hockey day in haute-savoie

Chamonix Sept: Under snowy peaks in France’s southeastern Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, Chamonix hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924, whereat Canada defended the hockey gold medal it had won at the summer games in 1920. Pictured here in January of 1923 is the local Chamonix team, featuring their business-casual goaltender. No names, I’m sorry to say, are included in the archival records. (Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France)

parc puck

Good Woods: A defender to bamboozle, a stretch of open ice beyond, a goaltender at the ready … but no updates, I’m afraid, on how this rush went on Saturday, February 16, 1929, or what the final score was, or who the teams were. All I can tell you is where this well-attended scene unfolded, and that’s on the ice of Lac de Saint-Mandé in the Bois de Vincennes, on the eastern edge of Paris. (Image: Agence Rol, Bibliothèque nationale de France)

winterspiele 1936: because goals win games we are forced to swallow the bitter pill

Best British: Great Britain’s championship team pose on Riessersee, the Bavarian lake south of Garmisch-Partenkirchen where many of the Olympic hockey games were played in 1936.

“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.

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.”

bill fitsell, 1923—2020

Cold Comfort: Bill Fitsell, left,  in the blues of his beloved Maple Leaf, hands on knees à la Charlie Conacher, out on the ice in Lindsay, Ontario, in the early 1930s.

So very saddened, still, by the news that came on Thursday of my friend Bill Fitsell’s death in Kingston, Ontario, at the age of 97. His career was in newspapers, as a reporter, editor, and columnist, and it spanned 55 years. His passion was hockey history: that he pursued in his books and in dozens of other projects that were dear to his heart. One of the latter was the community of fellow travellers that he dreamed up and made real, the Society of International Hockey Research. Last month, writing about the first NHL hockey game that Bill ever attended — that piece is here — I tried to translate his contribution in all that endeavoured into hockey terms. “His calibre,” I ventured, “might be best expressed in a Lady Byng Trophy context: his proficiency at what he does is only exceeded by his good grace and gentlemanly conduct.”

Up today at the SIHR website — here — is a retrospective I wrote of Bill’s life and times.

Working on that, I found a page in my notebook from the fall of 2018 that I’d filled on the train from Kingston back to Toronto after sharing a coffee with Bill.

He’d told me about his dad and the rink he made for his boys in the 1930s in the lot beside the family’s home in Lindsay. As I write in the SIHR piece, there was no minor hockey program there, then, other than what Bill and his friends concocted. “You organized your own teams in those days,” he told. “And of course my team was called the Maple Leafs. I went down and registered us, and we’d play Saturday mornings.”

“We all had different Leaf sweaters,” he remembered. His own version is the one that’s pictured here above, with an authentic Maple Leaf stitched on the front. The stripes, though, at the waist? They weren’t correct, he said, and the collar was a roll-neck, not at all what the genuine Leafs wore — though altogether warmer, Bill told me with a smile, out on the cold January ice.

Incoming: A drawing of Bill’s, Leafs and Rangers, that decorated the cover of one of his childhood scrapbooks.