Hap Holmes of the Seattle Metropolitans was an outstanding playoff
goalie in 1917.
By Larry Stone – The Seattle Times
The names, even those of Hall of Famers such as Frank Foyston, Harry “Hap” Holmes and Jack Walker, are known mainly just to hardcore hockey aficionados. The arena was razed after a mere nine years of existence. The feat is savored as a trivia question but remains a revelation to many — even longtime residents of the Puget Sound area and devoted sports fans.
Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of one of the singular events in hockey history, but still an obscurity in its own backyard.
On March 26, 1917, as the capacity crowd of about 3,500 stood and celebrated in the Seattle Arena located at Fifth Avenue and University Street, the Seattle Metropolitans defeated the Montreal Canadiens, 9-1, to clinch the Stanley Cup
Seattle thus became the first American city to claim what was then a 25-year-old trophy symbolic of hockey supremacy, now celebrating its 125th year as one of the iconic totems in all of sports. It’s a little scratchy, but the engraving of “Seattle Metropolitans” remains to this day.
At a time when Seattle is attempting to build a new arena that could lure the NHL to town, it’s appropriate to examine this town’s memorable hockey roots. The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, in fact, is sending its curator, Philip Pritchard, to Seattle this weekend with most of its Metropolitans memorabilia to help mark the anniversary. It will be on display Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Washington Athletic Club, part of a series of Metropolitans-related activities planned this week.
“We’re hoping the people of Seattle, even though it was 100 years ago, realize they have a little niche in hockey history no one can take away from them,” Pritchard said.
The NHL also is celebrating its centennial this year, but it was the precursor of that league, the National Hockey Association (NHA), that marked its final campaign by losing the best-of-five Stanley Cup series to Seattle, representatives of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA), in four games.
Professional hockey, which heretofore had been almost exclusively a Northeastern, and mostly Canadian, venture, slowly had begun to make inroads in the West. The galvanizing event was the formation of the PCHA in 1911 by the Patrick brothers, Frank and Lester, who were part of a still-legendary hockey family. In 1912, the trustees of the Stanley Cup deemed the new league formidable enough for its champion to meet the NHA champ for possession of the Cup.
The Vancouver Millionaires of the PCHA had become the Western-most team to win the Stanley Cup when they stunned the Ottawa Senators with a three-game sweep in 1915, but normalcy was restored the next year when the mighty Canadiens prevailed in five games over the Portland Rosebuds. Pritchard points out gently that Portland actually beat Seattle onto the vaunted Stanley Cup by a year, inscribed on the trophy as the 1916 loser.
In 1916, the Patricks installed a team in Seattle, populated largely with players he had raided from the Toronto Blueshirts as part of a salary war, which were common in those days. Given that Toronto had won the Stanley Cup in 1914, it didn’t take long for the Metropolitans — named after the Metropolitan Building Company, which constructed the new arena for the princely sum of about $120,000 — to become competitive.
Among the players poached from Toronto were the three aforementioned Hall of Famers, as well as Cully Wilson, described by hockey historian and author Craig Bowlsby as “a small, vicious badger who wore a sadistic smile when he smashed into larger players.” From the Victoria Aristocrats came Bernie Morris, who would emerge as the Mets’ — and league’s — leading scorer, and top defenseman Bobby Rowe. Another member of the ’17 Metropolitans, Jim Riley, holds the distinction of being the only person to play NHL hockey and major-league baseball.
(Seattle Times archives)
In 1917, when World War I, aka the “Great War,” was in its fourth year, and an eight-room home in the Mount Baker area sold for $4,500, the Metropolitans won the PCHA title with a 16-8 record and awaited the Canadiens, the fabled “Flying Frenchmen,” for the Stanley Cup. Because of the distance involved, all by rail, the entire series was played in one site, alternating annually between the NHA and the PCHA.
By good fortune for Seattle, this was the PCHA’s year to host, so the Canadiens embarked on the 3,000-mile train journey to Vancouver, stopping to play practice games in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Brandon, Manitoba; and Edmonton, Alberta. They made the final leg of the trip by boat, arriving in Seattle at 8 a.m. March 17, some 12 hours before the first game.
Author and historian Mark Hansen, who wrote about the series in The Seattle Times for the 75th anniversary in 1992 and contributed to this story, noted that according to the Seattle Daily Times, the Canadiens upon arrival posed for a team photo, ate breakfast and then retired to the Savoy Hotel for rest. Their coach, George Kennedy, expressed supreme confidence, expressing the prevailing opinion of Easterners that the NHA was the superior league.
