The Cost of Rushing Back to Sports: A Star’s Life

Nobody made much of it when Joe Hall skated off the ice.

On March 29, 1919, his Montreal Canadiens were on the verge of losing Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals to the Seattle Metropolitans. Hall, 37, was one of hockey’s original enforcers, known for applying his wooden stick like a cudgel and delivering knockout blows. The Canadiens, behind by 3-0 heading into the third period, needed his pounding determination.

But he went meekly to the bench and sat down.

The Seattle crowd roared for the Metropolitans. The Canadiens mounted a comeback and won, 4-3, in overtime. Hall was gone.

Reporters failed to draw a connection between his departure — and the gaunt pallor of players on both teams — and the Spanish flu, which had swept across the world the year before. By the time the 1919 Stanley Cup finals had gotten underway, la grippe had become an afterthought.

“People were exuberant, in need of something to celebrate,” said Kevin Ticen, a Seattle author who has written about the finals. “There was also a lot of denial.”

Then the celebration turned somber. Days after Montreal’s comeback, players on both sides grew sick. More than half of the Canadiens, and the owner of the team, were stricken by the flu. Hall was suffering worst of all.

The sports world, said his grandson Larry Hall, 79, should learn from history. “What happened to my grandfather is relevant now in a way I never thought it would be,” he said. “The flu that hit the Stanley Cup came at the end of a series of pandemic waves. People relaxed, and then, unfortunately, it came again.”

Hours before a winner-take-all Game 6, hockey officials did something they had never done before or since.

They canceled the Stanley Cup finals midstream.

Joe Hall lay in a hospital, gasping for breath. His temperature was spiking. He was fighting for his life.

Even now, amid daily stories of death and the fight against Covid-19, it can be hard to fathom the pain of that time, 101 years ago, when an aggressive pandemic and the devastation of World War I laid waste to the world.

In the United States, the first deadly outbreak of the Spanish flu came in Kansas, hitting a small town and its Army base in early 1918. From there, it is thought, soldiers spread the flu across the country and into the trenches of Europe and then far beyond, fueling one of the worst disasters in human history.

Over two years, the Spanish flu killed at least 50 million people, including 55,000 in Canada and 675,000 in the United States.

More than half of its victims died during the second wave, which lasted three months late in 1918. A Jack Dempsey fight was postponed. Many high schools and colleges shortened or shuttered their sports seasons. Michigan and Pittsburgh were named the college football national champions. Both played only five games.

Major League Baseball was the dominant sport of the time. Worried about viral transmission, it banned the spitball. In a recently published book, “War Fever,” the history professors Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith said that several Boston Red Sox briefly fell ill during spring training near an Army base in Arkansas and that the team’s biggest star, Babe Ruth, was sickened by the virus in the season’s first full month.

Ruth recovered and led the Sox to a World Series title in 1918. But teeming crowds at Fenway Park may well have spread the pandemic and helped make Boston one of the worst American epicenters of infection.

No sport, however, was affected quite like hockey.

Joe Hall was born in Britain and raised in rural Canada. He was one of professional hockey’s early stars and among its most notorious. A vagabond of sorts, Hall played for nine teams and played for two Stanley Cup winners before landing with the Canadiens in 1917 for one last stop.

He wasn’t big — only about 165 pounds and 5 feet 9 inches. Though away from games he was well liked and known for his quiet dignity, on the ice he carried himself like a warrior.

On one occasion, he was said to have attacked two Toronto players at the same time and caused a riot. Then there was a tale about an in-game skirmish during which he inflicted such bloody mayhem that he was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.

“They called him Bad Joe in those days, or sometimes just the Bad Man,” Larry Hall said. “A tough guy who refused to back down.”

Hockey was different then, said Eric Zweig, a historian and the author of “Fever Season,” a book about Hall and the Cup. Players were not as big and strong as they are now, but they were tough and durable. Teams dressed only about 10 players. They did not wear masks or helmets and had little padding.

