went on, and a heroic three-goal comeback in the third period helped the Canadians tie the series at two, setting up a final sixth game to decide who would win the 1919 Stanley Cup.
But the morning of the contest, Montreal general manager George Kennedy couldn’t believe the damage the flu had inflicted upon his lineup. Many of his players were showing signs of pneumonia - a staple of both the 1918 Influenza and Covid-19 - and were bed-ridden. Particularly bad was defenceman Joe Hall, who just four nights earlier had played the equivalent of almost two entire games in the double overtime draw. Kennedy informed the Metropolitans that they would not be able to take the ice.
The Metropolitans had the option to claim the Cup via forfeit, but declined that option, as it was neither the time nor the circumstance to capitalize on such unfortunate events.
They were right in their evaluation of ill-stricken Canadiens.
Four days following the cancellation of the Stanley Cup-deciding game, the pandemic took another hockey player. The protagonist of our story - rugged, untouchable, unflappable defenceman Joe Hall succumbed to the Flu on the 5th of April, 1919.
Similar to our current circumstances, humans have a tendency to dismiss issues as not serious if they are not directly affected. In 1919, the season continued despite the pandemic, only stopping when the Canadiens, literally, could not ice a team. And the reality that, the man who could play five straight periods of hockey and not allow a single goal, Joe Hall, could fall to it, surely pierced the veil of invisibility that so many held.
North America didn’t take Covid-19 seriously until an NBA player contracted it, causing the league to postpone their season. Other major associations followed, both within and outside of the sports world. While not everyone is directly at risk of major complications if contracted, everyone serves as a potential carrier. Take the appropriate measures, and learn from our historical shortcomings. Stay safe and take it seriously.