The thermometer had dropped to -7 on the morning of Saturday, February 8 at the open-air rink at Lake Riesser as Japan skated out to play its second (and final) game at the fraught 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in Germany. The Japanese had lost their opening Group D game 2-0 to Sweden; now, facing the eventual gold medallists from Great Britain, the Japanese had their chances in front of Jimmy Foster’s goal … just no goals. Final score: 3-0, GB. While the British and Swedes advanced to the second round of the tournament, the Japanese headed home. Seen here during the game is an unidentified Japanese player alongside one of the heaters that was provided to warm the team’s bench.
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.
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.
“Credit must be given to England,” Albert Pudas wrote, even if, well, Canada had more of the puck, handled it in a wilier way, skated faster, more efficiently, looked better, and generally — let’s be honest — deserved to win.
It was on a Tuesday of this very date in 1936 that disaster befell Canadian hockey, which is to say Canada, i.e. every one of us was diminished that day, 85 years ago, whether we know it or not, despite our (many of us) not having been born at the time. That was the day that for the first time ever, Canada lost an Olympic hockey game, falling 2-1 to the upstart team from (of all places) Great Britain at the 1936 wintry games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Chirp Brenchley scored the winner, late in the game, beating Canadian goaltender Dinty Moore. In the British net, Jimmy Foster contributed just the right amount of heroics to ensure the victory.
The world didn’t end, as it turned out, but Canada did end up having to settle for silver when the Olympic tournament reached its dismal end, with the British taking the gold.
Pudas, the Canadian coach, was filing dispatches from Germany to newspapers at home. His terse review of his team’s defeat at British hands reflected the general Canadian view: it wasn’t so much a loss as a non-win, and really ought to have counted in Canada’s favour, by almost every measure, other than the one used to determine the outcome of competitive team sports.
“The Canadians had easily 80 per cent of the play,” he explained. “The English, although fast-skating, cannot be considered the equal of the Canucks, but because goals win games we are forced to swallow the bitter pill.”
Canada skates out to a rare World Championships meeting with Great Britain later today at the Steel Arena in Košice, Slovakia. The first time the two countries met in the tournament was in January of 1935 at Davos in Switzerland, when the Winnipeg Monarchs wore the maple leaf in a 4-2 Canadian win. There were clashes before that at the Olympics, starting in 1924 at Chamonix, France, when Canada’s victory was by a score of 19-2. Four years later in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Canada cruised to a 14-0 win.
At the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, the Port Arthur Bearcats formed the core of the Dominion team, who were (once again/as always) considered tournament favourites by dint of being Canadian. But after disposing with Poland, Latvia, and Austria, the defending champions lost in a 2-1 upset to Great Britain. It wasn’t the end of the world, but the shock and the same was severe. You’ll find more on that (+ bonus alibis and rationalizing) over here. Suffice to say that further Canadian victories over Hungary, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the United States wasn’t enough to snatch back the gold, which the British claimed, leaving Canada to settle, bitterly enough, for silver.
The world didn’t end that February Friday, a few weeks back, as the Olympics played down and Canada’s men lost their hockey semi-final to upstart Germany, but it shuddered a little. “Eishockey-Sensation” was the early headline from Der Spiegel, and German Twitter tintinnabulated with mentions of a “Wunder auf Eis” — a new Miracle on Ice.
In Canada, it was morning, and the nation mourned, briefly. And moaned: about Gary Bettman, whose fault it all was, really, denying us our golden birthright; that the guy who scored Germany’s first goal is from Winnipeg; that (as Don Cherry raved) the linesman who called that stupid early penalty is Russian, i.e. linchpin of a vast conspiracy to see us humiliated.
By Saturday, when we beat the Czech Republic to win bronze, the national mood was brighter.
