|Photo: Stefan Jonsson||Jim Busby, Col. Dave Grebstad, Cathie Eliasson, and Mayor Brian Bowman|
The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, an advisory board to the federal government, unveiled a plaque commemorating the national historical significance of the Winnipeg Falcons Hockey Club in a special ceremony held at the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame on April 26, 2022. Icelandic Canadians, mostly descendants of the Falcons, filled the exhibition area of the Hall of Fame for the unveiling ceremony. “National historic designations reflect the rich and varied heritage of our country and provide an opportunity for Canadians to learn about our diverse history,” according to Parks Canada.
The bronze commemorative plaque reads: “The Winnipeg Falcons Hockey Club, founded through the merger of two Icelandic Canadian teams in 1909, rose from a community organization in the West End to become Canadian and Olympic champions. In 1920, the Falcons won the Allan Cup after beating a strong University of Toronto team in Canada’s senior amateur championship. The same year, they represented Canada in Antwerp, Belgium, where they won the first Olympic gold medal for hockey. The skill and sportsmanship of the Icelandic Canadians who dominated this club, named for Iceland’s national bird, have been a source of pride for people of Icelandic descent across the country.” The text also appears in French and Icelandic. The plaque, which will eventually be installed outside First Lutheran Church, was formally unveiled by Colonel Dave Grebstad and Cathie Eliasson.
Accustomed as I am to attending events where people stand passively while the national anthem is played, I was struck by how energetically the crowd joined in singing O Canada out loud, which was followed by the now customary land acknowledgement in both English and French. Master of ceremonies Terrie Dionne, superintendent of the Manitoba Field Unit of Parks Canada, introduced the official party, which included Brian Bowman, Mayor of Winnipeg; Colonel Dave Grebstad, author of A Confluence of Destinies: The Saga of the Winnipeg Falcons; Jim Busby, historical researcher and representative of First Lutheran Church; Cathie Eliasson, representing Winnipeg Falcons descendants; and Dan Vandal, Minister of Northern Affairs and Member of Parliament for St. Boniface–St. Vital, who joined the event virtually.
“We all know about the Heritage Minutes, Historica Canada’s one-minute history lessons on TV,” noted Jim Busby. “In 2014, after a hiatus of several years, Historica Canada decided to make a new one recognizing both the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I and Canada’s national game of hockey. That story would be about our Winnipeg Falcons.” The video was played and Jim advised everyone to pay close attention to the facial expressions and hand gestures, all of which are filled with meaning. He explained the action scene by scene.
“Winnipeg endures,” said Colonel Dave Grebstad, quoting the late CBC radio personality Stuart McLean. “That phrase resonates with me. It resonates with me because we boast the values of perseverance, determination, and grit that personify the very spirit of Winnipeg, a spirit that was perfectly manifested by the men of the Winnipeg Falcons, in light of the numerous challenges they overcame on their way to becoming world champions in ice hockey. … The Falcons endured.” It was Colonel Grebstad who nominated the Falcons for this recognition by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in 2018.
“All descendants were thrilled to hear that the Falcons were finally getting national recognition, not just through community sports teams with their induction into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame and the Olympic Hall of Fame, but also for how they accomplished this grand feat of winning the first Olympic gold medal,” said Cathie Eliasson, speaking on behalf of their descendants. “As the season played out, they became Manitoba and Western Canadian champions, ultimately winning the Allan Cup, the national title, showing that no matter what your ethnic background may be, it was hard work and team play that won games.” She went on to say, “Some of us are old enough and lucky enough to remember our afis, grandpas, and uncles, and have stories to pass on to our own children.”
While acknowledging the historic significance of the Falcons’ achievement, which he described as “an important and poignant victory, not only for the team, but for all Canadians,” Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal said, “I would be remiss not to mention Team Canada, who earlier this year brought home the gold for women’s hockey at the Beijing Winter Olympics,” before adding, “All Canadians will be inspired and captivated by the stories of the people, places, and events that have shaped our great country.”
Describing Winnipeg as a “rapturous hockey city and a hotbed for our country’s national winter sport,” Mayor Brian Bowman highlighted the city’s rich hockey history. “The Winnipeg Falcons helped solidify Winnipeg’s reputation as a hockey city.” He noted that the Falcons’ Olympic victory in 1920 was just one of many championships the team claimed. “I grew up a Falcon – a Varsity View Falcon,” he quipped to great laughter, referring to the team at one of the city’s suburban community clubs. “The Falcons name is one that really resonates with Winnipeggers and Canadians.”
The Winnipeg Falcons Hockey Club was established in 1909 through the merger of the Icelandic Athletic Club and the Vikings, playing initially in an intermediate league before being accepted into the city’s senior league after a strong showing in the 1914-1915 Allan Cup playoffs. The entire Falcons lineup enlisted to serve in the Canadian Army during World War I, six players seeing active duty while two paid the ultimate sacrifice. The surviving team members regrouped following the war and began their steady march to Olympic victory, returning to Winnipeg in 1920 to a grand parade and street celebration, not to mention the accolades of government officials, the press, and the proud people of their home community.