olympicsbound, 2022: turning over a new leaf

Chamonix Champs: Canada’s 1924 Olympic champions, from left: unknown, unknown, Dunc Munro, Harry Watson, Bert McCaffrey, Hooley Smith (I think), Jack Cameron, Beattie Ramsay. (Image: Agence Rol, Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Just over a month to go before Olympics opened anew, and Canada wasn’t quite set: that early December of 1923, the Canadian Olympic Committee still hadn’t submitted our official entry for the first official winter games. No worries, though: P.J. Mulqueen, chair of the committee, assured Canadians that he would be filing Canada’s paper in good time ahead of the IOC’s early-January deadline.

Canada did have a top-notch team all ready to go to France: the Toronto Granites, winners of back-to-back Allan Cups senior-hockey championships, were standing by to defend the nation’s honour and the gold medal the first Canadian Olympic team had won in 1920.

Importantly, too, that December in 1923: Mulqueen had received a letter from the IOC, the Globe reported, “in which acceptance of Canada’s colours, a red maple leaf on a white jersey, was acknowledged.”

Plain and simple. That’s them pictured at the top, on the ice at Chamonix, where Canada wore them to retain gold in style. Now, 98 years later, we still don’t know who will play for Canada at February’s Beijing games, or even whether the NHL’s best will indeed venture out of North America in the ongoingness of our pandemic: the league and the NHLPA have their own early-January deadline to decide whether or not to opt out.

What we did get, this week, was the opportunity to size up a new round of Olympic duds. And to … acknowledge acceptance?

Here’s the look:

In case you, or anyone, wondered why or wherefore it came to this, Hockey Canada published an exegesis. I didn’t make this up, though someone else did, possibly Paula Nichols, a senior editor of Olympic and Historical Content for the COC, who’s bylined on the post. It reads, in part:

We all know that Team Canada is a force of nature. So, it’s fitting that the design was inspired by norther storms, which are fast-moving cold fronts that originate from the north and send strong winds south, causing temperatures to plummet rapidly. Graphic lines on the maple leaf crest gives dimension to the design, but are also representative of how snow and Arctic winds are shown on weather maps. Those weather map-type lines also appear on the shoulder yoke of the black jersey, creating a subtle maple leaf pattern.

Norther storms is good. Snow and Arctic winds on weather maps? Bravo.

People with Twitter accounts had issues with the black. Some of them did; they were jarred and maybe even offended. They asked themselves, and us: really? and what the hell? They wanted us to remember: black isn’t an official Canadian colour.

Me? I don’t mind the black. As someone who’s been known to appraise Canadian Olympic fashions in the past, I do have other concerns. A decade ago, as a patriotic public service, I marshalled some Historical Content of my own finding to show how Canadian teams headed for Olympics overseas do best when they (a) sail there on a ship; (b) make sure they’ve packed at least one Bobby, nominal or spiritual; and (c) pay particular attention to the foliage with which they adorn their sweaters.

That Canada won gold in 2010 and again in 2014 while largely ignoring my counsel is, I’ll allow, not a great look for me and my brand. Still, I’m sticking to my botanical guns and declaring, as I did a decade ago, that Canada’s leaf is just wrong.

Here’s what Canada’s hockey players, men and women, wore front and centre in 2010:

This was the shape of things four years later:

For PyeongChang in 2018:

Compare those anatomically incomplete exemplars to Canada’s leaf from the 1936 winter games —

— and maybe, like me, you’ll be vexed by the questions of how and why Canada’s leaf lost its stem.

Not every leaf worn by Canadians at international play has featured a stem, I’ll grant you. Part of the genius of Canada’s 1972 stemless Summit Series sweaters was that it didn’t matter.

But these 2022 sweaters aren’t those. It had my doubts in 2010 when Hockey Canada seems to have decided that snipping back was now a matter of policy, the new normal. That’s when I first went to the trouble of looking up the proper term for the stem of a leaf, if for no other reason than to be able to declare that a leaf without its petiole makes no sense, botanical or aesthetic.

I’ve said my piece, mostly; we’re almost, here, at the end of my screed. I do appreciate that Hockey Canada has been making gestures towards rationalizing the loss. The 2018 maple leaf, they explained at the time, “was inspired by a skate blade,” suggesting an accidental slicing. This time, obviously, there’s a climate-change undertone to the narrative: the stem to Canada’s leaf got blown clear off in the fury of norther storms blasting strong winds south.

I would, if I could, like loop back to and briefly celebrate that 1924 Canadian array. Four years earlier in Antwerp, the Winnipeg Falcons had represented Canada in sweaters of a hue that I might describe as mean mustard, though the Toronto Daily Star of the day preferred old gold. I’m not saying the Falcons got it wrong: there’s a certain garish glory there.

But just look at the clean simplicity of those ’24 Granite outfits. The lettering was new and (may I say) a nice touch, even if the red maple leaf against the snowy background qualifies as a throwback, an homage, to the sweaters worn a decade earlier by the Oxford Canadians, university students far from home who skated the innocent pre-war ice, carrying off English and European championships in sweaters featuring the fullness of Canada’s sacred flora, leaf and stem — even when, as in the second image below, they had to pin their leaves to their chests.

The photographs here belonged to Gustave Lanctôt, who studied at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar from 1909 to 1911. That’s him sitting on the far left in the first image, and in the centre in the second. A son of Saint-Constant, Québec, he subsequently served as Dominion Archivist between 1937 and 1948.

 

(Oxford Canadians images: first, Lanctot, G. / Library and Archives Canada / PA-066858;  second, Lanctot, G. / Library and Archives Canada / PA-066861)

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.)

olden golden

Hockey’s first Olympics were the summer games in Antwerp in April of 1920, where the Winnipeg Falcons represented Canada, and won on our behalf. That March, The Toronto Star advised that the team would be sporting “jerseys instead of sweaters, as the weather will be too warm for the latter.” The colour — I’ve described that before as queasy mustard, though I believe that on the Pantone spectrum it may more of a goldenrod or a gamboge. In 1920, the Star described it as old gold, which has a distinguished ring to it and, just maybe, helped the team recall what they’d come to Belgium for.

Subsequent Olympics were winter affairs, starting in 1924 in Chamonix. The Canadians, Torontonians this time, also came for and retrieved the gold, though they were sweatered in white this time. That gets us to 1928 and St. Moritz. The University of Toronto’s Varsity Grads were on call in Switzerland for that one, captained by defenceman Red Porter, here above. Canada was again golden, carrying off the silver Olympic hockey trophy seen here in tidy fashion: three games, three wins, 38 goals for, none against. The Grads wore white for the occasion, despite the fanciful tinting in this contemporary newspaper illustration. I’m not so confident classifying the colouring here — candle glow, would you call it, or lemon curry?