The 1918-19 NHL Spanish Flu Season

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CraigBaird

Several months ago, I did an episode on Canada and how it dealt with the Spanish Flu. That episode is available to listen to and I encourage you to do so as it shows that at first, the Spanish Flu was not taken seriously, and it would cost 50,000 lives.

I have always been fascinated by the story of the 1918-19 NHL season and how it was impacted by the Spanish Flu. With hockey now back, at least for now, I wanted to look at how the flu impacted the season. So, this is a special bonus episode this week and I hope you enjoy it.

The 1918-19 NHL season was only the second ever NHL season and while we have 31 teams in the NHL now, the 1918-19 season saw only three teams, the Montreal Canadiens, The Ottawa Senators, and the Toronto Arenas.

The NHL was hoping to get an influx of players with the First World War ending, but few players would be demobilized in time to do so. The decision was made to play a split season, with each half consisting of 10 games. Unfortunately, the Toronto Arenas announced that after eight games in the second half, they could not continue due to poor play and issues with their training. The Arenas would agree to play one more game and the second half finished with eight games played. Soon after, on Feb. 20, the Toronto Arenas withdrew from the league because of financial difficulties.

In newspapers, the information and stories about the league planning its season were printed next to the columns that were advising people to wash their hands and stay healthy with proper food.

In Toronto, the Toronto Health Officer, Dr. Charles Hastings, spoke about sports teams playing games in the city. He would say, “These games must be discontinued. They only jeopardize people’s lives. It is inconceivable that the people in charge of them have not more judgement.”

The NHL did not seem to heed this warning and would begin play on Dec. 21, 1918. One reason for this may have been the fact that the NHL at the time was not a huge draw and the crowds would be small.

It was in the lead up to the new season that we would see the first hockey player death from the Spanish Flu. Hamby Shore had spent seven seasons with the Ottawa Senators, winning three Stanley Cups with them in 1905, 1910 and 1911. In early October 1918, his wife Ruby would fall ill with the flu. Soon after, Shore would develop flu symptoms and on Oct. 13, 1918, he would die in Ottawa from pneumonia brought on by the influenza virus.

In the Lethbridge Daily Herald, his death was reported as such:

“Following an illness of about a week’s duration, Samuel Hamilton Shore, better known as Hamby, died last night in one of the local hospitals. His recovery had been despaired for several days and he died at 9:25 last evening. The late hockey star contracted his fatal illness last week while nursing his wife, who had been stricken with influenza.”

On Oct. 16, the day of Shore’s funeral in Ottawa, Bobby Marshall, the 12-year-old son of future Hall of Fame player Jack Marshall, died of pneumonia brought on by the Spanish Flu.

One month later, Rusty Warren, a Regina senior amateur, would die from the disease.

With two players from two leagues dead, there was not talk of cancelling the game. The coach and owner of the Victoria Aristocrats, Lester Patrick, stated that hockey should continue regardless of the health hazards. His own team would be stricken with the flu in February 1919 and the Victoria Daily Times would write that Patrick “set a record for signing players as one man was stricken another was secured to fill his place.” This decision would have terrible consequences later.

The Aristocrats’ captain, Eddie Oatman, was too sick to even begin playing and he would be out for several weeks. As for Lester Patrick, despite keeping his team going, he would get the flu, and this led him to taking no chances with anyone who might have the flu on his team. As soon as a player developed symptoms, he would send them home and have the team doctor visit them. Despite this, seven players would get the flu but thankfully all would survive.

The Montreal Canadiens would finish in first place at the end of the first half of the season, with seven wins and three losses. The Ottawa Senators were second with a record of 5-5 and Toronto finished last at 3 wins and seven losses.

Things would switch in the second half, with the Ottawa Senators finishing first with seven wins and one loss, while the Canadiens had three wins and five losses, and the Arenas were once again in last with two wins and six losses.

At the end of the season, it was decided Montreal would play Ottawa to see who would play against the champion in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. Montreal would win the first three games of the series before falling to Ottawa in game four. Montreal came back to take game 5 4-2 and won the right to go on to play the Seattle Metropolitans for the Stanley Cup.

While waiting to play the Metropolitans, the Montreal players waited in Victoria and it was there that the players would first become infected. At the time, most of the roster of the Victoria Aristocrats had become infected.

Most of the information that exists for the Spanish Flu and the NHL comes from the Stanley Cup Final. The Metropolitans would take game 1, while Montreal would take game 2. Seattle came back to win game 3, and both teams played to a scoreless tie in game 4. By the time the Canadiens won game 5, the series was tied 2-2-1.

While Montreal was on the verge of winning the Stanley Cup, no one was celebrating. Joe Hall, the veteran defenseman on the team, had collapsed on the ice.

With two games off between game 5 and game 6, players on both teams began to develop flu symptoms.

By this point, Hall was in the hospital with a fever of 104F, and the day of game 6, four Canadiens, along the General Manager George Kennedy, were in the hospital. Newsy Lalonde, the superstar of the team, was also in the hospital. At this point, Montreal offered to forfeit but Pete Muldoon, general manager of the Metropolitans, rejected this as he did not want to win the Stanley Cup by forfeit. Muldoon said that Montreal should get players from the Victoria Aristocrats, but this was rejected. With the puck about to drop within five hours, and both teams not having a solution, the series was cancelled. By this point, only three players, including Sprague Cleghorn and Georges Vezina, were not infected with the disease.

On Aug. 1, the Seattle Daily Times reported “Influenza has within the past 48 hours laid out five of the Canadiens”

The Metropolitans were not hit as hard but both coaches woke up with high fevers.

The Montreal Canadiens stayed in Seattle as the players recovered and George Kennedy’s wife made her way to Seattle to be with him as his condition seemed to be worsening. By the time she made it to Seattle, the players were improving but, sadly, Joe Hall had died on April 5, 1919. He was only 37 years old. The Winnipeg Tribune would state in their obituary of the player that he was “one of the greatest exponents of the hockey game. Joe never spared himself while in a game, he always gave his best and never hesitated to mix things. It is a wonder that a player who received so many hard jolts and slashes as he did, could continue in the game for so long.”

George Kennedy never fully recovered from his bout with the flu and he would die at the age of 39 on Oct. 19, 1921. His widow would sell the Montreal Canadiens for $11,000 to a group of Montreal businessmen. Pete Muldoon, the head coach of the Metropolitans, was a healthy man who had been an ice dancer and professional boxer. Ten years after the flu, he died of a heart attack and many believe that he never fully recovered from having the flu and that it potentially weakened his heart.

As for Joe Hall, he would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961 and into the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame.

Information comes from WBUR.org, Sportsnet, The Guardian, The Conversation, Wikipedia, Hockeycentral.co.uk,

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