The impact of world events on sports

June 2020

Normally at this time of year the sounds of the crack of a bat or a crowd cheering as a soccer ball makes its way to the back of the net would be normal occurrences. Unfortunately, such is not the case this year, as 2020 is turning out to be anything but normal.

With each passing day there are more and more difficult decisions being made by sport organizers concerning the future of their events due to the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 virus. One of the earliest decisions was the postponement of the 2020 Olympic Summer and Paralympic Games that were scheduled to take place this coming July and August in Tokyo, Japan. This is not the first time that an Olympic Games or other sporting events have been cancelled or postponed due to world events.

Just over a century ago the world was in the middle of what became known as the Spanish Influenza, a disease that came in three waves between 1918 and 1920. It was estimated to have infected close to 500 million and caused the death of 50 million people worldwide, including an estimated 55,000 in Canada.

The Lakehead was not immune to the devastating reaches of the virus, with reports of the first known cases of Spanish Influenza making their way into the local headlines in the fall of 1918. In response to the presence of the epidemic a quarantine was put in place which saw public areas and local churches, schools and other establishments shutting down. By the end of October 1918 a total of 741 cases had been reported between the two cities which resulted in 17 deaths. By the end of November, the ban on public gatherings was lifted, although reports of cases were still being reported in the papers over the course of the next few months.

At the same time that the pandemic was raging across the world, so too was the First World War. In fact, part of the spread of the Spanish Flu to North America can be traced to soldiers returning from the battlefields of Europe. While there is not a lot of evidence that the Spanish Flu had a major impact on sporting events at the Lakehead, it did indirectly impact our local hockey history as it denied one of our local players the chance to add another Stanley Cup win to his record of success.

The 1919 Stanley Cup final series featured the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association’s Seattle Metropolitans. Playing for Seattle was Jack Walker who was born in Silver Mountain in 1888 and grew up in Port Arthur where he developed his hockey skills. Known throughout the hockey world as ‘hook check Jack’, his skill of poking the puck away from his opponent was legendary and very effective in the first game of the 1919 Stanley Cup finals with Seattle blanking the Canadiens 7-0.

As the players took to the ice for the fifth game Montreal needed a win to extend the series which they managed to accomplish in an exciting overtime victory. By the end of the game a number of players were showing signs of sheer exhaustion which, as it turned out, was not just due to the action on the ice, but the flu epidemic had started to take its toll, with some players ending up in the hospital or in the care of a physician. With only three Montreal players healthy enough to lace up their skates for the next match-up, Montreal offered to forfeit the game but Seattle refused so as a result the game was cancelled with no Stanley Cup winner declared for the 1918-19 season.

Other world events that led to a lot of changes in sport were the First World War and Second World War, due not just to the loss of participants but also the need to focus attention and resources on the war effort. There were no Grey Cup competitions held between 1916 and 1918 and no Macdonald Brier held from 1943-45.

War impacted the sport of hockey at both the amateur and professional level. The Allan Cup was not contested for in 1944-45 and the Memorial Cup was instituted in 1919 and named in honour of those who had lost their lives during the First World War.

By 1942 at least 80 NHL players had enlisted in the armed forces, including such local stars as Edgar Laprade and Gaye Stewart. That year was also significant in that it saw the departure of the New York Americans (which were renamed the Brooklyn Americans in their final season) from the NHL, leaving behind the teams that would go on to become known as ‘The Original 6’, an era which lasted until the 1967 expansion year.

The cancellation of the 1940 Olympic Winter Games had a local impact given that the members of the Port Arthur Senior Hockey Team, known as the Bearcats, were unable to represent Canada at those Games, having earned the right to do so by winning the 1939 Allan Cup.

War also interrupted a great number of sports activities on the local scene. The Fort William Rowing Club ceased operations from 1940-44. The Times-Journal 10-Mile Road Race, which started in 1910, was not held between 1915 and 1919 and 1939 marked the last running of the race for many years. Another significant impact of the war was felt in 1942 when Fort William’s Prince of Wales Rink was sold to the Department of National Defence to be used as an armoury. This meant that the community went without a major arena until 1951 when the Fort William Gardens was opened.

The year 2020 will now join other times from our sporting past where there will be gaps and asterisks in the lists of champions and seasons. As history has shown us, however, the resilience of sport will no doubt once again see our fields and arenas abuzz with activity, hopefully in the not too distant future.

Although the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame display gallery and library are currently closed to the public and won’t be reopening until it is safe to do so, you can rest assured that our staff are still hard at work cataloguing our collection of artifacts and undertaking research so that we can continue to preserve and celebrate our region’s rich and proud sport history for many more years to come. Stay safe everyone.

Diane Imrie is the Executive Director of the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. She can be reached at

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