antwerp, 1920: canada gets what she goes after

Golden In Belgium: Winnipeg’s Falcons line up at Antwerp’s Palais de Glace on Monday, April 26, 1920. From the left, they are (trainer) Gordon Sigurjonsson, (club president) Hebbie Axford, Wally Byron, Slim Halderson, Frank Fredrickson, (Canadian Olympic Committee representative) W.A. Hewitt, Konnie Johannesson, Mike Goodman, Huck Woodman, Bobby Benson, Chris Fridfinnson, (secretary) Bill Fridfinnson. (Image: courtesy winnipegfalcons.com)

The King of the Belgians hoped that Antwerp’s shell-pocked roads would be repaired in time for the summerside Games of the VII Olympiade. In place of an athlete or a mythological god, the statue at the stadium when the main event launched that July depicted a Belgian infantryman hurling a grenade. In a city that had been under siege in 1914, then occupied by German troops through to the Armistice in 1918, it’s no surprise that the First World War shadowed every aspect of the 1920 Olympics. Canada’s Games got underway earlier, in April, with the first ever hockey tournament in Olympic history. Winning gold a hundred years ago, Canada’s team set a standard for Olympic hockey dominance that would last for three successive Games. After they’d finished up on the ice, the hockey players spent a week touring Belgium’s battlefields.

Wearing the maple leaf that year were the Winnipeg Falcons, who’d earned their place in the Olympics as national senior amateur champions. Rooted in Manitoba’s Icelandic community, the team had been a fixture of Winnipeg’s hockey landscape for more than a decade. In the spring of 1916, the roster had enlisted, almost to a man, with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, going on to serve in the infantry on the Western Front or, as in the case of 1920 team captain and future NHL star forward Frank Fredrickson, to take to the skies with the Royal Flying Corps. Another NHLer-to-be, defenceman Bobby Benson, had been shot in the knee on his previous visit to the Continent, when he was in the fight in northern France.

Having defeated the University of Toronto for the Allan Cup in March, the Falcons kept on going, training east to Saint John, New Brunswick. The weather was fair for their nine-day crossing to Liverpool aboard Canadian Pacific’s S.S.Melita, with Frank Fredrickson the only casualty: he cut his head falling out of his bunk. The team took light training on deck, jogging and calisthenics, and entertained their fellow passengers with “musical entertainments.”

Along with the hosts, the other teams that gathered in Belgium came from France, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, the United States, and Sweden. The skilled U.S. squad was Canada’s main challenger; most of the Swedes were bandy players who’d never seen a competitive hockey game before, let alone played in one.

Antwerp’s rink then was the downtown Palais de Glace, demolished in 2016. In 1920, it featured a full and energetic orchestra, with room for an audience of some 1,500, many of them accommodated at rinkside at café tables. “Spectators dined and drank as they watched the various nations play hockey,” wrote W.A. Hewitt, Foster’s father, who accompanied the Falcons and reported on the proceedings for several Canadian newspapers. The nets were unconventional — “like a folded gate” — and the rink was narrower than what the Canadians were used to. Still, Hewitt reported, “The Canadians declare the ice in excellent shape.”

The Falcons impressed the locals even when they practiced. After one work-out, curious Belgians surrounded winger Mike Goodman, also an accomplished speedskater, asking to examine his skates in order to understand just how their motors worked.

Olympic hockey that year was seven-aside, no substitutes permitted, and games played out over two 20-minute periods rather than three. Under the tournament’s knock-out format, Canada’s road to gold lasted just three games. Having swamped Czechoslovakia 15-0, they took on the talented Americans next. Soldiers from the local British garrison cheered on the Canadians, while U.S. occupation troops backed their team as the Canadians prevailed, 2-0. Next day, they wrapped up the championship by overwhelming the plucky Swedes, 12-1. Before the game, the Falcons ran a clinic for their opponents, tutoring before they trounced. Still, the lone goal Sweden scored came as something of a shock: Canadian goaltender Wally Byron was so surprised to see a puck pass him that he fell to the ice.

Once they’d finished their sombre battlefield tourism, the Canadians set sail aboard S.S. Grampian. It was mid-May when they docked on the east coast. Fêted in Montreal and Toronto, the Falcons were welcomed home to Winnipeg with a parade and a banquet and gifts of gold watches. “On the ice as on the battlefield,” a proud editorial asserted, “Canada gets what she goes after.”

( A version of this post appeared in Canadian Geographic in April of 2020.)

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