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Seattle was once a hockey town. And not just any hockey town, the best in the world.

Nearly a century ago, in 1917, Seattle became the first American city to win the holy grail of hockey — the Stanley Cup. It took another 62 years before Seattle claimed another major professional championship, when the Sonics won the NBA title in 1979.

The Seattle Metropolitans rose to hockey supremacy only two years after the team’s creation. And they did it against the legendary Montreal Canadiens, who had been so confident of victory they refused to bring the coveted Cup with them.

Three times in four years the Metropolitans fought in the Stanley Cup Final against the champion of what would become today’s National Hockey League — twice in Seattle. And then, just as suddenly as they were born, the Mets disappeared.

Today, the team has become little more than a jaw-dropping trivia question and an argument-inducing bar bet. Yet the city’s brief heyday of hockey provides a fascinating history lesson that includes a deadly brush with the 1919 influenza pandemic and a player court-martialed and shipped to Alcatraz for desertion.

How two aggressive brothers built a state-of-the-art downtown arena and raided Canada to assemble a colorful roster is worth remembering as talk is revived of a possible return of major league hockey to Seattle.

It also raises an intriguing question: Could Seattle fall for big-time hockey all over again?

Grand theft and birth

The Seattle Metropolitans started as one of the grandest thefts in hockey history.

It was perpetrated by the Patricks, a logging family that founded the improbable Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA). In November 1915, the iron-willed Frank Patrick stunned the complacent NHA by secretly signing all the top players from the Toronto Hockey Club during a rights war between the two rival leagues.

The spoils went immediately to Frank and Lester Patrick’s new American team — the Seattle Metropolitans.

The colorful cast included Jack Walker, a consummate checker whose stick would lance out to gobble up pucks; Frank Foyston, a hawk-nosed, steely-eyed sniper who would win the league’s top overall player award; and Cully Wilson, a small, vicious badger who wore a sadistic smile when he smashed into larger players.

Most important, the team landed Happy Holmes, a balding, slightly pudgy man whose appearance belied his abilities as a great playoff goalie.

Seattle also pounced on two stars foolishly ejected from the Victoria Aristocrats. Bernie Morris was a young, blond scoring ace, and Bobby Rowe was a stalwart defenseman. The short, stocky Rowe was the epitome of toughness, and he could also score. Morris became an idol of the crowds, although his thin, austere face was a contrast to his flamboyant moves.

When the Metropolitans were introduced to the city of Seattle it was as if the spectacle of professional hockey landed fully formed onto the artificial ice, all out of proportion to the existing pond-hockey tradition. The Mets represented the best hockey in the world in an American city new to it, and their training, skill and ice rink were state of the art.

In fact, the Patrick family had built the Seattle Arena especially for the Metropolitans. Located at Fifth Avenue and University Street, it looked like a block-long brick and concrete greenhouse. About 3,500 people could fit comfortably in the new seats, which were called “opera chairs.”

It was a welcome contrast to the huge Vancouver Arena, home to the Vancouver Millionaires, which only had benches. Seattle’s new sports palace was reported to have cost $120,000.

The Seattle uniforms were a “barber pole” of red, green and white stripes on the body, arms and leggings, with white pants. A large, red “S”, was emblazoned on the chest, with white letters spelling Seattle entwined in it. The crowds were just as colorful. Many women wore large bonnets, or hats with long, thick feathers and drapery.

America’s first Stanley Cup

Seattle loved the Metropolitans right from the start. It took the team a year to find its footing, and the next season, in 1916-17, it rose to the top of the league. Morris won the scoring championship, and Holmes was the best goaltender.

The Stanley Cup was then contested in a best-of-five series between the champions of the PCHA and NHA. In 1917, that was the Montreal Canadiens, a crack team.

Newsy Lalonde was Montreal’s marquee player. He was a fantastically talented but volatile scorer who had as many penalties as goals. Another weapon was Didier Pitre, who had the build of an icebox and a cannonball proto-slapshot. The Canadiens had the top goaltender of the early era — Georges Vezina, who was known as the Chicoutimi cucumber. He stared down attackers like a solemn priest, guarding the gates of his goal.

