abandon cup: bad joe hall and the fatal stanley cup finals of 1919

Seattle Strong: The Seattle Metropolitans and Montreal Canadiens line up for their first Stanley Cup meeting in 1917. Seattle prevailed to become the first U.S. team to win the coveted trophy. In 1919, when they met again, Seattle came close to winning a second championship before the series was abandoned.

The last hockey game Joe Hall ever played, he bloodied no-one with his stick, which he also failed to smash across anyone’s passing head. He kicked no referees; no fines or suspensions did he incur. The police, too, saw no reason to arrest him in the dressing room.

Instead, with the Stanley Cup on the line on that late-March night in 1919, the 37-year-old Montreal Canadiens defenceman made what was, for him, a meek showing. Bad Joe Hall’s reputation had added an outlaw’s epithet to his name, but on this night he was ailing, unable to play beyond the first period of Montreal’s thrilling come-from-behind overtime win over the hometown Seattle Metropolitans.

The victory was in vain. Within days, the championship series was abandoned, marking the first time since the Stanley Cup was inaugurated in 1893 that it had gone unwon. (The only other Cupless year was 2005, when a labor dispute wiped out the NHL season.)

A hundred years ago, an outbreak of the virulent Spanish flu sickened players from both teams. For Joe Hall, the outcome was as dire as it could have been — on April 5, at three o’clock in the afternoon, he died in his bed at Seattle’s Columbus Sanitarium.

English-born, in Milwich, Staffordshire, Hall was the oldest player in professional hockey in 1919, and still one of the game’s most effective — and feared — figures.

His family had emigrated to Canada when he was a boy, and in the early years of the 20th century he started making a hockey-playing name for himself in the prairie city of Brandon, Manitoba. His skills soon took him farther afield: to Winnipeg first, then south and across the border to Houghton, Michigan, where he joined the world’s first professional hockey league.

He was a fleet forward, then, touted as the fastest in the dominion. He remained a regular goal-scorer even after he shifted back to defence, moving to eastern Canada to star in the pre-NHL National Hockey Association. When the Quebec Bulldogs won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1912 and ’13, Hall was a dominant force.

Dangerous, too.

Throughout his career there would be those who vowed that Hall was never so dastardly as all that, only ever retaliated when wronged; referees persecuted him. Some argued that his skullduggery was at least honest: he never tried to hide his merciless swiping, spearing, and slashing.

But even by the unruly standards of early hockey, Hall does seem to have played the game with a singular ferocity. His name was often at the centre of discussions on how to rid hockey of what was called, in the parlance of the times, rowdyism.

A columnist aiming to classify his unsubtle style wrote that “he was a wielder of the broad-axe, not the rapier.” He battled all comers, often with his trusty rock-elm stick. Another witness to Hall’s early career predicted he’d keep going until he killed someone.

His non-lethal charge-sheet included a 1910 fracas during which he kicked a referee named Rod Kennedy. There was talk then that Hall would be banned from hockey for life, but in the end he was fined $100 and suspended for a pair of games. Learning that Kennedy’s trousers had been torn in the fracas, Hall offered to pay a further $27.50 to buy Kennedy a new suit, but the referee told him not to worry about it.

Bad Rap: Joe Hall poses outside Montreal’s Forum circa 1917.

In 1913, Hall kicked another referee, Tom Melville, and swung his stick at his head. (Melville ducked.) Sentenced to another two-game suspension, Hall paid a fine of $150 this time — two thirds of which was imposed by his own team. A Montreal newspaper approved: “This will be a lesson to other players in future that rowdyism will not be tolerated.”

Hall’s most famous feud was with a fellow future Hall-of-Famer, Newsy Lalonde. In 1914, when he hit the captain of the Montreal Canadiens in the mouth with his stick, Lalonde lodged his protest by walloping Hall over the head. Eight stitches closed the cut.

There was more talk of expelling Hall for good, but nothing came of it. When the NHL debuted in 1917, he signed with Lalonde’s Canadiens. The two old adversaries became roommates, and good friends.

Not that Hall had trouble finding new antagonists. In a game in Toronto the following March, a local reporter noted that every opposing player who approached Montreal’s net “received a jab in the face or head from Hall.”

“It was a disgraceful exhibition and a discredit to any league or city,” a local critic complained. If the NHL continued to tolerate “players of the Hall type,” he foresaw, “the league is certain to die a natural death.”

The league was a lean and somewhat shaky operation as it launched into its second season in the fall of 1918. For Hall, it was business as usual on the ice: he would end up leading the league in penalty minutes, accumulating more than twice as many by the end of the season as anyone else in the league.

Not figured into that ledger was the time that Hall spent in police court in January of 1919. Toronto’s Alf Skinner seems to have started it, driving his stick into Hall’s mouth, whereupon Hall clubbed Skinner to the ice, continuing to chop at him while he lay unconscious.

Toronto police arrested both players, on charges of disorderly conduct. Both would plead guilty in court, though the magistrate presiding decided that the $15 fines already imposed on them by the referee was punishment enough for their crimes.

In those early NHL years, the Stanley Cup finals brought together the best professional teams from east and west. As eastern champions, the Canadiens boarded the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Imperial Limited in mid-March for the journey to the Pacific coast.

There was discussion, briefly, of convening a four-team tournament, with Ottawa and Vancouver Millionaires joining in to vie for the Cup, but by the time Montreal reached Vancouver, it was confirmed that they would meet the Pacific Coast Hockey League-champion Seattle Metropolitans in a best-of-five series for the title.

Montreal’s line-up was a seasoned one, anchored in goal by Georges Vézina. Joining Hall on defence were Bert Corbeau and Billy Coutu. Up front Montreal counted on Lalonde and Didier Pitre, Odie Cleghorn, Jack McDonald, and (playing in his fifth finals) Louis Berlinguette. Seattle counted on veteran goaltender Hap Holmes and forwards Jack Walker, Cully Wilson, Bernie Morris, and Frank Foyston.