That’s it? Have we really mellowed so much in the years since the almost-calamity of 1972 that no-one’s calling for a royal commission to look into how we failed to finish? Don’t we care any more? Could be, I guess, a matter of faith, one that’s so strong and enduring that we don’t have to speak it let alone achieve it: what matters is not who actually won so much as what would have happened if Crosby and Connor and Carey had been on the job in South Korea.
Whatever the case, we’ve calmed down since our first Olympic hockey undoing, in Germany in 1936 at Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Up to that point, through four Olympic tournaments, Canadians had never lost a game, never come home with a medal that wasn’t golden. Looking back on what happened 82 years ago is like studying the original operating instructions for Canadian hockey humility, and/or the lack thereof.
Winter and summer, the 1936 Olympics were, of course, in Germany, presided over by Adolf Hitler and other odious Nazis. That’s a stain that’s only darkened by what we know, now, about what the next ten years would bring.
In Garmisch, the hockey tournament started with a kerfuffle over the eligibility of several players on the team from Great Britain who’d played previously in Canada. Their hockey paperwork wasn’t in order, Canadian officials maintained. The British disagreed, and almost withdrew, in a snit, but didn’t. When the hockey got going, Canada beat, and breezily, Poland, Latvia, and Austria, before facing off with the British.
They started with a snap, which is to say a speculative slap, from long range, that bamboozled Canadian goaltender Dinty Moore, nesting in the net. The Canadians tied the score, then continued to bombard British goaltender and sort-of Canadian Jimmy Foster. But it was the British who scored again, on a break in the third. The game ended, shockingly, 2-1 not-for-us.
Canada’s coach was penning a column for the papers back home, or at least lending his name to one. He assured Canadians that his team (and theirs) had had “easily 80 percent” of the play. “The English,” he continued,” although fast-skating, cannot be considered the equal of the Canucks, but because goals win games we are forced to swallow the bitter pill.”
“Canadian hockey hats are off to England this morning,” one Toronto columnist wrote next morning, but her gracious voice was a lonely one. Most of the newspaper accounts echoed the Star’s European correspondent, Matthew Halton, who’d watched the disaster unfold. “We are feeling pretty sick here today,” he advised.
As if the news from Germany wasn’t dismal enough that day, a local prophet who ran his own church out of his living room was making front-page news with an unsettling forecast: by Friday, the world would be expiring. This was Bible-based, apparently, nothing to do with hockey.
“The tall buildings of Toronto will be destroyed,” pastor Harold Varney calmly promised reporters, “and the world consumed in cleansing fire.”
In Germany, oblivious to the reckoning that was three days away, the Canadians played on. Whupping Hungary 15-0 was a tonic, and got us our groove back, briefly. But it was at this point that Canadian team officials discovered that they didn’t really understand how the tournament was set up. Yes, they would advance to the medal round with the British, the Americans, and the Czechoslovaks; no, they wouldn’t get a chance to play the British again. They would have to live with their loss — and the precious points that Britain would carry over.
Now it was Canada’s turn to threaten to take its pucks and go home. Instead, we attended an emergency meeting of the Ligue International Hockey sur Glace, arguing that that the final four teams should start afresh, play a whole new round-robin, allowing us to take our revenge and restore order to the universe. This was put to a vote.
We lost that, too.
The host team paid an immediate price when we played a subsequent against the Germans. “The Canadian pucksters were seething as they took the ice,” reported The Globe; “In Angry Mood” was a headline from Ottawa. Intent on giving the Germans — their team, populace, and Nazi officials — “a lesson in the art of bodychecking,” we found that they were poor students. The home fans booed the Canadians so strenuously during our 6-2 win that Hitler’s propaganda minister, the ghastly Joseph Goebbels, stood up to command the crowd to quiet. He was, for some reason, “dressed in the costume of Daniel Boone.”
Canada won its final two games fairly tranquilly, but it didn’t matter, the gold belonged to Britain. For the first time in Olympic hockey history, we were a shameful second.