Seattle lost the opener, 8-4. But for game two, Metropolitans coach Pete Muldoon (who later put the legendary curse of the Muldoon on the Chicago Blackhawks) used his team’s speed to force the Canadiens on the defensive. It didn’t help Montreal when Lalonde swooped down on one of the referees and speared him in the groin because he didn’t like his calls. Lalonde was fined $25, and sent off. The referee had to be carried off.

By the fourth game, Seattle led two games to one, and the Canadiens began to fall apart, retaliating clumsily as they ran out of breath. Sensing victory, Seattle fans were like “a wild, howling mass of humanity,” according to a newspaper account.

As the gong sounded, with the score 9-1, the Seattle crowd “stood on its feet and cheered until the iron girders of the arena roof rattled.”

Seattle had won the Stanley Cup, something no American team had ever done, and wouldn’t again for 11 years.

Death and desertion

In 1918 the Metropolitans won the PCHA title again, but stumbled in the league’s new playoff system, losing to the Vancouver Millionaires. But Seattle beat Vancouver the next year, and Montreal again came west to fight Seattle in its home arena.

The hard-fought 1919 Stanley Cup series was as exciting as it was surprising — and ultimately, tragic.

The rosters were similar to those of 1917, with the same core of Metropolitans. Except, that is, for one.

Just before the first game, Seattle’s Bernie Morris, who had been the runner-up in the scoring championship, was grabbed and mysteriously whisked away from his doorstep by the U.S. military and put on trial for desertion. Morris was Canadian and had never entered the Army during World War I. Throughout the Stanley Cup struggle, the Mets hoped Morris would be returned in time to play. But it was not to be. On a technicality, Morris was convicted of desertion and, as recently uncovered evidence shows, sent to Alcatraz for 11 months.

Despite the loss of Seattle’s best scorer, they took a two-games-to-one lead. But the Canadiens fought back. First, they earned an improbable 0-0 tie in double overtime. The game had to be stopped because the teams had only two substitutes each, and could no longer play — or even move. Most had played nearly every minute of the game. Their lungs were burning, their limbs were like rubbery lead, and their vision blurry. Many were lying flat on the ice.

In the next game, Seattle used superior speed to build a 3-0 lead entering the third period. But Seattle’s players had exhausted themselves again and had only one sub. Montreal tied the game, 3-3, and sent it into murderous overtime.

By the end, the Mets’ last substitute was Frank Foyston, who was slumped on the bench in a swoon, unable to move from exhaustion and a knee injury. When Cully Wilson staggered to the bench and called for a substitute, no one jumped over the boards.

As Wilson watched, in a daze, Montreal’s Jack McDonald jumped onto the ice, replacing a teammate. He received the puck and wove through the remaining defenders. McDonald shot the puck past Holmes, winning the game for Montreal, 4-3.

Seattle was stunned, but as the players slumped and wheezed on the ice, they realized something was horribly wrong. Several had to be carried home. Others went straight to the hospital.

The influenza epidemic that was sweeping the world had infected both teams, with Montreal ultimately most affected. The series was called off, and a week later Joe Hall of Montreal died. Several others from both teams came close to death. It was a somber moment in hockey history.

Final try for a Cup

The Metropolitans weren’t quite finished. Seattle fought for the Cup one more time, in 1920 (this time with Morris out of prison and back on the roster) against Ottawa, losing three games to two.

The Metropolitans never managed to get to the top again and folded in 1924, when the Seattle Arena was sold out from under them to make way for a new parking garage. Many of Seattle’s players ended up in Victoria, where they led the Cougars to the 1925 Stanley Cup.

Muldoon, their coach, and William J. Coyle, Washington state’s lieutenant governor, fought hard for a new arena. Coyle was eventually successful in building another, which housed the Seattle Eskimos in the minor league Pacific Coast Hockey League.

Seattle fans have had a taste for winning hockey ever since, from the Metropolitans and Eskimos to the Totems and Thunderbirds. In nine mostly memorable years, the Metropolitans established a rich hockey tradition in Seattle.

Their unbelievable story is worth remembering nearly a century later as major league hockey considers returning to Seattle.

Craig H. Bowlsby is the author of several books, including “Empire of Ice, The Rise and Fall of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, 1911-1926” and lives in Vancouver B.C. “Empire of Ice” is available through eBay, Amazon, and in Seattle at Elliott Bay Book Company.