BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 03/04/2020

Thiel: 1918 pandemic’s mark on Seattle sports

The novel coronavirus upon the Seattle area threatens great harm and disruption. A similar influenza outbreak 101 years ago killed about 1,600 and left the Stanley Cup finals in a tie.

The Ice Arena in downtown Seattle, built in 1915, was where the Metropolitans won the 1917 Stanley Cup, but was temporarily closed in 1919 when the Spanish flu pandemic shut down a Cup rematch between the Mets and the Montreal Canadiens. / David Eskenazi Collection

At the moment, quiet apprehension fills the Seattle sports scene. Football is over, and so is Washington’s college basketball’s home seasons. The Mariners are away at spring training. But high school winter sports are building to their annual climaxes. The Sounders opened their MLS season Sunday with a win at the Clink in front of a typical crowd of 40,126.


Cool so far. Yet the phrase is everywhere: Novel coronavirus. The potential for disruption is nigh.

By chance, Seattle is the U.S. epicenter for what public-health scientists fear could become a pandemic.

Nine deaths as of Tuesday evening, and 27 cases of COVID-19, the disease produced by the virus, in King and Snohomish counties. More coming.

Gov. Jay Inslee has declared a state of emergency. King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan have declared civil emergencies. Constantine ordered the county purchase of a motel to quarantine patients.

No more high-fives in Little League. Costco, ever the exhibitor of the consumer pulse, saw panicky shoppers temporarily wipe out supplies of toilet paper and bottled water, for no logic-based reason. Speaking of ill-logic, because the virus was first detected in China, business in International District restaurants is down by half.

Thursday in soccer-mad Italy, where the outbreak is more serious, a more rational but significant public-health decision was made.

With more than 700 reported cases, officials ordered that a Europa League round-of-32 game in Milan between the home team, Internazionale, and Ludogorets, the visitors from Bulgaria, was too important to cancel. So they played the game in a closed stadium free of spectators.

(Update, noon Wednesday: The government of Italy has banned spectators attendance at all sports events until April 3.)

(Update, evening Wednesday: Opponents for Seattle University’s final two regular-season men’s basketball games, Chicago State and Missouri-Kansas City, have declined to travel to Seattle. The games were cancelled.)

Is that in store for the Sounders? I don’t know. I’m guessing the Sounders and MLS don’t know. But efforts to slow the spread of previous epidemics and pandemics have almost always included temporary bans on public gatherings, from sports to businesses, schools and churches.

We saw that in Wuhan, a city of 11 million where 16 new hospitals were built to treat the virus originated that originated there. Good news: One of the hospitals was able to close because the infection rate was slowing.

But in the West, the threat grows. Italy set a sports precedent in 2020. So did Seattle, 101 years earlier.

That’s when the city’s public health officials called off the Stanley Cup final between the Seattle Metropolitans and Montreal Canadiens. Civic leaders sought to stem a devastating outbreak of Spanish influenza, which would kill more than 21 million globally, and more than 700,000 in the U.S.

For local hockey fans steeped in the lore of the Mets, the story is a familiar one. But current events dictate for a broader audience a recounting one of the most confounding episodes in Seattle civic and sports history. Below is an excerpt from a Sportspress NW Wayback Machine feature in 2011 by Steve Rudman and Dave Eskenazi.

________________

Medical researchers traced the Spanish influenza outbreak in the U.S. to March 18, 1918, a year before the Metropolitans and Canadiens met for the second time. An unidentified Army private at Fort Riley, KA., reported to the camp hospital complaining of a fever, sore throat and headache. Before the day ended, more than 100 soldiers had taken ill.

From Fort Riley, the flu hop-scotched to Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Baltimore, its spread coinciding with massive movements of military personnel, and high concentrations of populations, during World War I (Seattle’’s population swelled to 400,000, largely due to military and shipbuilding needs). On Oct. 5, 1918, Seattle Health Commissioner Dr. J. S. McBride stated that influenza is “admittedly prevalent in the city” and blamed its presence on a trainload of sick draftees from Philadelphia that ended up at the University of Washington Naval Training Station. Soon, Seattle health officials recorded 700 flu cases and one death, despite taking rapid action.