In the blame and bluster that filled newspapers in the days following our silvery shame, all five stages of Canadian hockey grief revealed themselves, starting with Blissful Denial. “No one is worried, no one is upset,” The Winnipeg Tribune’s editorial page declared. “There is something rather pleasing in the fact that other countries like Canada’s game so well that they are taking it up so vigorously.”
Finger-Pointing ensued. Later, in March, when the hockey players finally returned home to Canada, they were quick to reproach Canadian team management for fumbling their responsibilities. In February, there was some question at home of how it could be that these officials hadn’t known the rules of the very tournament in which they were participating. “It is something hardly creditable to Canadian smartness,” an editorial in The Ottawa Journal sniffed.
Backlash followed: “It wasn’t a great team, measured by any yardstick,” the Journal confessed; never again, said The Star, should we send any but “a real all-star team to carry the red Maple Leafs in future Olympic hockey tournaments.”
Next was Official Uproar: Toronto MP Tommy Church rose in the House of Commons to carp about how poorly the whole affair reflected on us as a people. “I think,” he said, “something should be done.”
Finally, of course, there was Not To Worry, Everything’s Fine, Who Says It Isn’t? This was confirmed by the foreigners whose refreshing views we were only too pleased to publish: that the hockey result (from a Buffalo paper) had “a smell,” and that (from Manchester’s Guardian) “Canada would have won nine times out of ten.” The Globe reported that in a visit to Canada’s dressing room, Hermann Göring, head of Hitler’s Luftwaffe, had assured our players that “no matter what was to happen, he always would consider the Canucks the real world champions.”
A.E. Gilroy, head of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, had done his share of railing against tournament organizers and the deceitful British while he was still in Germany. Back home again, he apologized, refusing to waste anybody’s time with excuses, other than to mention that the dastardly Europeans had pulled a fast one on us, plus (also) there was something “peculiar” about the pucks, some of which did “weird tricks,” including on Britain’s first goal. Ask the Americans, Gilroy said: they agreed that the pucks were “not true.”
Lessons learned? I don’t know that there’s any real evidence of that. If you count the extent to which the press emphasized just how many of the British players had learned their hockey in Canada, then, yes, I guess we did kind own the loss. Here was a logic we could live with: Canadians hadn’t failed, they’d just succeeded under someone else’s flag.
Doomsday in Toronto was cold and snowy, and altogether free (it turned out) of hellfire. Friday came and went, and then it was Saturday.
Frisky reporters staking out Harold Varney’s doorstep demanded to know: if he was so sure of imminent Armageddon, why had he put out his bottles for the milkman the night before?
Varney wasn’t fazed. The Lord, he said, had granted an extension. “I am glad that there is yet time for the sinful to repent.”
They should make haste, though: “A few days from now, Toronto people should know, all will be judged.”
(I wrote about the 1936 Garmisch Olympics and Harold Varney’s gloomy outlook in Puckstruck: Distracted, Delighted and Distressed by Canada’s Hockey Obsession, my 2014 book. There’s more on these matters therein, on pages 171—180.)
“The American victory was due largely to two factors. First, there was Tom Moone of Boston, who played a flawless game defending his cage. Second, there was the fact that the German forwards knew how to get down the ice close to the American cage but apparently did not know what to do after they got there.”
That was the word from Albion Ross of The New York Times early in February of 1936, when the United States opened its Winter Olympics schedule in Garmisch-Partenkirchen with a 1-0 win over the hosts from Germany at the main rink. Gordon Smith got the goal — that’s him here, dark-sweatered, bespectacled, putting the puck past German goaltender (and local Garmisch boy) Wilhelm Egginger in the first period. Two days later, when the U.S. lost in an upset to Italy, Smith was again at the fore, booed by the Italian bench for his rough play. At one point, he accused an Italian opponent of deliberately knocking his glasses off, complaining “bitterly” to the referee that a penalty should have been called.
Out in the lead against Germany, the Americans went with a stalling strategy, firing the puck down the ice when they got the chance, forcing the Germans back to retrieve it. The weather played its part throughout the game. “Starting the final period,” an AP correspondent advised, “the snow was so thick that newspaperman in the open stand scarcely could see across the arena and good hockey was impossible.”
