NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — These are unprecedented times. Almost no one alive today lived through the world’s last great pandemic, or a peacetime stoppage of sports. But there is some precedence for what the world is living through right now.
Back in 1918 the world was rocked by the spread of the deadly flu. A year later, one of the world’s most popular sports was brought to its knees by the virus.
The 1918-19 season is the only season since the Stanley Cup started being presented that the Cup was not awarded to hockey’s champion. That’s a fact that looked to be in jeopardy for some time this spring after the spread of the coronavirus forced the NHL to place its season on pause.
Many wondered if the league had ever been unable to present the Cup to its champion. Ken Rosen knew the answer from his days working at the NHL.
“About 15 years ago we were prepping our Stanley Cup Playoff marketing campaign, and I stumbled upon the story just by reading the guide and record book that in 1919 the Stanley Cup was not handed out,” Rosen said. “It fascinated me that no one in this room at the NHL knew why. So I started to research it and came upon a story with a lot of similarities to what is going on now.”
The 1919 Stanley Cup Final featured the Montreal Canadiens and the Seattle Metropolitans. It was canceled one game shy of determining a champion when the Canadiens roster was ravaged by the Spanish Flu.
Rosen has written a novel based off the events of that series. It’s called “1919: The Search for Mankind’s Greatest Killer.
“The book is based on real events and real people,” Rosen said. “The Montreal Canadiens were the team that I focused on because they were the team that got sick and couldn’t put a team on the ice.”
Joe Hall was one of the Canadiens players stricken with the flu. He died in a Seattle hospital four days later, one of the estimated 50 million people who died worldwide due to the virus during those couple of years.
Rosen’s novel continues with a group of scientists determined to figure out what happened and how to prevent it from ever happening again.
The author says his research while writing the book showed devastating pandemics are about a once every 100 years event. Rosen hoped he would never have to live through one himself, but believes the world was far better prepared for the coronavirus that it was when the bird flu outbreak began in 1918.
“The biggest difference is obviously that we’re in a difficult technological age, medical age and science age,” Rosen said. “But the similarities are striking.”
And just like in 1919, sports do go on. They just may have to look a little different for a period of time.
“There are pictures in the summer and fall of 1919 when the flu came back around for the third time where baseball teams are still playing, but every player on the field has a mask on,” Rosen said. “Every umpire (has a mask on), every person in the crowd has a mask on. And there are pictures from golf where the players are wearing masks.”
A century later sports are coming back with their own precautions, largely in empty stadiums and arenas for the time being. Rosen believes the eventual return of fans will rival the emotions of the country at the first sporting events following the tragic attacks on September 11, 2001.
But for now just the return of games, in any fashion, can be a huge morale boost coming out of a once a century type of plague.
“I think we need those things that we love [to come back], the things that we rely on,” Rosen said. “Give us a reason to cheer, be happy, be social. You’ve got to get the country back to feeling like we’re coming out of this, we’re going to be alright. Just like it happened in 1919."