Dating back all the way to 1893, the Stanley Cup has been awarded in some form or fashion every year except twice. Most recently, as many will remember, this happened in 2005 when the NHL cancelled its entire 2004-05 season due to a lockout. The time before that, you have to travel all the way back to 1919, when a situation not unlike we are facing today brought a premature end to the Stanley Cup Final and prevented the trophy from being awarded.
As the world grapples with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic today, back in 1919, the world was in the midst of another deadly pandemic that took the lives of millions and resulted in the eventual cancellation of the 1919 Stanley Cup Final.
Known as the Spanish flu, an extremely lethal strain of the H1N1 virus broke out in January 1918 and quickly spread across the globe, claiming the lives of somewhere between 17-50 million people. Even now, over a century later, the Spanish flu pandemic still registers as one of the worst in history.
Some may wonder how a disease that began in 1918 played a role in the Stanley Cup Final over a year later, so here is the short answer. After the initial outbreak subsided in the summer of 1918, a second deadlier wave of the virus arrived in the fall of 1918, killing 100,000 Americans in the month of October alone. Eventually, the worst part of the second wave did subside, but the virus was far from being over.
That brings us to the 1919 Stanley Cup Final, contested between the NHL champion Montreal Canadiens and PCHA champion Seattle Metropolitans. Based on the rules at the time, all games between the two sides were contested at the Seattle Ice Arena in Washington state.
Seattle became the first American team to ever win the Stanley Cup two years prior, and led the Canadiens 2-1 after three games in the 1919 Final. It was a best-of-five series, meaning the Metropolitans needed just one more victory to claim the Stanley Cup. A tie (yes, really) in Game 4 forced a Game 5 that the Canadiens won to setup a decisive Game 6.
On April 1st, just hours before the two sides were set to meet in Game 6, the game was cancelled. The Spanish flu had invaded the Stanley Cup Final, sending several players from both sides to the hospital with extreme fevers reaching upwards of 105 degrees fahrenheit. One of the players, Canadiens defenseman Joe Hall, passed away from complications four days later.
From Smithsonian Magazine:
Two days later, on the morning of April 1, the news began to leak: Game 6 would not be played at all. By then, five Canadiens players had been hospitalized, along with coach George Kennedy (who never fully got over his symptoms and died a couple of years later); the flu had also hit at least Seattle players, as well. But Hall—who would be voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961—was the hardest hit of them all. Five days later, on the morning of April 6, the Post-Intelligencer ran a banner headline: “JOE HALL, FRENCH HOCKEY PLAYER, IS DEAD.”
With the decision to cancel Game 6, the 1919 Stanley Cup Final was abandoned with no champion crowned. In the days following the cancellation of the series, Canadiens head coach George Kennedy offered to forfeit the series, but Metropolitans head coach Pete Muldoon declined given the circumstances.
Via the Associated Press:
Montreal coach George Kennedy, who also fell ill, reportedly offered to forfeit the series to the Metropolitans, but their coach, Pete Muldoon, rejected the offer in a remarkable act of sportsmanship.
If you look at the Stanley Cup today, you will not see a blank space where the 1919 Stanley Cup champion should be or a year skipped between 1918 and 1920, what you will see in an engraving that simply reads “1919 / Montreal Canadiens / Seattle Metropolitans / Series Not Completed.”
Fast forward a century, you will arrive at a place that looks similar to what the world was experiencing all those years ago. A lethal pandemic has sent the world spiraling and shuttered economies around the globe, closed schools, forced people inside, and put sports on hold indefinitely.
How this plays out in the coming weeks and months remains to be seen, but we can hope this pandemic doesn’t lead to another unclaimed spot on the Stanley Cup.