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.)

the right way to rout: do not purposely avoid scoring against a team that has already lost

While much of Canada slept Sunday morning, the team battling in our name at this year’s IIHF World Championships in Denmark swept past South Korea by a score of 10-0. Maybe you woke up to watch the TV broadcast, but if not, and you relied on tidings from the internet, then it’s possible that you saw the victory framed as a kind of gratis Royal Caribbean vacation on the IIHF’s news-feed, where the headline over Andrew Podnieks’ report read: Canada Cruises At Korea’s Expense. A Team Canada “made up of NHLers started gently but poured it on,” he wrote. On Twitter it was deemed both a convincing and a dominant win; the Koreans were duly thrashed (Sportsnet.ca) and demolished (Hockey Night in Canada).

Was that really necessary, though? It’s the question that comes up after lopsided wins against lesser opponents, if not for those players on the ice perpetrating the lopsiding, then for some certain observers at home with an interest in sportsmanship and mercy. Could the Canadians have let up a bit yesterday — after, say, Pierre-Luc Dubois scored in the second period to make it 5-0? Or what about closing it down for the third, at the start of which Canada, ranked first among hockey nations, was leading the Southern Koreans, 18th in the world, by a score of 8-0? Wouldn’t that be a kinder way of administering a whomping?

There’s no easy answer, of course. You can’t really expect a parcel of NHL players notto do what they’re trained to do, i.e. skate and score right to the end. And in a round-robin tournament, wherein goal-difference can be a deciding factor, there’s no such thing as an excess of goals.

If you want the original written ruling on the matter, well, in fact the book that’s considered to be hockey’s very first has something to say. Arthur Farrell, a Hall-of-Fame forward, published Hockey: Canada’s Royal Winter Game in 1899, the same year he helped the Montreal Shamrocks to the first of their two successive Stanley Cup championships. Over the course of 122 pages, Farrell waxes long and eloquent on everything from history and equipment to conditioning and tactics.

Hockey, he’ll tell you, is as salubrious an occupation as you’re going to find anywhere. “The very adhering to the rules,” he advises, “the spirit of fair play that characterizes a manly game, the overcoming of all fears and all difficulties, the modest victory, the frank acknowledgement of defeat, all tend to build up, to educate, the mental faculties, just as the long practice, the swift race, and the hard check help to develope [sic] the physical man.”

Keep fighting is advice that features, too, as in never give up. “It is a mistake,” he counsels, “to lose courage because your opponents score the first three or four goals.” Don’t start fighting, though, as in punch somebody: “Do not begin to play roughly because you are losing.”

And if you’re winning? Pour it on, Farrell counsels. “Do not purposely and ostentatiously avoid scoring against a team that has already lost, because even if a bad beating does discourage them they would rather suffer it than be humiliated by any such show of pity.”

Sound advice, I guess, though I’d maybe prefer to hear it direct from the badly beaten and downright discouraged themselves.

Were the Swedes glad to go unpitied to the tune of 12-1 when the met the Canadians at the Antwerp Olympics in 1920? What about the team they sent at Chamonix in 1924, losers to that year’s Canada by 22-0?

W.A. Hewitt was the manager of those Canadian teams, Foster’s father, and he was at the helm again in 1928 in St. Moritz when the University of Toronto Grads wore the maple leaf. Canada opened the tournament against Sweden, surging to a 4-0 first-period lead that … displeased Hewitt. The newspapers back home reported it next day: the boss “became impatient at the slow rolling up of the score.” The players calmed him down, apparently: they thought it best “to let nature take its course.”

Final score: 11-0.

Some of the Grads were still talking about the propriety of running up scores when Canada went to the 1956 Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy and rolled over Austria by a score of 23-0. “It’s no credit to Canada,” opined Dr. Joe Sullivan, Grad goalie in ’28. “They shouldn’t beat these weak teams by more than ten goals.”

A teammate, centreman Hugh Plaxton, agreed. “I don’t think it does hockey any good.”

One last case study might be worth considering. Austria hosted the IIHF’s 1977 World Championships in Vienna, though they didn’t have a team in the tournament, and so didn’t have to worry about humiliations on the ice. Not so Canada. Here was a rare of instance of one of ourteams finding itself at the suffering end of a rout and, with it, a chance to see how we’d react.

Canada was back at the Worlds for the first time in seven years, and this time they’d be icing a team of professionals. Not quite the front-line accumulation that had won the 1976 Canada Cup, of course: this one would be staffed by NHLers from teams that hadn’t made the playoffs, or hadn’t lasted far into them. GM Derek Holmes had marshalled Jim Rutherford and Tony Esposito for the Canadian goal, Dallas Smith and Carol Vadnais on defence. Pierre Larouche, Ron Ellis, and Rod Gilbert were up at forward along with captain Phil Esposito, who was also named as a playing assistant to coach Jimmy Wilson of the Colorado Rockies.

Phil E. stressed the need for team unity. He’d seen in 1972 what effect dissension could have on a venture like this. “We must have complete harmony if we expect to do well,” he said. The team was young and the players didn’t know one another. “The results in the first exhibition games might give some people in Canada cause for alarm, but overall, we will be all right.”

