The Olympics are here. At least they’re in Vancouver and that’s pretty close. There are a lot of different events but for many the ultimate sports are speed skating, figure skating and hockey.
I don’t ever remember anyone speed skating in Gimli.
There was figure skating. There was one boy who figure skated. Sissy stuff. None of us were bright enough to look at the odds. All those girls and one guy.
It was hockey that mattered. First, it was played on the outdoor rink. The rink had short wooden walls around it with snow piled up along the sides. We used to stand on these snow banks to watch the players stick handle down the ice. No one worried about getting hit by an errant puck. There was a shack where you could take off your shoes and put on your skates.
You sat on a wooden bench and tried to get your laces as tight as possible. If you didn’t have leg pads, you used thick newspaper and elastic bands. Later, there was an indoor rink. It was the height of luxury. You could stand inside and watch the action without freezing your feet. There were banks of wooden bleachers along the south side. On the north side there was a narrow space where we liked to stand. When a hockey stick got broken, the players would throw it over the boards. A broken hockey stick was a prize. It was usually good enough that we could use it to play on the road.
The roads in those days were covered in packed snow. We’d set up a couple of stove wood pieces for goal posts and pick teams. There was no need for a puck when we had road apples left by horses. Frozen solid, they worked just fine. The hockey games with local teams from Riverton, Arborg, Teulon, were charged with excitement. Businesses shut down and a cavalcade of cars would go to neighbouring towns for important games.
When there were home games people came wrapped in their warmest clothes and sat underneath beams thick with frost. There was a lot of screaming, “Go, go, go,” when someone had a breakaway and “Kill him, kill him,” when a fight started. There were a lot of fights. Too much testosterone in too small a space. There were often more fights in the stands than on the ice. At the end of some games, the RCMP had to escort the visiting players out to their vehicles.
If anyone mentioned the Falcons, I don’t remember it. On The Winnipeg Falcons Hockey Club website, it says, “After the Games, the fame, the glory and the celebrations, then what happened? Nothing, for a very long time. In fact, all of the team members had passed away long before the Olympic Falcons began to be remembered properly.”
As kids, we were intent on the local players and our awe was reserved for anyone who got picked to go to Winnipeg and try out for the farm team.
For a time, I thought not hearing about the Falcons may have been the distance. Gimli was a long way from Winnipeg in those days. Many people had never been to Winnipeg. Few people owned cars. Our national hockey was on the radio. We hung on to Foster Hewitt’s play-by-play report and thrilled to him shouting, “He shoots. He scores.” But then, I realized that the Falcons had been largely forgotten except for family and hockey fans with long memories.
The Falcons were a Wes End phenomenon and the West End, once solidly enough Icelandic to be referred to as Gooli Town had gradually eroded as people moved away. If you walk down Sargent Avenue with someone who grew up in the West End, the tour is all about where Icelandic firms used to be and, on the side streets, where Icelandic families used to live.
It’s not that the Falcons were completely forgotten. When team members’ names were mentioned, someone would put down his coffee and say, “Frank Frederickson, oh, I knew him.” Or stories about Konnie Johannesson would surface but these were often about his flying rather than his hockey. Maybe it is Icelandic Canadian modesty that there is no bronze sculpture of the team in the Gimli park.
Maybe Icelandic Canadians are too poor to raise such a monument to our greatest success. Or maybe it would be thought of bragging. Bragging is the worst sin, don’tjaknow? Maybe it’s just that sometimes years need to pass before people are able to look back and realize what is and what isn’t a great accomplishment. Maybe time wears away momentary flash and reveals worthy deeds.
Maybe what we see is not just hockey players, or even an Olympic gold team, but a group of remarkable individuals who volunteered to go to Europe to fight for Canada and England, who returned and made a social system respect them, who created a lasting legacy that still captures the imagination nearly a century later. There are those who, in an attempt to grab a piece of glory, would split semantic hairs over the name of the competition the Falcons entered and left triumphant but it was Olympic gold they won.
At these winter Olympics, we’ll watch hockey, both men and women’s, but as we do, for Icelandic Canadians there’ll always be figures on the ice others can’t see, skating faster, passing better, shooting harder.
The first to win Olympic gold.
Woolsey: Shades of high-flying Falcons
If ever there was a great Canadian sports story that deserves telling and retelling it is that of the Winnipeg Falcons – and what better time than now, on the eve of another Winter Olympics.
Some 90 years ago, the Falcons riveted our nation’s imagination when they won the first hockey gold medal in Games history. Through no fault of their own, though, the Falcons’ glorious story became tarnished and obscured and for too long was mostly lost in the mists of time.
Even for a nation that often has been accused of ignoring its own cultural heroes, the Falcons stand apart. While the Winnipeggers were the toast of Canada in the wake of their victory at the Olympics in 1920, they were not even inducted into the nation’s own Olympic Hall of Fame until 2006, in part because somewhere along the line the popular belief took hold that hockey was merely a demonstration sport at the time.