Their pay? Larry Hall, a health club owner who spoke on the phone from his home two hours north of Toronto, described a cherished item on a wall in his office: Joe Hall’s contract for the 1918-19 season. He earned $600, with a potential $100 bonus.

Blow-by-blow accounts of what happened during the 1919 Stanley Cup come from archived newspapers and a slim number of history books. There is no known audio or film record.

Descendants of the Montreal and Seattle players tend not to know much. “My father never really spoke of it, at least not to me,” said Barbara Daniels, 90, the daughter of Frank Foyston, Seattle’s best player. Maybe there was too much pain in the memories.

Craig Patrick, a former N.H.L. player and coach who was an assistant for the “Miracle on Ice” team that won gold at the 1980 Winter Olympics, is the grandson of a league owner who figured prominently in the 1919 battle for the Cup.

What little he knows about the championship series comes from what he has read. “In my family,” he said, “I don’t remember any stories being told about it at all.”

But after all this time, Joe Hall’s family remembers. “The genes pass on,” Larry Hall said, “and for us, so do the stories. They’re part of who we are.”

The 1919 Stanley Cup pitted the best team from the N.H.L. against the best team from the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, a plucky upstart with clubs in Washington, Oregon and western Canada. Its champions that year were the Metropolitans.

They had beaten Montreal in 1917 to become the first American franchise to win the Cup.

“They were absolutely huge in Seattle, true celebrities,” said Ticen, who has chronicled the team’s championship season in a book, “When It Mattered Most.”

“They played sold-out games in a state-of-the-art arena for its day,” he said. “There are kids climbing the roof to watch from skylights. The games are electric, and everywhere the players go in the city people flock to them.”

As the N.H.L. began its regular-season games in late 1918, some called the coming hockey year the Peace Season, a nod to the fact that World War I had ended a month earlier.

But the Spanish Flu kept coming in waves.

In Seattle, the death toll mounted that October, and the city clamped down. Wearing masks became mandatory, and spitting could result in arrest. Businesses, schools and churches were closed, and large gatherings were banned.

When the number of sick people decreased, the measures were loosened — which led to the virus’s deadly return.

By March, when Montreal arrived by train for the championship series, which would be played entirely in Seattle, the pandemic had retreated enough to become an afterthought.

The fated fight for the Cup is known not only for how it ended, but also for its intensity. Game 4 is considered by many to be one of the greatest in hockey history. Seattle held a 2-1 series lead and needed just one more victory to take the Cup. But after two overtime periods, 80 minutes of play and not a single goal from either side, the contest was called a tie.

Exhausted players collapsed to the ice. Some needed to be carried to the locker rooms. “They may be playing for hockey championships for the next thousand years,” wrote a reporter on hand, “but they’ll never stage a greater struggle.”

Then came Game 5 and Hall’s wilting departure. His illness was barely mentioned in initial reports. Hall, one newspaper said, simply had a high fever caused by “overexertion.”

News stories about Hall’s condition reported his regressing each day as it became clear that he had been struck especially hard by the virus. His fever rose to alarm­ing levels — 102 degrees, 103, 104.

Because of the double-overtime tie and Montreal’s Game 5 win, the teams were slated to play once more to decide the championship. The Spanish flu spread like fire through both teams, and the Canadiens didn’t have enough healthy players to keep going. After a proposal to bring in replacements was rejected, Montreal offered to forfeit. Seattle refused to claim the title that way. Finally, hockey officials decided to call the series a draw, a result memorialized on the Stanley Cup.

The year and team names were etched on the silver chalice. Below that was engraved:


And Joe Hall?

His teammates recovered, but he remained hospitalized.

Fluid filled his lungs, and his fever stayed stubbornly high. His wife raced by train from Canada to be at his side, but she was too late.

A week after his last game, the great enforcer died.

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