winterspiele 1936: the revenge of jimmy foster

True Brits: Back row, from left: Coach Percy Nicklin, Bob Wyman, Archie Stinchcombe, Carl Erhardt (captain), Jack Kilpatrick, Gordon Dailley, Gerry Davey, Chirp Brenchley, Johnny Coward. Front, from left: Jimmy Borland, Art Child, Jimmy Foster, Alex Archer.

So instead of referring to this game as the triumph of England it could be labelled “The Revenge of Jimmy Foster.” The stirring episodes at Garmisch yesterday could be woven into a movie scenario which would be sure of four-star rating in at least one section of the country.

If he never stops another puck in the Olympics, he has ensured his place in the hockey hall of fame so far as international honours are concerned — while he has probably ensured it forever in the Maritimes.

• Baz O’Meara, writing in the Montreal Daily Star on Wednesday, February 12, 1936, after goaltender Jimmy Foster and his teammates on Great Britain’s team handed Canada its first-ever loss at the Olympic Games, going to claim Britain’s first (and only) gold medal.

Columnist Baz O’Meara was mostly on the money. If Jimmy Foster’s stardom didn’t quite end up soaring into eternity, not even in Eastern Canada, he did find his way into a hall of hockey fame: the British one, into which Foster was inducted in 1950. This much, too, may be safe to say: Foster, who died at the age of 63 on a Saturday of this date in 1969, never had a better night in his long and distinguished puckstopping career than he did disappointing Canada in the winter of ’36.

That was indeed the year that Canada’s four-tournament, 16-year reign as Olympic champions came to a shocking (and, for Canadians, controversial) end. Foster was a leading character in that — even before Britain took on its hockey-mad colony at the Garmisch-Partenkirchen games.

Born in Glasgow, in Scotland, in 1905, Foster emigrated to Canada when he was six and his family relocated to Winnipeg. That’s where he took up hockey goaltending, and refined his craft. He resume from those early years includes stints with the Winnipeg Argonauts, the University of Manitoba, the Winnipeg Winnipegs, and the Elmwood Millionaires. When he wasn’t on the ice, he was raising a family of three with his wife while working in PR for a distributor of Orange Crush. That’s according to Rob Jovanovic, author of an exhaustive history of Britain’s 1936 hockey gold, Pride & Glory: The Forgotten Story of Great Britain’s Greatest Olympic Team (2011).

Foster broke a leg at some point and was told he’d never play hockey again. Wrong: in the early 1930s, the work he put in playing with the senior Moncton Hawks earned him a reputation as one of the best goaltenders not in the NHL. Jovanovic:

In four years with the Hawks, he was reckoned to have saved over 6,000 shots, missed only one of 220 games, and won two Allan Cups. During one spell he went 417 minutes without conceding a goal, almost seven full games.

There was a brief buzz to the effect that Foster might find his way to the Chicago Black Hawks, where the death of another Scottish-born, Winnipeg-raised goaltender, Charlie Gardiner, had left an absence that needed filling. But nothing came of that.

In 1935, at the advanced (hockey) age of 29, it looked like Foster would finally get his chance in the NHL: that February, the two amateur prospects Tommy Gorman was most interested in signing for his Montreal Maroons were reported to be Foster and a promising winger by the name of Toe Blake. Blake signed and Foster agreed to terms, according to Montreal’s Gazette. For the latter, it wasn’t to be: Foster denied that he’d committed to anything. By fall, word was that he’d signed to play for the Richmond Hawks of the newly formed English National League, where his old Moncton coach, Percy Nicklin, was in charge.

Born in Midland, Ontario, Nicklin had learned his hockey in Port Arthur, now part of Thunder Bay. Named to coach Britain’s entry into the Winter Olympics that would hit the ice in February of 1936 at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in the heart of Adolf Hitler’s Bavaria, Nicklin picked Foster as his starting goaltender.

For all the confidence the coach had in Foster, he was worried about the defence in front of him. “Nicklin fears that his team will be comparatively easy to score against,” a Canadian Press dispatch from England confided that January.

In the event, off-ice politics threatened to spoil the British effort in Germany as much as any hockey opposition. Most of the players on the British team had honed their hockey on Canadian ice; winger Gerry Davey was born in Port Arthur. Before the Games opened on February 6, Canada’s hockey delegation complained that two players, Foster and winger Alex Archer, had failed to seek releases from the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association before migrating from Canadian club teams to British.

