The 1917 Metropolitans: Seattle’s First Stanley Cup Champions

In the fall of 2021, the NHL’s newest franchise will take the ice. The newly-named Seattle Kraken will have completed construction on their arena, experienced the expansion and entry drafts as well as free agency, and the stands will, hopefully, be full of Seattleites chanting and cheering on their team. But, it may surprise you to learn that it won’t be the first time top-tier hockey will be played in Seattle. In fact, a little over a century ago, a local team had their name engraved on the Stanley Cup.

Seattle Metropolitans
1917 Seattle Metropolitans, first American Stanley Cup Champions.

Before 1914, the Stanley Cup Final series was known as the Challenge Cup, The team in possession of the Cup would answer calls from other regional league champs in order to prove their dominance. On occasion, the Cup holders would be challenged multiple times in a season. The Challenge Cup era ended, as many things do, because of a paperwork error.

The Victoria Aristocrats challenged the Toronto Blueshirts and, due to a misunderstanding, the Stanley Cup trustees were upset not to be informed. Feelings were hurt and tempers flared until the error was identified. After the situation was resolved, the match went forward but an agreement was reached on a new process for future matches.

A New Stanley Cup Era Had Begun

The trustees agreed that the three major leagues at the time, the National Hockey Association (NHA), the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA), and the Maritime League, would arrange their own championship match. A year later, the Maritime League folded, and the yearly match became a reoccurring battle between the NHA’s and PCHA’s best teams. To accommodate the differing rules of play between the competing leagues, both sets of rules were used, one for even-numbered games and the other for the odd ones.

The PCHA had very different rules in those days, such as allowing a seventh player (known as a rover) on the ice for each team. Much in the way the larger ice rinks at the Olympics present different strategic challenges, so did the extra skater did for NHA teams not used to the practice.

Jean Beliveau
Montreal Canadiens players fill up the Stanley Cup Trophy with champagne in the locker room after defeating the St. Louis Blues in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final on May 4, 1969 almost 50 years after Seattle had left the league. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

The first Pacific Northwest-based franchise to play in the Cup Final was the Portland Rosebuds. In 1916, only two short years after joining the PCHA, they battled the Montreal Canadiens to a deciding Game 5, falling one victory short. It was also the first time an American-based team had played for the Cup, and even though all the players were Canadian, it was a sign of things to come.

The Metropolitans Make the Final

In 1917, the Seattle Metropolitans were the top team out of the PCHA, finishing a gruelling 24-game season with a 16-8 record. The first-place finish meant the Metropolitans represented their league in the Stanley Cup Final. Their opponent was again the Canadiens, who had narrowly defeated the Ottawa Senators to be named NHA champs.

The Canadiens were the defending champions, but the Final series was played at the Seattle Ice Arena. The Metropolitans had home-ice advantage for the full series, the tradition being that the reigning champs travelled to their opponent. The series began with the first and third games played using PCHA rules. The PCHA’s rules had been groundbreaking when it was established in 1911, and the NHA players likely found it difficult to adjust to using seven players, forward passing, and goalies being permitted to make diving saves.

A Back-and-Forth Series at First

The Canadiens’ skill shined through in Game 1, new rules and home-ice be damned, and they won convincingly 8-4. Game 2, however, played under NHA rules, was a different story. The Metropolitans did not fold but beat the Habs at their own game, winning 6-1.

Cully Wilson, Seattle Metropolitans
A Seattle Metropolitans player, Cully Wilson, poses for a picture in 1917 (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons).

Game 3 returned to PCHA rules, and this time the Metropolitans capitalized on that advantage. In a comparably low-scoring affair, the home club scored four times and only allowed a single goal.

Heading into Game 4 with the series lead, they had the opportunity to become the first team not based in Canada to win Lord Stanley’s Cup. Metropolitans captain Bernie Morris had scored eight goals on opposing netminder Georges Vezina up to that point, and with the Cup on the line, he came to play.

Your Best Players Need to Be Your Best Players

Despite playing once again under NHA rules, Game 4 was a 9-1 blowout for Seattle, with Morris scoring six goals. Along with two assists, he put up an impressive 16 points in those playoffs, averaging four points per game. The Metropolitans won and the Cup passed to an American franchise for the first time in its history.

Related: Vancouver Canucks and Seattle Kraken: The Next Great NHL Rivalry

The Metropolitans dominated the next couple seasons, though they lost the Cup to the PCHA rival Vancouver Millionaires in 1918, who would then represent their league versus the NHA. Seattle rebounded, though, and was right back in the Cup Final in 1919 before tragedy struck.

In 2020, the Cup Final was being played under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic as teams quarantine and play in front of empty stands. In 1919, the Final was played during the Spanish Flu pandemic.

1919 Tragedy

The Metropolitans once again hosted their old nemesis, the Montreal Canadiens, at Seattle Ice Arena. The series was tied at 2-2, and with a double-overtime tie in Game 4 (draws were permitted at the time), a tie-breaking Game 6 was required on April 1, 1919. It appeared a champion would be named that evening until several Montreal players fell ill with the deadly disease.

A few hours before puck drop, the game was cancelled. The Canadiens manager offered to forfeit the Cup to the Metropolitans, but the Seattle team refused to accept, recognizing the extreme nature of the situation. Sadly, Joe Hall, one of the stricken Montreal players, died a few days later. There was no Cup champion in 1919, something that didn’t happen again until the NHL lockout in 2004-05.

Seattle Kraken
The logo of Seattle’s new NHL Franchise, the Kraken

The PCHA folded in 1923-24, and, after the Seattle Ice Arena was replaced by a parking garage, the Metropolitans had nowhere to ply their trade, causing the Seattle franchise to collapse. Though they had a short run, the team left their mark. There are five Metropolitan players in the Hockey Hall of Fame, an impressive count for a team that only lasted 12 seasons. Some day, the Kraken may have a retired number or two up in the rafters, and maybe a Cup championship, but that story has yet to be written.