Winter was on the way, but cases were on the rise, too, and as concerns over the spread of disease mounted, players in the National Hockey League did what they had to do and took a needle to make sure that the hockey season could proceed.
If the scenario sounds as familiar and up-to-the-moment as today’s (online) edition of your daily newspaper, the case at hand comes to us as 100-year-old history. Twenty months into our 21st-century pandemic, in a week in which the NHL’s modern-day Ottawa Senators have seen their schedule suspended under a weight of Covid-19 protocols, we’re casting back here to the fall of 1919 here.
Back then, in the wake of a world war, another devastating pandemic still wasn’t finished its dreadful work, but this isn’t a Spanish flu story. Seven months after that virulent virus shut down the Stanley Cup finals in Seattle, sickening most of the Montreal Canadiens’ line-up and killing defenceman Joe Hall, it was smallpox that was on the loose across Ontario.
News of a “mild” epidemic in Toronto made news in Ottawa at the beginning of November. “Fifteen cases are in the smallpox hospital,” the Journal advised, “but no deaths have been reported. All teaching institutions, included colleges, are ordered vaccinated. The City Council is to be asked to issue a proclamation ordering everybody to be vaccinated.”
By mid-month, the case count in the provincial capital was at 361, with 1,000 people in the city under quarantine. (Across the rest of Ontario, 541 cases were reported.) But Dr. Charles Hastings, the city’s medical officer of health, estimated that the actual number of infected Torontonians to be between 2,000 and 3,000. The smallpox vaccine was the first to have been developed against a contagious disease, going back to the end of the 18th century, and in Toronto that fall, the effort to vaccinate city’s population was working well, Dr. Hastings felt: in a city of some 520,000, as many as 100,000 had been inoculated by mid-November, “including a large proportion of schoolchildren.” Still, urgency was required: he sought compulsory vaccinations for all Torontonians.
The fact that Mayor Tommy Church and a majority of city councillors didn’t agree meant this was anything but a straightforward matter. Mayor Church declared his belief in vaccines; he just didn’t think the people of his city should be compelled to get them. Ontario’s Board of Health sent a letter requesting that the city issue a mandate; Council declined to issue one. Dr. John McCullough was the province’s top doctor: he reminded the Mayor and his stubborn councillors that any of them (as the Globe noted) “to whom responsibility for failure to issue this proclamation may attach will be liable to a penalty under the Vaccination Act.” There was talk of fines, of indictments under a grand jury, of jail sentences.
As Christmas approached — and cases increased — the struggle between the politicians and the doctors intensified. While the politicians refused to give ground, the local Board of Health saw to it that unvaccinated children were barred from city schools: on December 4, more than 1,000 were sent home. But it was politicians who manned the Toronto Board and by early January dissenting councillors had the upper hand, such that the city’s BOH not only refused to cooperate with the Ontario Board in its effort to enforce general vaccination, but suspended its earlier exclusion of unvaccinated schoolchildren.
The Ontario Board kept up its pressure on Toronto’s council, warning of lawsuits that would surely follow as a result of the city’s neglect and noting that smallpox outbreaks in the rest of the province were all traceable to Toronto. By early January, the Globe was reporting the epidemic’s first two Toronto deaths, a baby girl of 17 months and a man of 66.
Ontario’s neighbours were watching, and worrying. In November, the United States Public Health Service announced that all travellers crossing from the province into Michigan at Detroit would need to show proof of vaccination to enter; similar rules applied at Buffalo and other New York ports of entry. On December 20, Manitoba imposed a similar restriction. By January, Quebec was ready to follow suit, imposing “one of the most severe and sweeping health protection measures in years,” and extending an order already in place in Montreal requiring all visitors from Ontario be vaccinated was extended to include the entire province. “Quebec,” declared Dr. Hector Palardy, district health officer for Montreal, “has no smallpox whatever, and does not want any.”