The 1917 Seattle Metropolitans, coached by Pete Muldoon (center row, right) won the Stanley Cup, the first American team to do so. The team featured three future members of the Hockey Hall of Fame: Hap Holmes (top row, far left), Jack Walker (top row, far right) and Frank Foyston (middle row, left). / David Eskenazi Collection

They issued an order on Oct. 29, 1918, making it mandatory that all city residents wear six-ply gauze masks. The state followed with a similar order the next day, covering everyone living outside the King County limits.

To keep the flu in check, authorities forced an end to mass gatherings until the crisis passed, banning dances and theater attendance, closing schools, and curtailing streetcar service. While the city busied itself with major road cleanings and garbage removal, its politicians passed an anti-spitting law.

The city insisted that only close relatives of a deceased could attend his/her funeral, and that no religious services would be permitted for at least two weeks following initial manifestation of the flu. When ministers whined, Mayor Ole Hanson (later famous for founding the city of San Clemente, CA.) remarked, ““Religion which won’’t keep for two weeks is not worth having.””

Local sports did not go untouched. Because of the manpower drain caused by World War I, plus the added complication of the flu, the University of Washington football team played only two games in 1918, one against Oregon, the other against Oregon State (helping fight the war in Europe, head coach Claude Hunt missed both games).

The UW managed a 16-game basketball season, but no games were played in the late fall after the flu erupted. The season started Jan. 17, after the flu seemed to have abated, and included limited travel: Of the 16 games, UW played four against Washington State, four against Oregon, and four against Oregon State.

Because the disease appeared in Seattle six weeks after it first struck eastern U.S. cities, Seattle officials had a chance to plan for its arrival. The  Department of Health and Sanitation, in conjunction with doctors at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, developed a vaccine and ordered that all shipyard workers be vaccinated. Of the 10,000 vaccinated, none developed influenza.

But Seattle had more than 10,000 citizens. After Armistice Day on Nov. 11, 1918 marked  the end of World War I, thousands celebrated in Seattle’s streets, sans gauze masks. The city lifted the mask rule the next day and re-opened theaters and other public places. Sure enough, the flu began another rampage before dropping off again. Schools did not re-open until mid-January, 1919.

By March, about 1,600 in Seattle succumbed to the flu. But the city had been relatively fortunate. Seattle suffered a death rate half that of San Francisco and a third of that of Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Oddly, the flu bug never reached Fifth Avenue in downtown Seattle, especially between Seneca and University streets, where the Metropolitans played their entire regular season at the Ice Arena without a reported health-related incident. They finished 11-9, good for second place in the PCHA standings, a game behind the Vancouver Millionaires. They beat the Millionaires in a playoff series to advance to the NHA Finals against Montreal. The best-of-five series wound up 2-2-1, forcing an unplanned Game 6.

Five and a half hours before the Game 6 face-off, players on both teams suddenly took ill with the flu. Health officials quickly dispatched five Montreal players to local hospitals, and ordered the rest of the Canadiens to remain in their rooms at the Georgian Hotel. Jack McDonald became the first Canadien to go down, followed by Newsy Lalonde, Joe Hall, Billy Coutu, Louis Berlinguet and team manager George Kennedy. All had fevers ranging from 101 to 105 degrees.

From his hospital bed, Kennedy announced he would forfeit the Cup to Seattle, but Muldoon refused to accept, recognizing that catastrophic illness had caused the Canadiens to be short of players.

Kennedy asked if he could borrow players from the Victoria Aristocrats of the PCHA, but league president Frank Patrick scotched the idea. Several Victoria players had been ravaged by the flu, and some suspected the Canadiens picked it up from Victoria players when they stopped there for an exhibition game prior to arriving in Seattle.

With Patrick having no other alternative, and Seattle public health officials fearful of a large flu outbreak if 4,000 fans jammed the Ice Arena for Game 6, the contest was called off.

The 1919 Stanley Cup playoffs ended with no champion, marking one of only two times the trophy was not awarded (2004-05 season was wiped out due to a labor dispute). That season is recorded on the Stanley Cup today simply as: “”1919, Montreal Canadiens, Seattle Metropolitans, Series Not Completed.”

On April 5, Hall died at Seattle City Hospital from pneumonia that developed while he battled the flu. Many of his teammates attended his funeral in Vancouver April 8. The other Montreal players eventually recovered, but a weakened Kennedy never did. He suffered from ill health for two years and died at 39 in 1921, most attributing his early demise to the lingering effects of Spanish influenza. Two months later, Kennedy’’s widow, unable to meet the team’’s financial obligations, sold the Canadiens for $11,000.