The teams were familiar rivals. Two years earlier, Seattle had beaten Montreal to become the first American team to claim hockey’s premier prize. Most of the players involved in the 1919 series were the same. Personal connections interwove the rosters, too: Seattle’s leading scorer, for instance, was Morris — like Hall, a Brandon man.

For all the bonds between players, the two teams played very different brands of hockey. The western game had been shaped and streamlined by the Patrick brothers, Lester and Frank, sons of a British Columbia lumber baron. Retired now from distinguished playing careers, they ran the PCHL.

As hockey innovators, the Patricks introduced many of the rules and procedures hockey fans take for granted today, from blue-lines and penalty-shots to forward-passing and the awarding of assists. East and west were working towards harmonizing their rules — in 1918-19, the NHL had gone so far as to adopt the west’s forward-passing rule — but because they still hadn’t fully agreed on how best the game should be played, the Stanley Cup finals saw the teams alternate rulebooks.

One night, the teams would ice seven men aside, as per PCHL practice. Next game: fans would see six-man NHL hockey, which also allowed teams to substitute a player who’d been penalized without worrying about going shorthanded.

Opening the championship series under western rules, Seattle duly won in a 7-0 romp. They managed this despite the unexpected absence of Bernie Morris, accused on the very eve of the finals of deserting the U.S. Army, and confined to Seattle’s Camp Lewis to await a court martial that would eventually imprison him on Alcatraz for a year.

Playing to the eastern code, Montreal won the second game 4-2. Seattle took the third, 7-2, which meant that they had a chance to wrap up the championship on March 26.

Hints of what was ahead crept into the reports of that fourth game, played March 26. Scoreless through 60 minutes, the teams battled for a further 20 minutes of overtime without a goal to decide the outcome. Players from both teams collapsed as the game ended unresolved; some had to be carried off the ice.

“The hardest-played game in hockey history,” Frank Patrick called it. NHL President Frank Calder said that there was none more remarkable in all the hockey annals, even though it never should have been halted — in his book, the teams ought have continued until somebody scored a goal. Seattle coach and manager Pete Muldoon didn’t see why the game shouldn’t count as a tie, which would mean that the next game would be played under western rules. A brief stand-off ensued before Muldoon allowed that the fourth game would, in effect, be replayed under eastern rules. Epic as it was, the contest would be ignored, with the series continuing as though it had never been played at all.

It seems clear now that many of the players were already, by this point, fevering under the effects of the H1N1 virus. The Spanish flu pandemic that had swept the globe in the wake of the First World War would kill between 20 and 100 million people worldwide. Preying largely on young, vigorous adults, the highly infectious respiratory virus had reached its deadly peak in October of 1918. Both Stanley Cup cities had been hit hard then: by the end of the year some 1,400 had succumbed in Seattle, while the toll in Montreal was close to 3,000.

In nearby Ottawa that fall, the hockey fraternity had mourned the death of Hamby Shore, 32, a three-time Stanley-Cup champion who’d just retired as an NHLer. And two weeks before the games in Seattle, Montreal centre Jack McDonald learned that flu had killed a brother of his who was serving with the Canadian Army in Siberia.

McDonald, as it happened, scored the decisive goal when the two teams met for the last time that week when the finals resumed. Poised once again to clinch the Cup, Seattle got goals from  Foyston and Walker, who notched a pair, to surge to a 3-0 lead after two periods. It didn’t hold.

Joe Hall wasn’t a factor — after having played only sparingly, he seems to have left the game at the end of the first period, retiring (as the Vancouver Daily World described it) “owing to sickness.” An early shoulder injury knocked Hall’s partner Bert Corbeau out the game, which meant that Lalonde and Pitre had to drop back to play defence foe the balance of the game. Still, Montreal got a goal to start the third period from Odie Cleghorn before Lalonde tied it up with a pair of his own.

In overtime, McDonald skated half the rink to score on Mets’ goaltender Hap Holmes.

But there would be no more hockey. In the days leading up to what would have been the decisive game, the focus moved east from Seattle’s Ice Arena to the city’s Providence Hospital, to which several suffering Mets were transferred, and the Columbus Sanitarium, where six Canadiens, including Lalonde and McDonald, along with Canadiens manager George Kennedy were soon under care.

It was pneumonia that killed Joe Hall at the age of 37 on April 5, a week after he’d played in his final hockey game. His mother and his brother were with him at the end; his wife learned of his death as she hurried west on the train from Brandon. Joe Hall was buried April 8 in Vancouver.

Vancouver historian Craig Bowlsby has argued persuasively that if the rules revolution underway in hockey a century ago didn’t kill actually Joe Hall, it did set the stage for his demise.

The advent of forward-passing had made the game faster than ever before. As exciting as this new and still-evolving brand of hockey was for fans, it was taxing the players to their physical limits — and in Joe Hall’s case, beyond.

Under the old ice order, players often played an entire game, 60 minutes, without leaving the ice. But while hockey in its new, speedy, evolved form made that physically difficult even for players who weren’t battling a deadly virus, hockey had failed to adapt to allow for regular substitutions. Montreal iced nine players for the 1919 series, Seattle just eight. In any other year, the game that had failed to adapt quickly enough might just have left them exhausted. With H1N1 still in the air in Seattle, they faced a much more dangerous prospect. Even after Hall’s death, it would be years, Bowlsby points out, before teams adjusted their rosters.

“The games were the most strenuous I have ever been in,” Newsy Lalonde said when he and his teammates got back to Montreal after burying Joe Hall. “I would not like to go through another such experience for any amount of money.”