winterspiele 1936

Pole Position: On their way to winning a gold medal in 1932 at the Lake Placid, Canada met and (as one observer wrote it) "submerged" Poland, 10-0.

Pole Position: On their way to winning a gold medal in 1932 at the Lake Placid, Canada met and (as one observer wrote it) “submerged” Poland, 10-0.

There was never a Winter Olympics like these. None so controversial before they started, not any so militarized once they began, none overseen by such a nasty crew of odious Nazis who thought, maybe, that a snowy sporting jubilee in Bavaria might glorify their regime while distracting the world from their domestic program of terror and persecution.

This is 1936 we’re talking about here, which means that it’s 80 years ago this month that this strangest of hibernal games got going in the German ski resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen as the world, after much debate and talk of boycotts, showed up to sled and schuss, to skate, slide rocks, and shoot — bullets and pucks both — for ten days in February.

The hockey tournament was (of course) Canada’s to win. We had, after all (and obviously), prevailed on the rink at all three previous Winter Olympics, going back to 1924, not to mention (can we just mention?) the 1920 hockey tournament that was tacked on to the summer games in Antwerp.

36Across that golden span, in 17 games, Canadian teams had never lost. The closest they’d come was in the last game of the 1932 tournament at Lake Placid, when the home team managed a 2-2 tie. Goals had not been hard to come by for Canadians: in the pre-1936 years, our teams outscored their Olympic rivals 209-8.

Again, though: there never was an Olympics like this one in ’36. In Garmisch, Canadians would learn what losing a game was like, and more: when they left town, the medals they carried away were silver.

I wrote a bit about Garmisch and what happened there in my book, Puckstruck, and now that we’re into the anniversary week of the IV Olympische Winterspiele, a return visit seems like it might be in order. Over the course of the next week or two, I’ll be considering the hockey that was played in Germany and the Canadians who played it, though not just the Canadians and not only the hockey. Expect appearances by Englishmen, Swedes, and Germans who also competed in Garmisch, as well as Americans, Czechs, and Japanese. Hockey officials will play their part, many of them Canadian, some of them fulminating loud and long. Among the spectators who’ll feature will be everyday, salt-of-the-earth, hockey-loving Germans who’ll be disturbed when the games they’re viewing get too rough. A number of the Nazis are also due for appearances, some of them dressed up in Davy Crockett garb.

I did some wondering in Puckstruck, much of it idle, about whether hockey is like life or apart from it. Garmisch seems like an instances where life threatened to overwhelm hockey and reveal the game’s essential absurdity. “Can you winnow out the sophisticated evil of the Nazis looking on from the simple game they were watching?” is something I wrote. I’m still not sure what the answer is there; maybe it might take some shape in the days to come. Up first, though, next, some of the story of the team that wore Canada’s maple leaves in Germany, and how they got there.

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