FURTHER READING

When it Mattered Most, The Forgotten Story of America’s First Stanley Cup, by Seattle author Kevin Ticen

How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread Across America, Smithsonian Magazine


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YourThoughts

  • ReebHerb

    Ice arena? Dang, that was a big building. Never knew.

    • art thiel

      See comment above.

  • Parts

    I very much want the new team to be called the Metropolitans ( I know it won’t happen). Even more so, I want them to be called the Metropolitans and to challenge the Habs to finally settle the 1918 Stanley Cup playoffs.

    • Kirkland

      I’m sure there will be a game between Seattle and the Habs with both teams in throwback jerseys. Ideally for a ceremony when they raise the 1917 Stanley Cup banner.

      • Parts

        How about the first home opener!

        • Kirkland

          That should be a special event in and of itself. Home opener should be against a team Seattle doesn’t have a real geographical kinship with, such as Winnipeg or Dallas.

          • art thiel

            Why?

          • Kirkland

            If the home opener were against Vancouver, it could look like when Blue Jays fans invade T-Mobile Park. The first ever home game should be at least 99 percent filled with Seattle fans, and the best way for that is scheduling an opponent that’s not nearby or has a national following (Philadelphia, Chicago, NY Rangers, etc.)

          • art thiel

            The opener tickets will be 100% Seattle. Opponent will be irrelevant.

          • Parts

            The whole first season it’s going to be very difficult and ridiculously expensive to get single game tickets. If the team is any good it will remain that way for as long as they’re good. It’s maybe not ever going to be like when the Jays come to town. At worst it may be more like when Blazer fans used to come up for Sonics games and the crowd was half and half. When the teams were evenly matched it was a fantastic atmosphere. Bring it.

          • art thiel

            I think Kirkland was concerned about the first game, not the season.

          • Parts

            I guess I consider the first ever NHL opening night in Seattle to be a pretty special event.

      • art thiel

        Don’t think the Leiweke’s haven’t thought of it.

    • jafabian

      I would love to have the team be called Metropolitans also. I want to see a Metropolitans Stanley Cup champions banner hanging in the rafters of the remodeled Key Arena.

      • art thiel

        League has already nixed the Mets. But a banner needs to happen.

        • jafabian

          Too bad. I was hoping the franchise could avoid being the only team who hasn’t won the Stanley Cup 43 years from now.

        • LarryLurex70

          A championship banner having nothing to do with the current model franchise other than sharing a name seems pretty desperate. Especially if said championship is literally from a century ago and none of those who favour the name can speak from any personal recollection of having seen them play. I’m no fan of Kraken, but, I hope to God the name isn’t Metropolitans. If I have to hear/read just 1 more time local “hockey fans” bragging about “the first U.S. team to win the Stanley Cup…” as if they actually know anything at all about the team other than that – half of them believe the Metropolitans played in the NHL, while the rest of them can’t even name which league they actually did represent – I might just have to continue supporting the Canucks (since the mid-‘90’s) after NHL Seattle finally enters the league. Hate rooting against the local team(s), even if I’m not an actual fan (Hello, Mariners!), but these Metropolitan fans are really something else.

          • art thiel

            C’mon Larry. Because no living Yankees fan saw the ’27 team, we throw it out of books and minds? I realize there’s a difference in historical continuity, but try looking upon the Mets’ title as an artifact, one that appears on the Stanley Cup trophy. Obviously it’s a different era, but it happened in Seattle and was a championship in the top tier of hockey in North America.

            And regarding the name, please let me write it one more time and then please leave it alone: Gary Bettman said in Seattle for all to hear that the NHL has a Metropolitan Division, so it’s ineligible to be a nickname,

            M’kay?

  • howard goodman

    Great article, Art.
    I too impressed by nice looks and size of that arena. Had no idea about pro hockey back then.

    • art thiel

      Thanks. Seated 4,000. Was torn down in the late 1920s.

    • Kirkland

      IIRC it was located where the Rainier Tower exists today.

      • art thiel

        Right. Didn’t even survive a decade.

    • art thiel

      Thanks. Please read the link to the full Wayback Machine story. Lots going in 1917-19 here.

  • Kirkland

    Formula 1 is postponing this year’s races in China (May) and Singapore (summer), it’s not clear if they’re replacing them with other locales or just reducing the number of races this season.