Hockey’s governing body sided with Canada, and the night before pucks were set to drop, the Ligue Internationale de Hockey sur Glace (as the IIHF was then known) ruled that Foster and Archer were ineligible to play for Britain. Irked, the British talked about withdrawing from the tournament. In the end, Canada withdrew its protest (if only for the duration of the Olympics), and the British played on with Foster and Archer in the line-up.

I’ve written elsewhere about the team representing Canada in ’36 (they were from Port Arthur, too). As Canadians, they were the clear favourites going into the Games, with the United States and hosts Germany seen as their strongest challengers.

Nicklin didn’t mind being counted out. Rob Jovanovic writes that he was focussed on preparing his team for the job ahead, insisting that his charges “were all in bed by 10 p.m., made no night-time telephone calls, smoked no more than two cigarettes a day, and didn’t drink any alcohol at all.”

The British campaign started with a pair of victories — and Jimmy Foster shutouts —over Sweden (1-0) and Japan (3-0). It was in the second round that the upset of the tournament — and Olympic hockey history — occurred, with Britain’s modest-smoking teetotalling squad pulling out a 2-1 victory over the favoured Canadians at the Garmisch Eis-Stadion. Gerry Davey was one of the British heroes that day, scoring Britain’s opening goal, and so too was Foster.

“His goaltending was superb, “Phil Drackett writes in account of British Olympic brio, Vendetta On Ice (1992), “as he outguessed the Canadian sharpshooters and coolly turned away bullet-like drives, the rhythmic motion of his jaws as he chewed gum being the only sign of emotion.”

A bad outcome for Canada only got worse: the way the tournament schedule was organized, the defending champions found that though both they and the British advanced to the final stage, the results of the earlier round carried over, and the two would not meet again.

That meant that while the Canadians went 4-0 after their historic loss — running up routs of Czechoslovakia (7-0) Hungary (15-0) along the way — the British were able to claim gold with the 2-0-2 record that they put together after beating Canada.

The winners’ glee was great. Britain’s “Ice Hockey Miracle,” London’s Daily Express called the team’s gold-medal performance. Canadians, meanwhile, groused and entertained excuses: nobody explained the tournament format beforehand, and anyway, it was ridiculous, and anyway, since all the Brits were more or less Canadians anyway, wasn’t this actually a triumph for Canadian hockey after all?

“England won because she was better coached,” the controversial Alex Archer told a reporter in Winnipeg that May, “and you can give all the credit in the world to our coach, Percy Nicklin. England played typical Nicklin hockey, the sort of hockey which he taught the double Allan Cup winners, Moncton Hawks. We went out to get a goal and when we got it we played a tight defensive game.”

Jimmy Foster stayed on in England, making a move (with Nicklin) to the Harringay Greyhounds, and helping Great Britain win back-to-back European championships in 1937 and ’38.

Home Cooking: A Canadian Press report from September of 1936, seven months after Jimmy Foster and his teammates upset Canada’s Olympic hopes in Germany.

Set to sign with the Brighton Tigers in 1939, Foster sized up the European forecast of war and opted for a return to Canada. He played three years of senior hockey, turning out for the Quebec Aces and, in Nova Scotia, the Glace Bay Miners and North Sydney Victorias before he retired in 1942.

A couple of last notes, to take us back to where this began: in all my reading about Jimmy Foster, I’ve never seen evidence that vengeance played a part in his perfromance in 1936.  As per Baz O’Meara’s reverie, I can report that the stirring episodes at Garmisch were indeed woven into a movie scenario in England in the wake of Britain’s glorious Winter Olympics.

Producer and director Monty Banks was the force behind Olympic Honeymoon, which was shot in the months following the tournament though never, as far as I know, released. Jimmy Foster didn’t participate, but three of his Olympic teammates featured, including Gerry Davey and back-up goaltender Art Child.

Jake Milford was in it, too: a winger for the Wembley Canadians at the time, he went on to serve as GM of both the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks, and was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 1984.

Milford’s Wembley coach wangled a part, too: fellow Hall-of-Famer Clint Benedict played a stylish referee in the movie, sporting plus fours and a silk scarf.

Golden Glaswegian: Jimmy Foster in 1936-37, when he tended the nets for the Harringay Greyhounds of the English National League.

One thought on “winterspiele 1936: the revenge of jimmy foster

  1. Kudos, Stephen…another enjoyable read.
    Curious…are you working on another hockey book? Puckstruck begs having at least one companion.
    BTW…Happy New Year.

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