The historical record is clear: The Winnipeg Falcons, a team made up exclusively of the sons of Icelandic immigrants and every one of them a veteran of World War I, were the first Olympic champions in our national game.
Then, as now, early 20th century or early 21st, there was no more Canadian thing to do in the winter than play, or observe, hockey. The Falcons, according to a Government of Canada notation, “were unique in that they consisted solely of Icelandic Canadian players who, due to racial prejudice, had difficulty finding teams to play for in the Winnipeg Hockey League. Undeterred, they started their own league,” and went on to beat all comers and represent the West in the Allan Cup, the national amateur championship.
The local Manitoba rivalry between the Falcons and Selkirks was intense, leading at one time to hundreds of fans lining up overnight in a prairie blizzard to obtain tickets. Reported the Winnipeg Free Press: “There were some wild scenes at the door when the wicket opened at 10 o’clock and a number of young fellows tried to break through the line and they were met with a bunch of fists from those in the line and as result there a few black eyes in evidence after the police and rink officials put a stop to it.”
What’s more, “Several frozen feet were reported, while one man collapsed from exhaustion owing to a long wait without having had anything to eat.” The Falcons came East to face the University of Toronto for the Allan Cup and, by beating Varsity, won the right to represent Canada in the Olympics.
There were no separate Winter and Summer Games, rather icebased events in Belgium were held in late spring while the remaining events were staged in late summer (a partial explanation for the later “demonstration sport” myth taking hold).
The Falcons were decked out in gold-and-black jerseys (not sweaters), emblazoned with red maple leafs and the word “Canada.” (The Toronto Daily Star at the time reported the team “will wear jerseys instead of sweaters, as the weather will be too warm for the latter.”)
Their opponents would be somewhat limited as the Great War had only recently ended and hockey still had limited international popularity. Canada beat Czechoslovakia 15-0, the United States 2-0 and, in the final, Sweden 12-1. Everyone understood that the game vs. the States was the true championship.
“Special squads of soldiers were employed to get the players into the rink,” reported the Star’s W.A. Hewitt, about the scene at the Palais de Glace in Antwerp, “and they were accorded very special privileges, as they were supplying the attraction. Gentlemen in evening clothes on the outside implored the players to allow them to carry their skates and sticks, so they could obtain admission.”
There was only a handful of Canadian fans, although the crowd in general supported the Falcons, according to Hewitt, who became sports editor of the Star, later succeeded by Lou Marsh. The father of famed broadcaster Foster, the multitasking Hewitt refereed the Allan Cup games, then became the Falcons’ honorary team manager while also being an official representative of the Canadian Olympic Committee. After winning the gold medal, the players voted Hewitt and his wife “members of the team.”
The Canadian rooters “on the sidelines with the extra sticks and megaphone made more noise than all the rest of the crowd put together and what happened on the ice gave them plenty of scope for unrestrained enthusiasm,” wrote Hewitt. “All dignity was thrown aside for the moment and the spectacle of a usual quiet and reserved
Canadian standing on his seat waving his hat frantically, yelling like a madman, ‘Canada, Canada, come on Canada,’ made the Belgians marvel and the American supporters gasp with astonishment.”
How about that? Part I: Canadians set the bar for boosterism, above Americans
Among those in attendance were many U.S. servicemen, who were willing to wager on their team. “Most of them,” wrote Hewitt, “went back to camps ‘broke,’ while Canadian supporters enjoyed themselves to the limit of the American money that was left behind.”
How about that? Part II: Overt gambling on Olympic sports
Individually, the star of the Falcons was Frank Fredrickson, a Royal Flying Corps vet who scored both goals vs. the U.S. and was the tournament’s top scorer. He went on to star in the pro Pacific Coast League, then moved to the NHL and became its first player-coach, in Pittsburgh.
The Falcons were a slick, smooth-skating team that might have been even more impressive if officials had decided to use the six-man game rather than the old seven-man format, which was being phased out in Canada.
“In Europe they have evidently a lot to learn about hockey,” said an editorial in Toronto’s World newspaper, exhibiting a fine prescience, “and will hardly become expert until they import players from Canada and then develop some kind of form by contact.”
Canada would dominate Olympic hockey from that first triumph in 1920 through the 1952 Games, but with amateurpro controversies and the ascendancy of the old Soviet Union would be shut out of gold for 50 years, until Salt Lake City.
The Falcons were welcomed home in style and while the Icelandic community, in particular, never forgot their accomplishments, it took a “Falcons Forever” campaign a few years ago to re-establish the historical precedents. Nike even came up with a reproduction jersey, in gold and black and Pepsi used the design on cans of its products.
There is a rich website, http://www.winnipegfalcons.com/ devoted to the team and a permanent public memorial has been established in Winnipeg. Source: The Toronto Star, February 11, 2010 Courtesy of Brian Johannesson Editor’s note: Frank Fredrickson scored only the first goal against the Americans. Konnie Johannesson scored the second goal. The team was not entirely Icelandic: “Huck” Woodman was of British ancestry, from River Heights.