“I do not expect my men to have their feet tonight,” he told reporters. “Seattle may win tonight, but after that, I shall be greatly surprised if my men do not make a clean sweep of it.”
In fact, Kennedy had it precisely backward. Montreal, featuring the great goalie George Vezina, for whom the NHL trophy for best goalkeeper is named, and Hall of Famer and team captain Edouard “Newsy” Lalonde, a noted brawler, won the first game, 8-4. But Seattle won Game 2 on March 20, 6-1; they took Game 3 on March 23, 4-1; and then romped in Game 4 on March 26, 9-1, to win the Stanley Cup.
The clear-cut star for the Mets was Morris, the PCHA scoring champion who had an astonishing six goals in the clincher and 14 in the series to go with two assists. Morris would go on to some notoriety in 1919, when the Metropolitans made it back to the Stanley Cup. Just before the first game, Morris was taken away by the U.S. military and put on trial for desertion, ultimately serving 11 months at Alcatraz.
As was the tradition, the 1917 series was played with alternating rules, which meant, among other things, six men a side and no forward pass when under the guidelines of the NHA, and seven men a side and use of the forward pass — which turned into a huge advantage for Seattle — when playing under PCHA standards. The tenor of the series was captured in the Daily Times, which wrote of Game 3:
“Customers who left The Arena last night unsatisfied were either deaf and blind or unfortunate enough to have wagered their kopecs on the Flying Frenchmen. Spectators who were not on their feet during most of the contest must have been brought to the battle in wheel chairs or hobbled to the rink on crutches.”
So what did it all mean? Certainly, said Pritchard, Seattle’s victory helped expand the reach of pro hockey, with the Boston Bruins becoming the first American NHL team in 1924. The New York Rangers in 1928 became the next American team after Seattle to win the Stanley Cup. (Interestingly, no Canadian team has won the Cup since the Canadiens in 1993.)
Added Bowlsby, author of “Empire of Ice: The Rise and Fall of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, 1911-1926”: “It helped prove that the PCHA was as good as the NHA or NHL, and it proved that the forward pass could work as a technique that was better than what was happening in the East.”
Did it turn America into a hockey hotbed? Not exactly, says Eric Zweig, author and hockey historian. He likened it to the Toronto Blue Jays becoming the first Canadian team to win the World Series in 1992.
“Certainly, there were a few more Canadian players, but it’s not like baseball became a Canadian game,’’ Zweig said. Same in Seattle. “People loved them at the time. … But if they had made enough of a dent, there’s no way the rink decides they could make more money as a parking garage.”
But that’s precisely what happened in 1924, when the Metropolitans folded after their arena was turned into a parking structure (which remained in place at Fifth and University until it was replaced by the IBM Building in 1963).
The Metropolitans made it to two more Stanley Cups before going under. In 1919, they played Montreal again, but the series was abruptly called off in the middle of it because of a flu epidemic that killed one Canadiens player, Joe Hall. In 1920 — with Morris out of prison and back on the team — the Mets lost to Ottawa, three games to two.
Pro hockey hardly was done in Seattle, however. A new team, called the Seattle Eskimos, was born in 1928 and played at the Mercer Street Arena, which is in the process of being torn down. Other incarnations of Seattle pro hockey included the Seattle Seahawks, later renamed the Olympics; the Stars, Ironmen, Bombers, Americans and finally, in 1958, the Totems, who lasted until folding in 1975 and earned a devoted following. What has followed is junior hockey in the form of the Breakers and Thunderbirds, who have played in Kent since 2009.
The Metropolitans might be a footnote to history, but it’s a rich and compelling one that is more relevant today than ever.
“I think it’s an important and yet unknown part of Seattle history,’’ said Jeff Obermeyer, author of Hockey in Seattle. “Three Hall of Famers on the team, and the first American team to win the Stanley Cup. That’s kind of a big deal.
“With the potential of the NHL coming here, there’s a lot of talk about Seattle as a hockey town. Hockey has a history here. It’s been played almost constantly since 1915. It’s been part of the culture of the city for a long time. It’s a little underground and not as visible now, but it’s definitely there and part of our heritage.”
|The 1917 Stanley Cup Final
|In a best-of-five series, Seattle beat Montreal 3-1. Bernie Morris scored 14 of the Mets’ 23 total goals, including six in their big 9-1 victory in Game 4.
|Notable: Games 1 and 3 were played under seven-man rules while Games 2 and 4 were under six-man rules.