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Meet the Montreal Canadiens, 1918-19 Stanley Cup champions

The 1919 Stanley Cup final between the Canadiens and Seattle Metropolitans was abandoned after the outbreak of Spanish Flu. If the series could have been completed, though, who would have won? To this day, hockey historians debate the answer.

The first thing you need to know is that this is not an April Fool’s joke. In fact, 100 years ago today, the Montreal Canadiens and Seattle Metropolitans were slated to play a one-game, winner-take-all showdown for the Stanley Cup in Seattle. That game was never played and hockey’s holy grail still is still adorned the inscription:

1919
MONTREAL CANADIENS
SEATTLE METROPOLITANS
SERIES NOT COMPLETED

That’s because by the time the sixth game of the series, which was actually officially Game 5, was to be played, the Montreal side was so ravaged by the worldwide Spanish Flu epidemic that ultimately killed millions of people that it couldn’t possibly continue
the series. Their lodgings at the Georgian Hotel in Seattle had turned into an infirmary and three days after the final game was supposed to be played, Hall of Famer (Bad) Joe Hall of the Canadiens died in hospital.

The Canadiens were prepared to forfeit the Stanley Cup to Seattle, but the Metropolitans would have none of that. There was talk of the Canadiens borrowing players from the Victoria Aristocrats that never materialized. The ice came out of the Seattle arena April 1, so it was proposed they move the game to Vancouver after some of the Canadiens players began to recover, “but by then some of the Seattle guys were getting sick,” said hockey historian Bob Duff, “and then Hall dies (April 5) so that just superseded everything.”

We’ll never know who would have won that game, but of course, we can speculate. When doing that, the first thing you have to do is take the Spanish Flu out of the equation and judge both teams on their merits. But even then the picture gets a little fuzzy. In those days, the Stanley Cup was awarded to the winner of a series between the NHL (represented by the Canadiens) and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (represented by the Metropolitans). It was a best-of-five series and, depending upon where it was played, the home team would have three games played under its rules and the visitor two.

And there were some big differences at the time. The PCHA played with six skaters, using a rover, and the NHL played with five. The PCHA had a bigger neutral zone, which favored the faster and more skilled Metropolitans. But here’s where things get confusing. Seattle had handily won Games 1 and 3 by 7-0 and 7-2 scores playing under PCHA rules. Montreal won Game 2 4-2 under NHL rules and the teams played to a 0-0 double-overtime tie in Game 4. There are conflicting reports about which rules were used for Game 5, which Montreal won 4-3 in overtime. Some reports say PCHA rules were used, which would have meant going to NHL rules for the sixth game. Other reports say that because Game 5 was a essentially a do-over of Game 4, NHL rules were used, meaning Game 6 would have gone to PCHA rules.

“If you look at the history of the Stanley Cup in those days, when they played under NHL rules, the western team almost never won,” Duff said. “Because you’re going from seven-man hockey to six-man hockey and that’s huge.”

If you put any stock into momentum, this is where things swing in a big way toward the Canadiens. You have to remember that the Canadiens spent the first part of the series getting adjusted to the travel and new surroundings, but as the series went on, they were emerging as the better team, and the more physical one. The Metropolitans, led by Hall of Famers Frank Foyston and Jack Walker up front and Harry ‘Hap’ Holmes in goal, were the faster, more skilled team. The Canadiens, led by fellow Hall of Famers Newsy Lalonde and Didier Pitre at forward, Hall on defense and Georges Vezina in goal, were the tougher, more durable team. By this time in his career, Odie Cleghorn, who was a very good player in the NHL, was a spare for Montreal, which gave them a big edge in depth. “Cleghorn and Jack McDonald were their extra forwards and Billy Coutu was their extra defenseman,” Duff said. “These are all really good players. If you match up the starting lineups, they’re pretty even, but usually in the Stanley Cup final, the deeper team emerges.”

“In this era, it’s generally thought that the PCHA guys are faster and more skilled and the NHL guys are tougher,” said hockey historian Eric Zweig, who picked Seattle to win the deciding game. “You decide who comes out ahead in that. Seattle is thought to be the faster team and with the bigger forward passing zone, that was their factor. And they were used to it.”

But according to hockey historian Craig Bowlsby, the foremost authority on the history of the PCHA, the Metropolitans made a huge mistake. And that error, combined with nagging injuries to both Foyston and Bobby Rowe, depleted the Metropolitans. Foyston was hurt on the final play of the loss in overtime and even though Rowe played, he was performing on such a seriously injured ankle that he could barely skate. “They only threw (Rowe) out there when they had to,” Bowlsby said, “but toward the end he had to be out there the whole time. He could hardly move.”

Bowlsby, who wrote a book titled Empire of Ice: The Rise and Fall of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, 1911-1926, asserts that it was another factor entirely that would have led to the demise of the Metropolitans and it’s actually a pretty incredible yarn. In those days, most teams had eight skaters and a goalie and it was not uncommon for players to play the entire game. But just before the final series started, the Metropolitans lost their leading scorer when Bernie Morris was thrown in prison for draft dodging…in a war that was over by that time. It turns out Morris was a Canadian who was on a draft card for World War I until he told authorities that he didn’t live in Seattle.

“But then just before the series started, he divorced his wife and he wrote on his divorce papers that he was a resident of Seattle and that triggered the US military to grab him,” Bowlsby said. “They basically kidnapped him from his house. He went to Alcatraz. It took him a year to get back. (The Metropolitans) left his spot open and that was a big, big mistake.”

(Another interesting side story: Holmes won the Stanley Cup with Seattle in1917, then went to Toronto and won it with the Arenas in 1918. He jumped back to Seattle for the 1918-19 season and would have won his third straight Cup if Seattle had prevailed. In an era where mercenary players followed the money, it wasn’t uncommon for star players to change teams from year to year.)

Regardless, the 1919 Stanley Cup final will always be shrouded in mystery. As Seattle prepares to make its NHL debut in 2021-22, should it have two Stanley Cup banners hanging in the KeyArena, one for 1919 to go along with the championship they won in 1917 over the Canadiens? Or should the Habs lay claim to their 25th Stanley Cup title? We’ll never know, but at worst it’s a pretty good barstool conversation.

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