returning to stanley cup play, 1919 edition

Messrs. Met: After battling Montreal’s Canadiens in 1919’s abandoned Stanley Cup finals, the Seattle Metropolitans returned in 1920 to represent the PCHA against the NHL’s Ottawa Senators. That 1919-20 line-up featured, up front, left to right, are Jack Walker, Frank Foyston, Bernie Morris, and Jim Riley. Backing them, from left: coach Pete Muldoon, Bobby Rowe, Charles Tobin, Muzz Murray, trainer Bill Anthony, Roy Rickey, Hap Holmes.

Spanish flu stopped the Stanley Cup finals in their tracks in Seattle in April of 1919, when players from both the visiting Montreal Canadiens and the hometown Metropolitans were stricken before the deciding game could be played.

That wasn’t the worst of it, of course: within a week of the series having been abandoned, Canadiens defenceman Joe Hall died in a Seattle hospital of the pneumonia he’d developed. He was 38.

Hall was buried in Vancouver in early April. Some of his teammates stayed on in Seattle to convalesce after their own bouts with the killer flu; most trundled home on eastbound trains.

Canadiens coach and captain Newsy Lalonde was back in Montreal by mid-April, where he told the local Gazette that Canadiens had received the best of care during their illnesses. “The games were the most strenuous I have been in,” he added, “and I would not like to go through another such experience for any amount.”

In this, the year of dread and disruption that COVID-19 has wrought, hockey’s 100-year-old experience of another pandemic has been much discussed. But while the deadly unfinished finals of 1919 have been documented in detail, hockey’s subsequent plans for returning to play — for resuming the series that sickness had interrupted, and for making sure the Stanley Cup was indeed awarded that year — have been all but forgotten.

Most recent accounts of the events of that first post-war Stanley Cup encounter keep their focus narrowed on those tragic April days of 1919 and not beyond. When they do consider what happened next — well, Gare Joyce’s big feature for Sportsnet earlier in our locked-down spring spells out the common assumption. In 1919, Joyce posits, “There was never any thought about a replay or rematch.”

That’s not, in fact, the case.

With the modern-day NHL marching inexorably towards ending its 2020 coronavirus interruption, let’s consider, herewith, those 1919 efforts to finish up Seattle’s never-ended Stanley Cup finals and how they kept the parties involved talking, back and forth, for nearly a year.

There was even a plan, if only short-lived, whereby two Stanley Cup finals, the 1919 and the 1920, would have been played simultaneously.

No-Go: Seattle Star ad for the final. never-to-be-played game of the 1919 Stanley Cup finals.

That final fated game in Seattle in 1919 was scheduled for Tuesday, April 1. But before a puck could be dropped at 8.30 p.m. sharp, with the players on both teams too ill to play, workers were in at the Seattle Ice Arena at noon to break up the ice in preparation for the roller-skating season ahead.

For the next week, all the pro hockey news in Canada was grimly medical, tracking which of the suffering players and officials were improving and who among them might be waning. After Joe Hall’s shocking death on Saturday, April 5, and his funeral in Vancouver the following Tuesday, the news moved on altogether.

Occasionally, in the ensuing weeks, a medical update popped up: towards the end of June, for instance, when Canadiens winger Jack McDonald was finally well enough to leave Seattle and head for home while still recovering from his illness. He’d been Hall’s roommate during the finals, and his own case of influenza was serious enough to have required surgery on his lungs.

Mostly through the summer the hockey world stayed quiet.

Until August. That’s when the first public suggestions that the Stanley Cup series might be revived started to appear. The reports were vague, no sources named. The Ottawa Citizen carried one such, towards the end of the month:

It is stated there is a great possibility of the Canadien Hockey team going to the Pacific Coast to play off the Stanley Cup series which was interrupted by the influenza epidemic last spring.

Whatever negotiations may have been happening behind the scenes, Toronto’s Globe had word a few days later that optimism for a resumption of the finals wasn’t exactly surging out on the west coast. “It is pointed out that the Seattle artificial ice rink does not open until late in December,” that dispatch read, and so any games after that date would clash with the regular PCHA schedule. Also: “the expense of the trip is an important consideration.”

Frank Patrick, president of the PCHA, was on the same page. “There will be no East vs. West series on the Pacific coast in December,” he said as summer turned to fall, “nor will there be any Stanley Cup series, until after our regular series.”

“Such a series is impracticable,” he went on. “The Seattle rink will not be open until December 26.  … There is absolutely no chance for a series with the East until next spring.”

As definitive as that sounds, the prospect of a return to Stanley Cup play continued.

In This (Western) Corner: PCHA president Frank Patrick.

In October, a report that appeared in the Vancouver Daily Worldand elsewhere cited unidentified Montreal sources when it reported that in the “scarcity of hockey rinks” out east, there was a “very strong probability” that Canadiens would indeed head to the Pacific coast to decide the thing for once and for all.

