There’s a touch of sadness that comes with reading a newly released book on the Seattle Metropolitans’ 1917 Stanley Cup championship.
First-time author Kevin Ticen, a former University of Washington baseball player and Seattle Sports Commission director, does a fine job in “When it Mattered Most: The Forgotten Story of America’s First Stanley Cup Champions, and the War to End All Wars’’ (Clyde Hill Publishing) of bringing to life the team’s forgotten figures. It’s easy to grow attached to the personal stories of men like Pete Muldoon, Frank Foyston and Bernie Morris, all working to forge a hockey legacy in Seattle amid the backdrop of the United States’ late entry into World War I.
And that’s the sad part: Knowing the championship foundation laid by the Metropolitans of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA) ultimately went the way of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires from the book’s war references. Sure, Seattle now has a pending October 2021 launch of a National Hockey League franchise. But none of the men who brought the first Stanley Cup to U.S. soil, beating the vaunted Montreal Canadiens, wound up within even a few decades of living to see the moment.
And perhaps that’s a tribute to Ticen’s book: It makes us empathize with men who’ve been dead longer than most of the city’s sports fans have been alive.
“For me, when I started, the priority was to try to bring these guys back to life,’’ Queen Anne resident Ticen said. “I wanted it to be more like you knew them as people and knew how they experienced the games. And how fans experienced the games.’’
Ticen wasn’t gong to get many firsthand anecdotes; the oldest surviving relatives he talked to were still toddlers long after the Metropolitans’ 1924 demise. Instead, he relied heavily on public records, library documents, newspaper archives and plain old common sense.
For much of the locker room and on-ice banter, he used 1930s material from Royal Brougham columns in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Brougham would attend periodical meetups between the ex-players over lunch and relay their on-ice stories to readers.
One of the book’s funnier moments depicts a frustrated coach Muldoon tapping Hall of Famer Jack Walker on the shoulder during a loss and telling him to substitute on for a struggling player. Muldoon forgot he’d already pulled Walker from the game and — his eyes fixed on the action and not the player he was talking to — told him to “get in there for Walker, he’s awful.’’
After the game, Walker — in a bid to defuse player tension — stormed in to the dressing room and advised teammates that if they didn’t start playing better, Muldoon wouldn’t hesitate to substitute “Walker for Walker’’ to get them going. Much laughter ensued and the “Walker for Walker’’ line became a running gag.
“The ‘Walker for Walker’ story gets told three times in the 1930s from Royal (Brougham) having lunch with them and they all laugh about it,’’ Ticen said. “It was obviously important if 20 years later they’re all telling the same story multiple times. I can’t tell you that it exactly happened the moment that I said it did, but I could tell when certain things in the season were happening so I’d insert it where it would work the best.’’
But discovering a detail of how Hall of Famer Foyston used his eyes to calm confidence-lacking teammate Morris did come from a firsthand interview with Foyston’s granddaughter.
“She went on about the look in his eyes,’’ Ticen said. “She said ‘He could absolutely defuse your tension in a heartbeat by the look in his eye. He had the warmest look in his eye. It was incredible how he could change your emotional state by his eyes.’ ’’
Ticen also correlates various war happenings with what was going on with the team. The collapse of the Romanov dynasty in Russia, for instance, took place days before the 1917 Stanley Cup final opened.
This isn’t mere trivia: People often overlook the horrific nature of the First World War — especially its first-time use of tanks, planes and mustard gas on a broad scale — and how early-20th century U.S. isolationist policies differed vastly from its world policeman role later adopted. The fearsome conflict was a daily reality for Americans reluctant to get involved and for Canadian-born Metropolitans players, whose country had joined the fighting with a volunteer army years earlier and by 1917 was discussing a military draft .
Ticen is a history buff and met his Austrian wife while playing baseball overseas. Her family farm in Vienna was a five-minute drive from one of the homes where Archduke Franz Ferdinand — whose 1914 assassination was a catalyst that triggered the war — used to reside.
“In so many ways, this book was just a pitch right down the middle for me,’’ Ticen said.
The war also provides debate fodder for what could become a revived push to land Morris in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Morris missed the entire 1919-20 season after being erroneously convicted and imprisoned in the U.S. for draft dodging and fell just shy of the career 200-goal-mark typically considered for Hall enshrinement of players from that era.
The bittersweet Morris life story is a metaphor for the Metropolitans as a whole. Their 1917 triumph was but a flickering moment in the city’s vast sports history, one soon followed by the collapse of both the franchise and PCHA.
It’s a harsh reminder that nothing lasts forever in sports, something those bringing the NHL here had best keep in mind. The degree to which history repeats itself usually depends on how much — or how little — is learned from it.
“I thought that sports were going to be a completely different enterprise 100 years ago,’’ Ticen said. “And as I really got in to the research and the game recaps and a lot of those things, it was like ‘Oh yeah, sports are exactly the same.’ It was a little bit slower back then, the equipment wasn’t as good and all that, but it was very much the same.’’
And that’s not necessarily bad news for a city where the highest level of professional hockey vanished 95 years ago. That the Metropolitans were once ingrained in the city’s sports psyche provides evidence for the incoming NHL team that Seattle just may have been a hockey town all along.
A hockey town perhaps merely needing a reminder of its storied past.
Author Kevin Ticen will perform a reading at Third Place Books in Shoreline on April 25 at 7 p.m.