The crowd of 8,000 included an odious trio of prominent Nazis in propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess, and Dr. Alfred Rosenberg, Reich cultural director. The Times took note of them, and of Rudi Ball, “who enjoys the uncomfortable distinction,” Ross wrote, “of being very much a non-Aryan in a fanatically Aryan land.”
A speedy forward, Ball had long been Germany’s best player. “Without their Jewish teammate the German players would not have been much of a threat,” Ross continued. “Although it often and insistently has been repeated that the Jews have no place in ‘German sport,’ there could be no doubt that Rudi Ball was the Fuehrer of the German hockey team and without their Jewish Fuehrer the Germans would have been in a very embarrassing situation indeed.”
The U.S. Olympic hockey team played one last game before they sailed for Europe in January of 1936 to battle in the Garmisch-Partenkirchen Winter Olympics. At Madison Square Garden they played a shortened exhibition (two 15-minute halves) against the EHL New York Rovers, the Rangers’ farm team. The Olympics won, 2-0, on goals from Franks Spain and Stubbs.
Several weeks later, mid-February, as the tournament was about to launch in Germany, a letter from a concerned citizen showed up in the pages of The New York Times. “I am a veteran follower of Canadian and United States hockey,” reader William Gill wrote from Boston, “and here is a prediction Canada will win the Olympic hockey trophy again. The United States is not up to its former teams, lacking experience, as college sixes usually do.”
Arrayed here before the Rovers game are, back row, left to right: Malcolm McAlpin, Fred Kammer, Phil Labatte, John Garrison, Frank Stubbs, and Frank Shaughnessy. Front: Elbridge Ross, Paul Rowe, Thomas Moone, Coach Walter Brown, John Lax, Gordon Smith, and Frank Spain.
Frank Zamboni didn’t get around to inventing his eponymous ice resurfacer until 1949. What that meant for the 1936 Winter Olympics was that, knowing the rink at Garmisch-Partenkirchen’s Eis-Stadion wasn’t going to scrape itself, Bavarian men in Bavarian hats were going to have to get the job done. And so, did.
As far as hockey went, Canada’s 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in Germany, were a fresh-air flop. For the first time in five tournaments, Canada lost a game. Unfairly or not — guess who claimed the former — that was enough to give Great Britain the gold, while Canada had to settle for silvery second.
Most of the hockey at those eventful Nazi Games took to the ice at the main rink in Garmisch, 27 games. A further ten played out on the nearby ice of Riessersee, seen above in pre-Olympic days. Canada made its Bavarian debut there on February 6.
“The puckmen wearing the Maple Leaf emblem were brimful of confidence,” the Canadian Press advised the nation the day before Canada’s opening encounter with Poland. Coach Al Pudas described his team as “strong and smart.”
On the day, the Poles had trouble getting to the lake on time. Their bus was slowed or got stuck on slippery roads, and so the crowd of 300 watched the Canadians take an extended warm-up. Once the game got underway, there were goals (mainly Canadian) and there was weather (non-partisan).
“So heavy was the snowstorm,” CP reported, “the spectators saw more snow shovelling than hockey.” The players had trouble distinguishing “friend from foe.” Still, the Canadians opened with “speedy thrusts,” scoring five first-period goals. The lone Pole goal was self-inflicted, with Canadian goaltender Dinty Moore knocking the puck into his own net.
Going into the third, with the score 7-1, the Poles concentrated almost solely on keeping the Canadians at bay. “While the Polish lacked sting and polish, their defensive play was first rate,” the CP allowed; Canada added only one more goal to its rout.
By the end, the weather had pretty much imposed itself. “Despite an army of men employed to scrape and shovel” the rink, the snow piled up. “Play was halted several times,” the CP correspondent noted, “so that the officials could find the puck.”