Names were named: Montreal coach and captain Newsy Lalonde was definitely up for the journey, as was teammate Didier Pitre. Passively voiced assurance was also given that there would be “no trouble about the remainder of the team.”

Canadiens’ owner George Kennedy was not only on board, he was happy to drive: “… it is even understood he is even considering to take the team, or at least part of it, to the Coast by automobile along the Lincoln Highway, which runs from Brooklyn to Spokane.”

The plan, apparently, was to play only a best-of-three series to decide the 1919 Cup, theWorldexplained. “The matches would be played about the second week in December.”

But for every flicker of affirmation, there was, that fall, an equal and opposite gust of denial. A few days further on into October, Vancouver’s Province was once again declaring the whole plan, which it attributed to Kennedy, defunct, mainly due to the persistent problem that Seattle Ice Arena wouldn’t be getting its ice until after Christmas.

“And furthermore, a pre-season series would kill off interest in the annual spring clashes.”

Towards the end of the month, Seattle coach Pete Muldoon confirmed that the plan hadbeen Kennedy’s and that it had been rejected. Under the proposed scenario, neither team would have been able to practice before an agreed date, whereafter the Montreal and Seattle squads would each have had a week or so to play themselves into shape before facing off.

“There was considerable merit to the proposal,” Muldoon said, but again, alas — Seattle would have no ice to play on before the end of the year, whereafter the regular 1920 PCHA season would be getting underway.

“Accordingly,” said Muldoon, “the proposition was turned down.”

With that, the certainty that the 1919 Stanley Cup would remain unfinished was … well, only almost established, with one more last hurrah still waiting to take its turn five months down the road.

In the meantime, as hockey’s two big leagues prepared to restart their new respective regular seasons, they found a new point of Stanley Cup contention to wrangle over.

There were many subjects on which the two rival leagues didn’t agree in those years. The eastern pro loop was the National Hockey Association before the advent, in 1917, of the NHL, while the western operation was a project of Frank and Lester Patrick’s. While there had been periods of cooperation and consultation between east and west through almost a decade of cross-continental co-existence, there had also been plenty of conflict.

Year after year, the rivals competed, not always scrupulously, for hockey talent. On the ice, they each played by their own rules. PCHA teams iced seven men each, played their passes forward, took penalty shots on rinks featuring goal creases and blue lines. They didn’t do any of that in the six-aside east — not until later, anyway, as the western league ran out of steam and money in the 1920s and was absorbed by the NHL, along with many of the Patricks’ innovations that hadn’t already been embraced.

Since 1914, one thing the two leagues hadagreed on was that with their respective champions meeting annually to play for the Stanley Cup, they would alternate venues between central Canada and the west coast.

That’s how the 1919 finals ended up in Seattle. If they couldn’t be completed, then the time had come to look ahead to 1920, the second-last year of the alternating deal.

The problem there? At the end of 1919, both leagues maintained that it was rightly their turn to host.

When the PCHA was first to argue the case, when it convened its league meeting towards the end of November in Vancouver. “The directors decided,” the Daily World’s reporter noted, “that in view of the fact that the series last spring was not completed, the series this season should be played on the coast. President Patrick was authorized to arrange, if possible, with the National Hockey League for the eastern champions to come west.”

There were scheduling and weather aspects to this position, too: with the PCHA season continuing through the end of March, the directors worried that the NHL’s natural-ice rinks wouldn’t be playable by the time the western champions made their way cross-country.

In This (Eastern) Corner: NHL president Frank Calder.

The NHL read the reports and issued a statement. “No official request has come to us intimating that the Stanley Cup series should be played in the west again this year,” president Frank Calder said. As for ice concerns, he noted that in fact Toronto’s Arena Gardens did indeed have an ice plant, and in the event of thawing elsewhere, the finals could always be played at the Mutual Street rink.

Meanwhile, both leagues continued to prepare to launch their own regular seasons. In the west, the same three teams would play among themselves, with Seattle’s Metropolitans in the running again along with the Vancouver Millionaires and Victoria’s Aristocrats.

For the NHL, it would be a third season on ice. The league’s 1919 session had ended, let’s remember, with a bit of a bleat. Having started the year with just three teams, the NHL reached the end of its second year with just two, after the defending Stanley Cup champions, Toronto’s Arenas, faltered and folded in February, leaving Canadiens and Ottawa Senators to play for the right to head to Seattle.

Ahead of the new campaign set to open just before Christmas, there was a rumour that Toronto might return to the NHL fold with two teams, and that Montreal could be getting a second team, too, with Art Ross reviving the Wanderers franchise that had collapsed in 1918, early in the NHL’s inaugural season. Quebec was another possibility.

By another report, Toronto was a no-go altogether — the city had never been a viable hockey market, anyway, the story went, and the league would be much better off concentrated in eastern Ontario and Quebec.