    As for cancelling events here, and not just sports? I have a pass for the Emerald City Comic-Con next week, and it’s a huge controversy over whether it should be scuttled. Some ticketholders and even artists/celebrities are declining to show; however, many small comic creators depend on these comic conventions for their incomes, and their mortgages would be in jeopardy if this 100,000-attendee event disappears. It’s a little different than playing a basketball game without fans. (If the Sonics were still here, would they be ordered to play behind closed doors, or in another city?)

    • art thiel

      The big global event in jeopardy is the Tokyo Olympics starting July 24. There’s talk of pushing it to the fall.

      But you’re right about all the non-sports events. Lots going down. I was headed Saturday to the King County Library Foundation’s annual fundraiser, Literary Lions, in Bellevue. Plug was pulled.

      Major disruptions ahead.

  • Husky73

    Saturday, March 7th….the Houston Roughnecks decide that the virus risk is too great and leave the field immediately after the second half kickoff. Five plays later, the Seattle Dragons score.

    • art thiel

      Glad you can laugh, Husky. Game’s in Houston.

      What about how the Columbus Crew club feels about flying into Seattle for the 7p game at the Clink Saturday night?

      • Husky73

        No laughing matter, but sometimes a mood lightener is OK. Very sad and sorry for those who have passed and are ill. This too shall pass, but we are in for some frightening times.

  • eYeROQ

    Wow. What an incredible story. So sad that some of the opposing team Canadiens actually died, including their manager/owner. What a miserable way to die to have the effects of Spanish Influenza linger for TWO YEARS. Talk about grueling.

    But what really made my jaw drop was seeing that soccer game in Italy being played with no spectators allowed. I seriously thought that paragraph was written as satire until I checked out the links. I wondered what the point was, but I guess they’re playing for the TV broadcasts.

    • art thiel

      Startling photos. The TV revs are certainly part of it, but I also think they want to maintain schedule integrity on the remote chance that the outbreak fades. But once a player tests positive, everything changes.

    • Kirkland

      It’s actually common for soccer games in Europe to be played in empty stadiums as punishment, for fan violence/racism, financial irregularities, etc. (Inter Milan has had closed door matches before because their fans got too abusive.) But for closed door matches to happen for health reasons is another thing.

      • art thiel

        True about empty stadiums in Europe. But those were finite suspensions. This is different.

  • ll9956

    Well researched and well presented. Thanks, Art.

    • art thiel

      Kudos to my pals Rudman and Eskenazi too.

  • jafabian

    This story makes me wonder if the Coronavirus outbreak will soon affect the attendance of the local sports scene. Already the new Bond movie release has been pushed back from this month to November because of the outbreak.

    • art thiel

      It’s inevitable, especially for kids, even though the health officials say youngsters seem least affected.

  • 1coolguy

    Since 2010, the flu in the US has killed anywhere from 12,000 to last seasons’ 61,000+ (See link below).
    The 1918 influenza that Art well described was a world-wide pandemic, at a time where vaccines were not known/effective.
    So far the Coronavirus has killed about a dozen in the US, many in just one retirement home in Kirkland.
    Hopefully this is much ado about nothing (compared to our seasonal flu) and in a few months it will reduce even more world-wide. If China is to be trusted (BIG if) their cases are dropping dramatically and Starbucks has re-opened 90% of its’ stores in China after closing 80%.
    Interestingly the flu season in Japan has sunk to about 25% of their norm, and they attribute it to people washing their hands more and using disinfectants, so Japan has seen a REDUCTION in flu deaths this season as a result of heightened awareness.
    Given the consumers’ raids on retail stores for masks and Purell, etc, hopefully the US will see a drop in flu deaths this year.
    Maybe the silver lining here is people will improve their hygiene, long term.
    Thanks for reprinting the article on the Mets Art!

    https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/index.html

    • art thiel

      It’s true that the flu kills many annually, but there are vaccines for ordinary strains, and most victims are the elderly who are inactive. There’s no vaccine for this strain, apparently it’s more easy to transmit, and it can infect the healthy.

      Also, the Chinese government virtually shut down an entire city of 11 million to help slow the spread. No way in hell does that happen here, even if it’s Trump’s fever dream.

      If you read the Smithsonian article, you’ll see the 1918 pandemic had three distinct waves.

  • wabubba67

    “‘Wipe’ out supplies of toilet paper…”

    Deftly done, Art.

    • art thiel

      I was hoping you would notice more worthy virtues of the story.