Going through the archives of the old broadsheet newspapers from 1919 is an exercise in time travel. The NHL is a multi-billion-dollar business today, but the league was in its infancy back then — the puck was dropped in the first NHL game barely 17 months before the cancellation of the 1919 Final and the death of Joe Hall. At the time, even in thriving markets, hockey was a novelty, one set of rules in the east (six men per side) and another in the west (a seventh man being a rover). Boxing dominated the sports pages, pro wrestling was news nearly as serious as the Great War. The NHL, this league in its second season, could not yet beat out the Caledonia Curling Club for attention.
What was, for me, more surprising than hockey’s short shrift looking at those old broadsheets was the coverage of the Spanish flu itself — surprising because there wasn’t any at all. I presumed that the pandemic would have gained blanket coverage. Far from it. The story of Hall being “called” was the only mention of influenza in the Gazette that day.
It wasn’t an oversight. It was a combination of circumstance and strategy.
Circumstance: The spawning ground of the Spanish flu is unclear other than the fact it didn’t originate in Spain. The timeline is clearer. The U.S. Smithsonian Institute’s magazine suggested that the first recorded outbreak was in Kansas in January of 1918 and it spread from a farming community to a nearby army base. More than 1,000 soldiers at the base were hospitalized. From the Smithsonian: “[Though] influenza was not then a ‘reportable’ disease, a local physician named Loring Miner … who became a doctor before the acceptance of the germ theory of disease … went to the trouble of alerting the U.S. Public Health Service.” According to the Institute’s voluminous archive, this was “the first recorded notice anywhere in the world of unusual influenza activity that year.”
The illness that Joe Hall and his teammates contracted moved at an awful rate and took victims in a matter of days. Yet by the time the Canadiens landed in Seattle for the Cup Final, the Spanish flu had passed its most deadly phase, having reached its full, tragic strength the previous fall. Wrote Barry: “[The victims} died with extraordinary ferocity and speed. Although the influenza pandemic stretched over two years, perhaps two-thirds of the deaths occurred in a period of 24 weeks and more than half of those deaths occurred in even less time, from mid-September to early December 1918.”
Strategy: The Spanish flu was doubtlessly underreported, subject to voluntary embargo. In those early months of 1919, the world remained unsettled in the immediate wake of World War I. Even after the Armistice, political leaders in Europe and North America believed any coverage of an unfolding health crisis would give comfort to the enemy — even a vanquished one — so newspapers fell in line. It wasn’t a disinformation campaign nor a cover-up; call it avoidance in the name of patriotism. Only when H1N1 reached Spain, a neutral country where no such embargo was placed on newspapers, was it labelled elsewhere the “Spanish flu.”