In December, when the music stopped, Quebec did get a team, the Athletics. So too did Toronto, when Fred Hambly, chairman of the city’s Board of Education, bought the old Arena franchise. Reviving the name of an early NHA team, they were originally called the Tecumsehs. On paper, at least: within a couple days the team had been rebranded again, this time as the Toronto St. Patricks.

One More Time? Speculation from August of 1919 that the Stanley Cup finals would resume.

Nothing had been resolved on the Stanley Cup front by the time the NHL’s directors met for their annual get-together in Ottawa on December 20. They did now have in hand correspondence from Frank Patrick confirming the PCHA’s provocative position. “The matter was brought up,” the Daily World duly reported, “but the Eastern delegates could not give Patrick a concession on his letter.”

George Kennedy of the Canadiens was “particularly riled:” was it Montreal’s fault that the finals had to be abandoned? Obviously not. (Kennedy was also said to be “het up.”)

There was a suggestion that the matter would be referred to William Foran, the secretary of Canada’s Civil Service Commission who’d served as a Stanley Cup trustee since 1907 and was the go-to arbiter in disputes between the two pro leagues. “His services will likely be called on in a short time,” devotees of the ongoing drama learned.

On it went, and on. By the end of February, the race for the NHL title had Ottawa’s Senators tied atop the standing with Toronto, with Montreal not far behind. Ottawa was feeling confident enough, or sufficiently outraged, to put out a public statement that the club was adamantly opposed to going west to play for the Cup.

“Patrick’s claim,” an unnamed team director said, “that the games should be played elsewhere than in one of the National League teams [sic] is based on a technicality and is a most unreasonable one.”

Asked for his view, William Foran “did not care to express any opinion as to the dispute.” He was willing to opine on the quality of the winter’s hockey that the NHL was displaying:, it was, he declared, “the finest and cleanest on record.”

Maybe was the answer in … Winnipeg?

That was an idea that Frank Patrick had floated earlier in February. W.J. Holmes, the owner of the city’s naturally iced Amphitheatre rink, was on board, and he had been in contact with Frank Calder, hoping to coax him and his league to a prairie compromise with a promise of hard ice through the end of March.

“We certainly could not play in the east before March 22,” Patrick said, “but would ready to play in Winnipeg no later than March 19. It is now up to the east.”

But the NHL’s governors put a nix on a Manitoba finals during a special February meeting at Montreal’s Windsor Hotel, where the league had been born just over two years earlier.

And so the debate trudged on in March. Out west, all three PCHA teams were still locked in close contention for the league championship, while in the east, Ottawa claimed their place in the finals, wherever they might be played, with three games remaining in the schedule. The season was divided, still, in those years into halves, but with the Senators having prevailed in both, there was no need for a playoff.

Frank Patrick still didn’t think an eastern finals was going to work. Apart from issues related to melting ice, his teams worried that they’d be undermanned. Vancouver, for instance, would be without Cyclone Taylor and Gordie Roberts, whose non-hockey jobs would keep them from travelling.

Ottawa’s position hadn’t changed. “The Ottawas feel that in fairness to their supporters,” a local report reported on March 3, “they ought to have the matches played here.” William Foran was now, apparently, involved, and though the team had no news of developments, officials remained confident that the western champions would yield and travel east.

If not, well, they had job-related problems of their own: several key Senators players, including captain Eddie Gerard and goaltender Clint Benedict, wouldn’t be able to get away for a western sortie.

This, despite a report from Calgary — on the very same day — that Ottawa had been inquiring about playing exhibition games in Alberta on their westward way to the coast.

The whole was just about resolved by the end of the week. “We will be in the east by March 22,” Frank Patrick was quoted as saying on March 6. “That has all been settled.”

And so it was. Still, the prospect that the 1919 Stanley Cup might actually yet be completed nearly a year after it failed to finish did rear its head one last time. With all three teams in contention for the PCHA title in mid-March of 1920, Montreal’s George Kennedy let it be known that Newsy Lalonde had been talking to his Seattle counterpart, Pete Muldoon, about the possibility of reviving the 1919 series even as the 1920 finals were getting underway.

One Last Try: A final whisper of a possibility, from March of 1920.

Seattle would have to lose out on the current year’s PCHA title, of course, for the plan to move forward. If that happened, Canadiens were said to be ready to head west to finish out the previous year’s finals while Victoria or Vancouver went the other way to take on Ottawa. Playing just a single make-up game wouldn’t be viable, in terms of cost, so as previously, the teams would settle the matter of the 1919 Cup with a three-game series.

Duelling Stanley Cup finals would have been something to see, but as it turned out, Seattle put an end to the possibility by surpassing Vancouver to win the right to vie for the 1920 Cup.

William Foran had been keeping the Stanley Cup safe ever since Toronto won it in the spring of 1918. (It seems that the vaunted trophy didn’t even make the journey to Seattle in 1919.) Now, as Ottawa prepared to host the finals, he loaned it to the Senators so they could put it on display in the shop window of R.J. Devlin’s, furrier and hatter, on Ottawa’s downtown Sparks Street.