It’s here that we circle back to the ice. Papers across the country carried the news as the old year shifted into a new one:
By then, the NHL’s third season had been underway for a week. It was a four-team loop that year, with Quebec having joined in with Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. The Senators would end up winning the league championship and the Stanley Cup by the time it was all over. With a line-up that included Clint Benedict, Eddie Gerard, Punch Broadbent, and Frank Nighbor, they were already working with a formula that would bring home two more Cups over the course of the next three seasons.
“None of the boys reported sore arms,” the Ottawa Citizen reported in the wake of Dr. Graham’s needling, “but they are liable to develop in a day or two and may handicap the club considerably in the championship race.”
Still: “As a husky healthy lot, Dr. Graham does not believe that any of the men will be disabled.”
Frank Nighbor wasn’t so sure. Along with teammates Broadbent, Jack MacKell, and Morley Bruce, he’d been previously vaccinated against smallpox while on military service during the war. Lacking certificates to prove it, all four had submitted to repeats from Dr. Graham. Nighbor hadn’t forgotten the first time: “he says he was a very sick boy when the Flying Corps surgeon jabbed him at Toronto.”
Several of Nighbor’s teammates did suffer in the days that followed. On January 3, before they hit the road for Quebec, the Senators traveled to Toronto to take on the St. Patricks. It was a rough game, with the home team prevailing, 4-3. Ottawa defenceman Sprague Cleghorn did score his team’s second goal, but the Citizen asked for some sympathy on his behalf: “Cleghorn went into the game so sick that he could hardly stand.” A week after Dr. Graham’s visit to the dressing room, he was still suffering. “His left arm was swollen,” the Citizen explained, “and he complained of pains and dizziness in his head. Yet Cleghorn insisted on playing.”
Ahead of Ottawa’s next game, at home to Montreal, the Citizen later revealed, a couple of Senators were ailing: while Punch Broadbent had a case of pleurisy, goaltender Clint Benedict’s “vaccinated arm was swollen was swollen twice its normal size.” Both insisted on playing in what turned out as a 4-3 Senators win; Broadbent scored a hattrick and added an assist.
It’s not clear whether or not Ottawa’s players were still feeling any side effects by the time they finally got to Quebec in mid-January. We do know that the road trip east yielded a split: after beating Quebec 2-1, they lost to Montreal by a score of 3-2.
When Toronto’s players got their vaccinations in early January, the news was that “several of the players were laid up with sore arms.” As for players from Montreal and Quebec — I’ve seen no mention in contemporary accounts of them getting their needles, though I assume that if they were travelling to Toronto and back home again, Quebec’s mandate must have caused them to be vaccinated, too.
Ontario’s Board of Health gave up its fight for a city-wide Toronto mandate in early January of 1920 after the Supreme Court of Ontario ruled that the board didn’t have the power to tell the city what to do. “The Provincial Board of Health has done its utmost to protect Ontario and others from the peril of smallpox,” Dr. McCullough said. “Owing to the opposition of the Toronto City Council, we have not been completely successful.”
Case numbers did begin to drop, even if Dr. McCullough didn’t soften his tone as the weeks went on. Addressing Windsor’s Chamber of Commerce at the end of January, 1920, he charged that “the city of Toronto has been guilty of spreading smallpox all over the province of Ontario and would have spread it all over the continent had not the Americans taken steps to prevent it.”
He was referring, of course, to U.S. border restrictions, but let’s not diminish Quebec’s efforts. After that province lifted its restrictions on Ontario travellers in early March, health officials went to the trouble of releasing a bevy of impressive analytics. In the two months of monitoring railway traffic from Ontario, Quebec inspectors had boarded 1,501 trains carrying 89,275 passengers. Of these, 69,933 were found to have vaccination certificates (“which were examined and stamped,” the Montreal Gazette divulged) while a further 12,549 rolled up sleeves to show vaccination marks (“which were verified”). Another 6,639 passengers who had neither certificates nor vaccination marks submitted to vaccinations on the spot.
And those who refused a frontier shot? There were 154 of them. “The inspectors were adamant,” the Gazette noted; “that number was turned back and prevented from crossing into this province.”