What happened the last time an epidemic stopped the NHL?

The deadly coronavirus, or COVID-19, is sweeping the globe. Almost all major sports leagues in North American have suspended play, the NHL being among them. Yesterday, the league announced an indefinite suspension of all activities, and left more questions than answers with fans, media, and other stakeholders.

With how rapidly the virus can and is spreading worldwide, this decision by the NHL was the best move to slow the spread.

The NHL is no stranger to dealing with viruses making their way through locker rooms and arenas as the yearly influenza bug forces dozens of players to miss games every year. Even beyond the common flu, the NHL recently dealt with the H1N1 virus in 2009, and the NHL mumps outbreak in 2014.

In both of these seasons, the NHL did not handle the situation well. The Calgary Flames were particularly under scrutiny in 2009 when they jumped the queue to get their H1N1 vaccines, and the league really didn’t do anything to properly deal with or prevent the spread of the mumps in 2014.

Their response to the coronavirus is a welcomed surprise.

When the NBA suspended their season two days ago, it was basically a certainty that the NHL would follow suit. With how close the leagues are, many ownership groups own teams in both leagues and operate out of the same buildings, it was the only option to help contain the virus.

It’s not completely unprecedented for games to be cancelled due to an outbreak, though.

In 1918, one of the earliest NHL seasons in history, the league was stopped midway through the playoffs due to an outbreak of the Spanish flu. Coincidentally, the Spanish flu is part of the same group as the coronavirus, and it forced the NHL to make drastic changes to league play that season.

The Spanish flu was one of the most deadly pandemics in human history. Approximately 500 million people were infected, a figure that represented close to 30% of the world’s population at the time, and the death of anywhere between 17 million to 50 million, possibly even as high as 100 million people.

The 1919 Stanley Cup Finals occurred right in the middle of this crisis, and the series for the Stanley Cup between the Montreal Canadiens, winners of the NHL, and the Seattle Metropolitans, winners of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA), were unable to finish their series.

All games of the series were held in the Seattle Ice Arena, and the rules of each game differed due to the two leagues having different rule books.

Again, this was when the NHL was in its first years. Rosters were small and substitute players were not plentiful. The Canadiens roster had 13 players in total, and the Metropolitans had nine.

The first game of the series saw the Metropolitans blow out the Canadiens by a 7-0 score. The Canadiens responded in game two with a 4-2 win, evening the series at one game apiece. Seattle won the third game 7-2, and the fourth game ended in a scoreless tie after two overtime periods. Game five was where things got interesting.

The Canadiens fought back in game five to tie send the game to overtime tied at three. But because the series had been so grueling and the teams didn’t have very many subs (the Metropolitans only had one, if you can believe it), players were so tired that the game winning goal was scored on a pseudo-powerplay. Metropolitans player Frank Foyston was unable to replace fellow skater Cully Wilson on a line change, which led to the Canadiens scoring in overtime and evening the series at three.

The sixth game was to be played on April 1st, but a mere hours before the game started, the NHL was forced to cancel the series. Several players on both teams had contracted the Spanish flu and became seriously ill. Five Canadiens players were hospitalized, and one player, Joe Hall, died of pneumonia caused by the flu four days later.

With his team decimated, Montreal manager George Kennedy opted to forfeit the Stanley Cup to the Metropolitans. The Metropolitans manager-coach Pete Muldoon refused to accept the award. It was decided that no team would win the Cup that year and nothing would be engraved on the trophy. Unfortunately, Kennedy also contracted the illness never fully recovered, passing away a few years later.

When the trophy was redesigned in 1948, a space was engraved with both team’s names, and a line that reads: “series not completed”. This remains the only year outside of the 2005 lockout year that the Stanely Cup was not awarded.

It remains to be seen what will become of the 2019-20 NHL season. If the Cup is not awarded, it wouldn’t be the first time a global epidemic wiped out the ability to fairly award the trophy. The NHL aims to resume the season at some point, but this will forever be a historic season. Hopefully the Cup will be awarded later in the year, under better circumstances than they are now.

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