The weather was mild in Canada’s capital the week of March 15, prompting one more last-ditch offer from Frank Patrick to switch back west. Ottawa was quick to decline, and by Saturday, temperatures had sunken well below freezing.

Along with the weather, the Spanish flu was still in the news. Back in 1919, Joe Hall had died during the pandemic’s third wave. Now, almost a year later, alongside the inevitable ads for cure-alls like Milburn’s Heart & Nerve Pills and Hamlin’s Wizard Oil (“a reliable anti-septic preventative”), newspapers across Canada continued to log the insidious reach of the illness.

In late January of 1920, influenza cases were surging in Detroit and New York. In February, an outbreak cut short an OHA intermediate hockey game and closed the Ingersoll, Ontario, arena. In the province’s north, near Timmins, another caused the popular annual canine race, the Porcupine Dog Derby, to be postponed.

By mid-March, daily influenza deaths in Montreal were down to seven from 265 a month earlier. “Epidemic Shows Signs of Breaking,” ran the headline in the Gazette.

Ottawa papers from the middle of that March are mostly flu-free, though it is true that the federal minister of Immigration and Colonization was reported to be suffering the week Seattle and Ottawa were tussling for the 1920 Stanley Cup. J.A. Calder was his name, no relation to Frank: the Ottawa Citizen reported that the minister was planning to “go south” to recover.”

The Senators, meanwhile, were in receipt of a telegram on Wednesday, March 17, from Seattle coach Pete Muldoon:

Left Vancouver last night. Coming by way of Milwaukee and Chicago. Will arrive in Ottawa Sunday afternoon. Ready for first game Monday night.

P.R. Muldoon

William Foran was on hand at Dey’s Arena for that first game and he addressed the players on the ice before dropping the puck for the opening face-off, “expressing the hope” (reported the Citizen) “that the traditions of the Stanley Cup would be honoured and that the teams would fight it out for the celebrated trophy in the spirit of fair play.”

Seattle’s team was almost the same one that had faced Montreal the year before. Hap Holmes featured in net, Frank Foyston and Jack Walker up front. “That irritating couple,” the Ottawa Journal called the latter pair, “the centre ice wasps,” warning that they would cause the Senators more worry than any of the other Mets.

Ottawa’s formidable line-up included Benedict and Gerard along with Sprague Cleghorn, Frank Nighbor, Jack Darragh, Punch Broadbent, and Cy Denneny.

The home team won that first game, played under NHL rules, by a score of 3-2. They won the next game, too, 3-0, when the teams went at it seven-aside. The weather was warming, and by the time they met again on March 27, players were sinking into the slushy ice as the Metropolitans found way to win by 3-1.

The teams made a move, after that, to Toronto, where the final two games were played out on the good, hard, artificial surface of Arena Gardens.

Seattle won the next game, 5-2, but Ottawa came back two nights later, a year to the day that workers had broken up the ice in Seattle, to earn a 6-1 victory and, with it, the Stanley Cup. The Senators’ first championship since 1911, it heralded the opening of a golden age in Ottawa, with the team winning two out of the next three Cups through 1923.

Games On: Ottawa Journal ad ahead of the 1920 Stanley Cup finals.

 

mr. geniality: a serious canadien, louis berlinguette survived the spanish flu that shut down the 1919 stanley cup

Coach and captain Newsy Lalonde got most of the goals the Montreal Canadiens scored in their pursuit of the 1919 Stanley Cup, five of the ten they recorded in the five games they played against the Seattle Metropolitans in another plaguestruck spring, before the series was abandoned. But give Louis Berlinguette his due: on March 24, in the third period of the third game of the never-ended finals, the 31-year-old left winger took a pass from teammate Didier Pitre and fired the puck past Seattle goaltender Hap Holmes.

Born in Sainte-Angélique, Quebec, on a Thursday of this date in 1887, Berlinguette and his teammates played two more torrid games that week. It was on the following Monday that the series was suspended before a sixth game made it to the ice: like his captain, Lalonde, teammates Joe Hall, Jack McDonald, and Billy Coutu, as well as team manager George Kennedy, Berlinguette was confined to his bed at the Georgian Hotel, suffering from symptoms of Spanish flu.

On the Wednesday, the Canadiens were reported to be “resting easily,” with Lalonde, Coutu, Kennedy, and Berlinguette said to be only “slightly ill.”

“Their temperatures were reported normal last night,” one wire report noted, “and the doctor expects them to be up in a few days.”

Another dispatch that appeared across the continent went like this:

Two great overtime games have taxed the vitality of the players to such an extent that they are in poor shape, indeed, to fight off the effects of such a disease as influenza.

However, the Canadiens are being given the very best of care, nurses and physicians being in attendance at all times on them and every other attention is being shown the stricken players.

By Thursday, another Canadien, forward Odie Cleghorn, had taken sick, and manager Kennedy’s condition was worsening. McDonald and Hall were in Providence Hospital, the latter with a temperature of 103.

