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The story of the Stanley Cup that no one won

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Hopefully this never happens again.

Every year we’ve become accustomed to seeing a champion crowned in the Stanley Cup Final. In 1919 things were far more complicated. The finals between the Montreal Canadiens and Seattle Metropolitans had no winner. The season just ended. It remains the only season in North American sporting history the playoffs took place, but there was no champion.

The early days of the Stanley Cup had no specific final series or playoff system. The Cup was first awarded to the Montreal Canadiens in 1893, changing hands sporadically in its initial years through exhibition games or being awarded to the league winner. Rules changed in 1915, where the winner of the National Hockey Association (which would become the NHL in 1917) would challenge the winner of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA) to decide who would take home Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Fast forward to the 1918-19 season. The NHL season was a back-and-forth affair between the Canadiens and Ottawa Senators, with an ever-present fear that players would be called up to fight in World War I. Montreal finished with a regular-season record of 10-8, while Ottawa finished 12-6. The teams faced off in the first seven-game series to determine who would move on to face the PCHA winner, and complete for the Stanley Cup. Montreal went on to win four games to one, and saw themselves destined to meet Seattle.

The Metropolitans were the unlikely winners of the PCHA. An intense give-and-take with the Vancouver Millionaires during the regular season gave way to the bizarre PCHA playoffs, which consisted of a two-game, “most goals” series. Seattle scored six in the opening game, leading to a victory and a meeting with the Canadiens.

The series would be played exclusively in Seattle, and it’s here the problems began.

Seattle was coming off its most brutal winter on record. A horrific cold snap set temperatures to 27 below zero, and blizzards made it one of the coldest in the city’s history. This was paired with a far bigger problem: the 1918 influenza pandemic, colloquially known as the Spanish flu. First emerging in Seattle in September 1918, it wasn’t long before the flu spread throughout the Pacific Northwest. It’s estimated that between winter and spring, approximately 5,000 people died of the flu in the region.

With temperatures still frigid in Seattle, the teams began the series. The games were lauded by the press at the time for their intensity and brutality. Game 4 was a marathon which went to double-overtime. There was no shootout system in hockey in 1919, and legendary goalies Georges Vezina and Hap Holmes were walls, leading to a 0-0 tie and both teams being applauded off the ice.

The fifth game of the series went to overtime, as well, before Montreal managed to win and pull the series even at 2-2-1. The Game Four tie determined Game 6 would decide the series. Seattle and Montreal began practicing to prepare themselves for Monday night’s game and a chance to take home the Stanley Cup.

The influenza outbreak, which both teams had managed to avoid until this point, suddenly hit. Some players had fevers that soared to over 101; others were bedridden due to illness. Montreal was without 10 players on the day of Game 6 due to the flu, and considering the entire roster was only 13 players they didn’t have enough skaters to field a team.

Canadiens’ manager George Kennedy, sick himself, told Seattle they would be forfeiting the Stanley Cup. His opponent, Metropolitans manager Pete Muldoon refused the forfeit. He did not want to win due to the illness, and began making calls to the PCHA offices to find a way to play the game. Muldoon suggested that Montreal borrow players from the nearby Victoria Aristocrats, a PCHA team who was last in the league in 1919, but at least had the bodies to try and allow Montreal to compete. PCHA president Frank Patrick denied the plea, and the game was cancelled, just five and a half hours before the puck was set to drop.

A short statement from the Seattle Ice Arena informed the public:

“It will be two or three weeks before the visiting boys will be back on their feet again able to play. Consequently the series has been called off with two games to the credit of each team. Tonight’s game would have decided the title.”

The five Canadiens players most serious afflicted were hospitalized. Four days later, 18-year veteran defender Joe Hall died of pneumonia related to his illness. The remainder of the Canadiens were released from the hospital, but the death of manager George Kennedy in 1921 at age 39 was reportedly caused by complications from the flu.

Hall was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961. The rest of the players will be forever connected to this story.

The epidemiological impact of the Spanish flu has been examined extensively. Poor hygiene and a lack of reliable treatments aided its spread, but this was functionally different to a majority of outbreaks before and since. Unlike most influenza strains which have a tendency to impact the elderly and the young, this one had its highest mortality rate among young adults. J.M. Barry explained in his 2004 book The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague In History that this was likely due to a deadly “cytokine storm,” which hit traditionally healthy groups the hardest.

In a cytokine storm, the body rapidly reacts to an infection by overproducing immune cells to combat the illness, which quickly become more dangerous than the initial infection. Inflammation caused by these immune cells can cause respiratory problems, which can lead to pneumonia — similar to the case of Hall.

A cruel set of circumstances caused healthy hockey players to be subjected to the most deadly outbreak in world history, which happened to directly target the most healthy individuals in the population. Now, and forever the 1919 Stanley Cup will not have a winner, but will always be remembered by a simple phrase engraved on the cup itself.

1919

Montreal Canadiens

Seattle Metropolitans

Series Not Completed