It was an amusing footnote to the Thanksgiving game against Calgary; the fact that Blackhawk goaltender Patrick Lalime (the backup to Nikolai Khabibulin on this night) was nowhere to be seen on the team’s bench during the game.
It later emerged that Lalime was being held in ‘virtual quarantine’ in the Blackhawks locker room after having displayed those infamous ‘flu-like symptoms’ that seem to visit each NHL team at least once every season. It knocks a handful out players out of the lineup for a couple of games, moves on, and is quickly forgotten.
The flu virus is probably the only competition that ‘groin pull’ has for the title of “ailment/injury most like to result in player being scratched” in the contemporary NHL. Hockey players, of course, play through calamities that would send lesser mortals to the hospital.
Thanks to improved knowledge of the nature of the virus and ‘better living through pharmacology,’ the flu is usually viewed as a little more than a nuisance, something to debate about being vaccinated against rather than a significant health threat.
However, the influenza virus and professional hockey have a grim history.
In 1919, nature was teaching the U.S. (and the rest of the world) the same lesson it had taught soldiers mired in the muck of Europe’s labyrinth of trenches during the First World War: germs, viruses, diseases, and the vermin that carried them were as grave a danger to life as were the shrapnel of artillery or the rounds fired by enemy soldiers.
“The flu” killed more than 20 million people around the world in 1919, more than twice the number of soldiers killed from all the armies that had participated in the world war that had ended less than six months earlier.
As most hockey fans know, the Stanley Cup actually pre-dates the ‘Original Six’ era of the National Hockey League, which played its first season in 1926-27. Prior to that, the Cup was awarded for a few years to the winner of a series between the champ of a three-team NHL (teams were in Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal, which gives a different meaning to the word ‘National’ in the league’s title, doesn’t it?) and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA) whose teams were in Seattle, Vancouver, and Victoria, B.C.
1919’s cup contenders were Montreal and Seattle, and they split the first four games of their best-of-seven series. Games three and four went to overtime, and in an era when a complete team consisted of just eight skaters, this led to exhaustion amongst the players which in turn made them more vulnerable to... the flu.
The teams played game five in Seattle on March 30, 1919. Montreal’s Joe Hall developed a high fever, left the game, and was promptly hospitalized. Four other Montreal players and the team’s manager, George Kennedy, also wound up in the hospital, where, to their sorrow, Hall died on April 6. Kennedy also died several weeks later.
Out of respect for their ill comrades and in the face of other, more practical complications, the teams decided to abandon the Stanley Cup series of 1919. The line in the NHL record book is concise, but incomplete: 1919, No Champion.
It is noteworthy that ‘flu-like symptoms’ are enough to keep players out of the lineup in a sport and league where it is routine to play through countless fractures, contusions, bruises, cuts, pulls, and other anatomical malfunctions.
In its own way, the deference that teams show toward players with the flu (benching them for their own good as well as the good of the rest of the team) is an indirect tribute to the power of an invisible virus that etched its place in hockey’s history as well as the world’s.