Friday, Kennedy was feeling better, while Coutu and Berlinguette were reported to be out of bed. But Hall had developed pneumonia; his condition was “causing doctors much concern.” He didn’t improve. He died that Sunday, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, at the age of 38. Two days later, at his funeral in Vancouver, alongside Newsy Lalonde and Billy Coutu, Louis Berlinguette served as one of his pallbearers.

The news from Seattle on April 2, 1919, the day after the final game of the Stanley Cup finals was curtailed.

Didier Pitre and goaltender Georges Vézina had already, by then, taken a train back to Montreal. Jack McDonald’s brother had died in March, possibly of influenza, while serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Siberia; Jack’s recovery kept him in hospital in Seattle until mid-April. After the funeral, Lalonde and Cleghorn and Coutu Berlinguette caught the Montreal train in Vancouver and travelled together, though Coutu got off in Sault Ste. Marie and Berlinguette in Mattawa, his off-season home.

While the NHL was only in its second season in 1919, Louis Berlinguette was a veteran of the Canadiens’ line-up. He was in his seventh season with the team, after starting his pro career in 1909 with the Haileybury Comets. There he played, if only briefly, with Art Ross and Paddy Moran, before moving on to play for Galt and the Moncton Victorias. With both those teams he played for (but didn’t win) the Stanley Cup. He joined Canadiens in 1912. In the ensuing years, before the league expired in 1917, no skater played more games in the National Hockey Association than Berlinguette.

He did win the Stanley Cup on his third shot at it: along with his 1919 teammates Vézina, Bert Corbeau, Pitre, and Lalonde, Berlinguette was in the Canadiens’ line-up that defeated the Portland Rosebuds for the 1916 championship.

Berlinguette was speedy on his skates, and know for his checking, which on at least one occasion earned him the epithet blanket: that’s what you’ll find if you fish into the archives. He wasn’t a prolific goalscorer: his best showing came in 1920-21, when he notched 12 goals and 21 points in 24 regular-season games, tying him for second in team scoring with Didier Pitre behind Newsy Lalonde.

A dowdy distinction that will always be his: in 1922, Berlinguette was responsible for the NHL’s very first automatic goal.

Canadiens were hosting the Hamilton Tigers at Mount Royal Arena on the night. In the first period, Hamilton defenceman Leo Reise swooped in and beat the Montreal defence in front of Vézina, “apparently destined for a certain goal,” as the Gazette saw it. Except, nu-uh:

Louis Berlinguette hurled his stick from the side, knocked the puck off Reise’s stick, and, in conformity with a rule passed four years ago, Tigers were awarded a goal by Referee [Cooper] Smeaton. This is the first time in the history of the NHL that such a ruling has been made.

Hamilton soon added another goal, but Berlinguette’s teammates eventually righted the ship: Newsy Lalonde and Odie Cleghorn, with a pair, saw to it that Montreal won the game, 3-2.

“He has been popular wherever he has played,” Montreal’s Gazette summed up in 1926, as Berlinguette’s playing days wound down. “Not a brilliant star, he was a hard-working, serious player who attended strictly to hockey, but with it always commanded the respect of players and crowd alike.”

Towards the end of his career, 1924-25, he spent a season with the fledgling Montreal Maroons, and the following year, his last in the NHL, he jumped to another expansion team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, where his old teammate Odie Cleghorn was the playing coach. While the Maroons’ Nels Stewart won the Hart Trophy that year as the league’s MVP, the Gazette acknowledged a nod to Berlinguette in the voting:

A striking tribute to his popularity was the action of one of the judges … who when filing his votes for the league’s most useful player, gave one for Berlinguette purely on his personality and the service he had rendered the Pittsburgh club on and off the ice through his geniality.

He signed on in the fall of 1926 as the playing coach of Les Castors de Quebec in the Can-Am League. He subsequently worked a whistle as an NHL referee, and later coached the Fredericton Millionaires in the New Brunswick Hockey League, though not for long. In 1930, he turned his efforts from hockey to work full-time for Ontario’s forestry service. Louis Berlinguette died in Noranda in 1959 at the age of 72.

Montreal’s 1918-19 Canadiens. Back row, left to right: Manager George Kennedy, Didier Pitre, Louis Berlinguette, Billy Coutu, Jack McDonald, trainer A. Ouimet. Front row, from left: Coach and captain Newsy Lalonde, Odie Cleghorn, Bert Corbeau, Joe Hall, Georges Vézina.

series not completed

“The odds will be in our favour,” Pete Muldoon declared this week, a long 101 years ago, “and we’ll use them to good advantage. We are due to win and I am as confident as I am of standing here that the Mets will give the Frenchmen a licking.”

As coach of the Seattle Metropolitans in the spring of 1919, Muldoon had watched his charges, the powerful PCHA champions, battle the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens for the Stanley Cup through five gruelling games. Each team had won a pair of games, while another had ended, goalless, with no decision. Though the Canadiens had prevailed in the fifth game, taking a Saturday-night game on March 29 by a score of 4-3, the hometown Mets were presumed to have the upper hand going into the deciding game on Tuesday, April 1, given that it would be played under west-coast rules.

