Sunday, December 9, 2012

When Toronto Was So Bad, the NHL Cancelled the Season

Recently, in looking at the various seasons of nonsense that my Toronto Maple Leafs put forward during the 1980's, I realized their worst single year didn't actually take place in that decade. The worst season in Maple Leaf history wasn't suffered by a squad known as the Maple Leafs even. It came in 1918/19, the second year of the National Hockey League, when the Toronto franchise was known as the Arenas. Sure the 1980's gave us four of the five worst seasons in club history, but they were all slightly better percentage-wise than the 1918/19 campaign. In this season, Toronto won 5 games, lost 13 and things got so bad for the Arenas that by February of the 18/19 season, they offered to withdraw from the league to enable Ottawa and Montreal to start their playoff earlier. Ultimately, Toronto was so bad that the NHL ended it's season early.

The Toronto Arenas of 1918 were coming off a year in which they finished tied atop the newly incorporated National Hockey League with the Montreal Canadiens. Toronto bested Montreal in the NHL Finals by a total goal count of 10 to 7. They went on to host the Vancouver Millionaires in the Stanley Cup Finals winning by 3 games to 2. The defence of the Cup the following season did not start off very well, and got worse from there.

Toronto opened the campaign on December 23 with a 4-3 loss at home to the Canadiens. The headlines in The Toronto World newspaper read; "Canadiens Waltz Away With Opener". Toronto did apparently carry the play for most of the match and led 3-2 with five minutes to play when Jack MacDonald, then Newsy Lalonde notched goals to steal the victory. Arenas goal-keeper Hap Holmes was "the bright shining light for the locals. He played in midseason form and turned aside a dozen shots that looked dangerous". Toronto defender Harry Mummery had wired from Brandon that he was suffering in the hospital with the flu and expected to arrive in Toronto about Jan. 1. According to The World, even at this early stage of the season, "He is needed".

Game two for Toronto was played on Boxing Day in Ottawa. Before 6,000 fans and they were bested by the speedy Senators 5-2.  They would fall to 0 and 3 with a 6-3 loss in Montreal on Dec 28, a game that featured new goaltender Bert Lindsay. Previous year's Cup winning goalie Hap Holmes had bolted for the west coast and his former team the Seattle Metropolitans. Holmes had played two previous years for Seattle, winning the first Stanley Cup for an American squad in 1917. Apparently it only took two losses for Holmes to see what was in store that year in Toronto. Bert Lindsay (Terrible Ted's father) was signed as a free agent on December 28, 1918 to take over the goaltending duties.

Toronto won it's first match on New Years Eve, beating Ottawa 4-2. They then proceeded to lose the next three straight, culminating with a 13-4 loss in Montreal on January 11 to fall to a 1 and 6 record. The headlines after the latest debacle proclaimed; "Blueshirts Given a Sound Trouncing, Canadiens Win Uninteresting Match in Montreal". The article described the play of the game, "The Toronto forwards and defence played far below their standard, and left the greater portion of the work to be done by Goalkeeper Lindsay. He was unequal to the whole job, and the blue shirted players were given a sound trouncing...Lalonde was the outstanding player in the game, he scored four goals and retired at the conclusion of the second period and witnessed the final twenty minutes from the stand."

The destruction at the hands of the Canadiens seemed to awake the Toronto squad as they won the next two matches at home, 5-2 over Ottawa and a return routing of Montreal 11-3 on January 21. The headline in The World for this game was particularly descriptive; "Listless Frenchies Beaten Eight Goals." According to the game report, "Newsy Lalonde was not with the visitors, and without him it was a team that could do nothing right. The Montrealers played as if they didn't care how soon it was over. About four thousand fans viewed the contest and were pleased with the local win, but were not taken with what was offered by the Frenchies." The paper continued with talk of legendary Georges Vezina's game,"Eleven goals against Vezina is something to talk about. It will hardly be seen again, and this was one of the sweet pills for the local fans to roll around in their mouths."

Unfortunately for Toronto, this would amount to the highlight of the season for them, as they would win only two of their final nine games. They reached rock-bottom on February 1 when they lost in Montreal by a score of 10-0. On this occasion, the newspaper was far more respectful in declaring; "Les Canadiens Turn Right Round and Wallop Toronto." In describing the affair they said,"The play was too one-sided to be interesting, Torontos playing like a lot of school boys against seniors."

After losing 9-3 in Ottawa on February 20, The Arenas were officially eliminated from playoff contention and their General Manager Charlie Querrie was asked if they "would disband after tonight's hockey game at Ottawa as was rumoured to be the case. He replied: 'We are willing to quit, or we are willing to continue to the end of the season - just whatever the league says. There are two games to be played here, and two away, but if we quit now the games at the coast could be played earlier.'  Upon hearing of Querrie's comments, 'The Ottawas immediately got in touch with President Calder and proposed the Ottawas and Canadiens should play four out of seven games to decide which club should go to the coast to play for the Stanley Cup.'

This is indeed what happened. Whereas the previous NHL season extended to March 6 and the following one went to March 13, the 1918/19 regular campaign had it's last game on February 20. So, instead of the 20 games each team played in the inaugural NHL season, and the 24 games in the third season the second season saw each team play only 18 games and also saw the first best of seven series in NHL history due to the ineptitude of Toronto. The NHL would go a full twenty years before reverting to the best of seven format in playoff competition in 1938/39.

When all was said and done, The Arenas technically withdrew from the NHL on Feb 20, 1919 only to be incorporated once again as The St.Patricks prior to the next season with much the same ownership group.  The Canadiens would best Ottawa by four games to one in the extended NHL Final and travel west to face Hap Holmes and Seattle. This series would be tied at two wins and a tie apiece before being cancelled due to the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1919.

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