The game, of course, was never played. With members of both teams suffering from symptoms of Spanish flu, Muldoon announced that the game was off: the series would remain undecided. From Seattle’s Ice Arena, the focus now shifted to the city’s Providence Hospital, to which several of the local Mets were transferred. As for the Canadiens, five players were ill, along with manager George Kennedy. While Habs’ coach and captain Newsy Lalonde, Bert Corbeau, and Louis Berlinguette were under medical care in their rooms at the Georgian Hotel, the team’s two worst cases, Joe Hall and Jack McDonald, were admitted to the Columbus Sanitarium. As has been much discussed in this strange, unsettling we’re living through a century later, all the hockey patients but one survived the 1919 virus. On Saturday, April 5, a week after he’d skated in his last hockey game, Joe Hall died of pneumonia. He was 37. He was buried three days later in Vancouver.

Commemorating the grim anniversary of those incomplete Stanley Cup finals, illustrator Robert Ullman has a graphic feature, Skating On Thin Ice, up this week at The Nib, the online journal of political and non-fictional comics out of Portland, Oregon: you can find it here. A hockey fan ever since the day, as an 8-year-old, he watched the U.S. Olympic team overthrow the mighty Soviets in 1980, Ullman lives and draws in Richmond, Virginia. His ongoing series of puckish history books, Old-Timey Hockey Tales, is worth tracking down.

(Images courtesy of Robert Ullman)

called off, 1919

With the NHL looking like it will today follow the NBA’s decision last night to suspend its season indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic, a grim glance back to 1919 when the Stanley Cup Finals were abandoned in Seattle before a winner could be decided. As reported here in a Vancouver newspaper, on Tuesday, April 1 of that year, with the Montreal Canadiens and Seattle Metropolitans set to play a sixth and deciding game for hockey’s championship, the series was called off as an outbreak of the virulent Spanish flu sickened players from both teams. It was the first time since the Stanley Cup was inaugurated in 1893 that it went unwon. (The only other Cupless year — to date — was 2005, when a labor dispute wiped out the NHL season.) For Montreal defenceman Joe Hall, the outcome was as dire as it could have been — on April 5, 1919, at three o’clock in the afternoon, he died at Seattle’s Columbus Sanitarium.

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

Seattle Strong: The Seattle Metropolitans and Montreal Canadiens line up in April of 1917 for a post-Stanley Cup exhibition at San Francisco’s Winter Garden rink. Seattle prevailed that year to become the first U.S. team to win the coveted trophy. In 1919, when the rivals 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 final 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 final) 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 final 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 final 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 final 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 for 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 five Canadiens, including Hall 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.”

the nhl’s first (forgotten) all-star game: cleveland’s seen better

So the NHL’s first season came to its natural end as March shifted over to April in 1918. Toronto had won the Stanley Cup, and whatever muted celebrations the team and its city had organized to celebrate the Blueshirts’ five-game victory over Vancouver’s Millionaires, they were over now. Staff at Toronto Arena Gardens on Mutual Street began the new month by breaking up the ice. The hockey players were headed for home for the summer.

Until, that is, word of an arrangement for Toronto to play a team of all stars started to spread. The plan seems to have been a sudden one, and I can’t say to what extent the NHL itself was involved in the enterprise, but it is true that before it got a chance to start, the NHL off-season was delayed in 1918, as the league prepared to play its first (and now almost entirely forgotten) all-star game … in Cleveland, Ohio.

I don’t know, but I’m guessing that the whole venture originated with an invitation from the Lake Erie shore. With a population nearing 800,000, Cleveland was the fifth-largest city in the United States. (Montreal, in those years, had a population of about 600,000, while Toronto counted 500,000.) A quick glance back into the city’s hockey history suggests that the game was played in various loose forms there before Canadians got around to organizing it in the 1890s. The Elysium Arena (capacity: 2,000) went up in 1907. Amateur hockey thrived in the years that followed. In 1915, efforts to introduce the professional game to the city led to the Ontario Hockey Association instituting a ban on its teams having anything to do with Cleveland rivals.

In 1918, the Elysium hadn’t seen competitive games in two years. I don’t know the whys of that, just that a team was resurrected that wartime winter, I believe under the auspices of the Cleveland Athletic Club. As if to make up for lost time, they embarked on a frantic exhibition schedule, with games against amateur teams from Detroit and Pittsburgh.

Like Frank and Lester Patrick’s PCHA, Cleveland played seven-man hockey. The roster that year was a mostly Ontario-born crew, featuring the unsung talents of Percy Killaly (the playing coach, from Cannington), Elmer Irving (the captain, from Toronto), Mike Trimble (Bracebridge), Joe Debernardi (Port Arthur), Vern Turner (Stayner), and Harry Poland (Stratford). Rover Jimmy Cree was Mohawk, from the Akwesasne territory, near Montreal on the St. Lawrence River. None of them ever played in the NHL.

In March, as the Torontos bypassed the Montreal Canadiens to advance to the Stanley Cup final, Cleveland hosted Canada’s national senior amateur Allan Cup champions, the Kitchener Greenshirts, in a two-game exhibition series at the Elysium.

With future NHL all-star and master-of-the-shutout George Hainsworth in goal, the Greenshirts had reason to be confident coming in. They may have been overly so, The Globe admitted in their report on the opening encounter. “Before the game was five minutes old the Canadians found that they were up against a real seven, and that nothing but real hockey could win out.” Cleveland prevailed 5-3 that night and the next one as well, this time bettering the Greenshirts by a score of 5-2. The Globe’s correspondent was impressed: “Cleveland outplayed the Canadian champions in all departments. They showed more stamina and finished fresh and strong … Cleveland played wonderful hockey.”

Next up, as the Stanley Cup final was wrapping up in Toronto, Cleveland’s septet took on a collective of all stars representing Ontario senior amateur teams. The Globe supposed that this team represented “the greatest galaxy of individual hockey stars that has ever invaded the United States,” and that may have been true — up until the following week. This galactic group included players drawn from the Greenshirts as well as from Toronto’s Dentals, Crescents, and St. Patricks. It featured several future NHLers in Rod Smylie, Bert McCaffrey, and goaltender Doc Stewart.

Like many of his Dental teammates, Stewart was an actual dentist; later, he’d turn from attending to the health of teeth to guarding the Boston Bruins’ net. In Cleveland, he was said to be the star of the opening game, even though the Clevelanders kept their winning streak alive with a 2-1 win.

They followed that up with a 4-2 win in a second game, “outplaying the Canadians in every department,” as The Globe’s man saw it. It didn’t matter how many men were on the ice, either: Cleveland dominated early on when each team iced seven players, and they did so later, too, when an injury to one of the all-star Canadians reduced the teams to six aside.

Having staked a claim as being the best amateur team on the U.S. east coast, the Cleveland club was eager to prove its prowess on a national scale. There was talk of a meeting with the western champions, the Ames Shipyard team from Seattle, but that doesn’t seem to have gone beyond the talking.

It sounds like Cleveland indomitable seven would have been game to take on the NHL Torontos, and maybe there was an attempt to arrange that — I don’t know. The way it worked out, the Stanley Cup champions agreed to travel south to play an assemblage of their professional peers, and that seems to have put an end to Cleveland’s season. At least one of the Cleveland players had other business to attend to: captain Elmer Irving was headed home to Canada to enlist in the Army.

In Toronto, the first mention of the series appeared on the Tuesday following Toronto’s Saturday-night Stanley Cup win. Three games were planned for Cleveland, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Toronto had some line-up issues, starting with the fact that defenceman Harry Mummery had already upped and left town for Manitoba. Star centre Reg Noble would be ruled out en route: Canadian police turned him back at the border due to his military conscription status.

Hap Holmes, soon after he joined Toronto midway through the 1917-18 NHL season.

I can’t say how the All Stars were selected, but I suspect the process was as much about who was available as anything else. As originally announced, the team collected a pair of Vancouver Millionaires in Hughie Lehman and Ran McDonald along with Frank Nighbor of the Ottawa Senators, and two players who’d played for Toronto late in the season (though not in the Stanley Cup finals), Jack Adams and Rusty Crawford. More names would be forthcoming, and duly were: by midweek, Newsy Lalonde of the Montreal Canadiens had joined the tour, along with Speed Moynes of the Millionaires; veteran Jack Marks, who’d opened the NHL season with the Montreal Wanderers before taking a turn with Toronto; and Jack McDonald, a Wanderer who’d migrated to Canadiens.

None of the participants was going to get rich on this junket. “The guarantee is just about sufficient to pay the expenses of the players,” The Winnipeg Tribune reported, “and leave a little to buy ice cream cones.”

Thursday’s game at the Elysium saw the NHL All Stars beat the Stanley Cup champions 5-4 over the course of two 20-minute halves. The Globe’s unnamed correspondent on the scene seems to have been a local writer, and he complained about the lack of team play. “It was a case after one long rush after another,” he felt. The teams “utterly failed to display class.”

Cleveland was not impressed: the hockey the pros brought with them “was materially different from the tests that have been played here by the great amateur sevens.” Their display was redeemed somewhat by the goaltenders, Holmes and Lehman, both of whom played brilliantly — “in fact, their work was the outstanding feature.” Frank Nighbor was a treat to witness, too: his stickhandling “was probably the best ever seen here.”

Toronto got its goals from Alf Skinner and Harrys Cameron and Meeking (he notched two). Newsy Lalonde scored a pair for the All Stars, who also got goals from Marks, McDonald, and Moynes.

Friday’s game saw Toronto ice Holmes in goal, with Cameron and Ken Randall playing defence, and Adams centering Meeking and Skinner.

The All Stars had Lehman between the posts, with Lalonde and Crawford on the defence. Nighbor was at centre, Marks and McDonald on the wings. Moynes was the lone substitute.

It was Holmes’ “highly sensational goaltending” that turned the tide this time: he was “an unsurpassable obstacle,” making 28 stops in Toronto’s 3-1 win. The All Stars were, all in all, the better team, for what that was worth. Rusty Crawford, “always busy,” was their star, and when the Torontos played rough, he was willing to reply in kind. Randall scored a pair of Toronto goals, and Cameron got the other. Newsy Lalonde scored for the All Stars.

The verdict from The Ottawa Journal: if fans in Cleveland were asked to choose between the hockey their own hometown Canadians had been showing them all winter and these barnstorming pros, they’d pick the amateur version “every time.”

Saturday’s final game was deemed by the Globe “by far the best contest of the series.” On the strength of Frank Nighbor’s hattrick, the All Stars roared to a 6-3 win, thereby taking the series both by games (two to one) and goals (12 to 10).

It’s possible that the whole effort was mounted with an idea to raise funds for the war effort — earlier talk of playing the Seattle shipyard team had included plans to donate all proceeds to the Red Cross. I haven’t found any details of that, though. Nor of any tales of adventure from beyond the rink. Did the NHLers see the sights? Meet up and play any informal games with against Percy Killaly and Jimmy Cree and company? Can’t say. I can report that almost as soon as the Torontos and their All Star rivals departed Cleveland at the end of that weekend, bound for home and the off-season ahead, the series seems to have vanished from all recall.

You won’t find any mention of it in any NHL repository — none that’s accessible to the public, anyway. The Hockey Hall of Fame pays it no heed. Andrew Podnieks published a scrupulous catalogue, The NHL All-Star Game: Fifty Years of the Great Tradition in 2000, but it makes no mention of Cleveland in 1918. As detailed therein (and as generally acknowledged across the hockey world), hockey convened four landmark benefit games involving all-star line-ups between 1908 and 1939 (Hod Stuart, Ace Bailey, Howie Morenz, and Babe Siebert). The first proper All-Star Game came in 1947, in Toronto, with proceeds going towards the establishment of a pension fund for the players. The format there was as it was in Cleveland, with the Stanley-Cup champion Maple Leafs taking on a selection of the best of the rest.

So where do the 1918 games fit in? I haven’t asked, but I’m going to guess that the NHL might go with the line that they were wholly unofficial — that this weekend in Cleveland was more of barnstorming situation than anything that might be recognized as a true All-Star series. The league may already have studied the situation and decided that, though I doubt it: I don’t think these games are anywhere on the NHL radar.

They do deserve to be recognized for what they represent in the way of breaking new ground for the NHL. It would be six years before the league added its first American team, the Boston Bruins. How much did the experience in Cleveland in 1918 influence what happened when the time came for expansion south? In terms of all-star games, it would be another 29 years before the NHL got around to organizing the one that’s known as the first. Is it time to reset the record?

Can I say, pre-emptively, that I don’t accept any notional claim about whether they were league-sanctioned or not. The NHL wasn’t the behemoth brand that it is today, of course — in 1918, it was an entity consisting, more or less, of president and secretary Frank Calder. Whether Toronto manager Charlie Querrie sought his approval for the jaunt to Cleveland, I don’t know. The whole NHL operation had a make-it-up-as-you-along vibe to it that first tumultuous year, from the moment of its creation at Montreal’s Windsor Hotel in November of 1917 through the Stanley-Cup series with Vancouver. For me, the series in Cleveland was no more ad hoc than any of the rest of it.

Hockey continued in Cleveland, of course, after the Stanley Cup champions and their All-Star rivals left town. The city got its first professional team in 1929, and there was talk off and on after that of an NHL franchise — including in 1935, when the Montreal Canadiens used the threat of a move to Cleveland as they negotiated a new rink deal back home. Cleveland got a WHA team, the Crusaders, in the early 1970s, and then an NHL franchise soon after that, though the Barons only stayed for two seasons.

Back to 1929 for a moment. After many years of amateur powerhouses like the one that played so well in the winter of 1918, the Cleveland Indians secured a place in the minor-league Canadian Professional Hockey League. This is noteworthy, I’ll venture: the man who made it happen as owner and manager of the new enterprise, launching Cleveland into its hockey future, was none other than Hap Holmes, Toronto’s Stanley Cup goaltender from back in 1918, star of the NHL’s first, forgotten All-Star games.

Champions-In-The-Making: The Toronto Hockey Club, as it lined up in January of 1918. Back row, left to right: Harry Cameron, Alf Skinner, coach Dick Carroll, Harry Mummery, Reg Noble, captain Ken Randall. Front: Hap Holmes, Harry Meeking, coach Charlie Querrie, Corb Denneny, Sammy Hebert.