By The Banks Of The Not-So-Blue Danube: Wilf Paiement’s 1977 World Championships sweater, and the team in happier, pre-rout formation. (Image: Classic Auctions)

Things did not, shall we say, get off to an auspicious start in Europe. After a pre-tournament stop in Sweden, the Canadian played West Germany in Dusseldorf, where they won, 8-1, in a penalty-filled game, and were jeered by 10,000 fans, many of whom threw their seat-cushions on the ice when it was all over.

A report in The Globe and Mail insisted that the barrage was ironic, “mock rage that actually was a favorable reaction to the hard hitting and sometimes cheap penalties the Canadians received.” As for the German press, they reported that Phil Esposito might have been drunk.

“There they go, mistaking me for my brother Tony again,” Phil said, laughing, when he heard that. “Actually, if I had been drinking, it doesn’t say much for their hockey club.”

Of his refusal to shake hands after the game with one of the Germans, Esposito said, “I guess I do not like him. He speared me in the private parts on the first shift and it got worse from then on.”

The Canadians did peaceably dine with the Germans, post-game, I should report. Then they left for more exhibitions in Prague. “That is when it is down to serious business,” Esposito confided.

The Canadians lost both of the exhibitions they played against Czechoslovakia, 7-2 and 4-1. The Czechs paid a price, losing one of their players in the first game to a bad knee injury and another to a broken arm. “If ice hockey follows the path shown by Canadians on Saturday,” one local newspaper warned, “one can only wonder if it will survive beyond this century.”

In Austria, there was a kerfuffle regarding the IIHF’s insistence that all players wear helmets. Several Canadians complained, saying headgear gave them headaches, and the team doctor gave them medical certificates to that effect. But the IIHF wouldn’t relent. Unhappy, the Canadians still fared well enough in their opening game, beating the US 4-1. The next game didn’t go so well: the Swedes we took such care to whup through the 1920s now prevailed 4-2.

Next up, the powerful Soviet Union, winners of the two most recent Olympics as well as eight of the previous ten world championships. They had Vladislav Tretiak in the crease, and ahead of him, the likes of Alexander Yakushev, Boris Mikhailov, Valeri Kharlamov, and Helmut Balderis.

Final score: USSR 11, Canada 1.

And how did Canada respond to finding itself thrashed and demolished and paying for Soviet cruising?

Larouche called the winners the best team he’d ever seen. Phil Esposito was quoted calling them “a helluva hockey club.”

That’s as gracious as we got. On to self-doubt and recrimination.

“It was humiliating,” coach Wilson said.

GM Derek Holmes announced his disappointment, which was bitter.

Montreal’s Gazette topped its front page the next morning with the bad news, leading with a story that included the words worst drubbing, romped, embarrassingly easypoor sportsmanship and shoddy play in the opening two paragraphs.

“The prestige and credibility of Canadian hockey was destroyed on the banks of the not-so-blue Danube,” George Gross wrote in The Toronto Sun. In the hours that followed, politicians in Ottawa took up the cry, with Ontario NDP MP Arnold Peters calling for Canadian hockey officials to be called to face a House of Commons committee to explain why we’d sent “second-rate players” to represent us.

The Minister of State for Fitness and Amateur Sport was in Vienna, Iona Campagnolo, and she said this wasn’t something the government would get involved in. She was concerned about the conduct of our players. “I really don’t care whether we lose 20-1 or 2-1,” she said, “as long as we do it in a fashion that portrays us as true sportsmen.”

She did think that the Austrian press was making too much fuss, and the wrong kind. “It almost looked exultant,” she said. “One of the headlines I read was Canada Executed.”

Günter Sabetzki, president of the IIHF was concerned. He suggested that plans for a 1980 Canada Cup might now have to be reviewed. “We are not at all happy with the team representing the country we all considered to be the father of hockey.”

Had they learned nothing from history? “In 1954,” he said, “when the Canadians went to Stockholm, they thought they couldn’t be beaten and they ended up losing to the Russians. They were drinking too much whisky. This Canadian representative is also lacking in conditioning. I do not know whether they are drinking too much whisky, but I have heard the reports.”

Canada did go on to post a 3-3 with the Czechs, the eventual champions. We finished fourth in the end, just behind the Soviets.

Back at the rout, Al Strachan of The Gazette was on hand to document Canada’s failure to heed Arthur Farrell’s 1899 guidance on going goon in a losing effort. Rod Gilbert “swung himself off his feet” taking a “a vicious two-handed swipe” of his stick at a passing Soviet, while Wilf Paiement “acted like a malicious buffoon” swinging his stick at, and connecting with, the head of another Soviet player. “I figured I might as well hit somebody,” he said, later, “maybe hurt somebody. I don’t know. I wanted to do anything to win.” Canada was down at the time by 8-0.

You’d think those Soviets would have shown show respect, but no, they kept on with the scoring. Having argued to avoid putting helmets on, some of the Canadian players now refused to remove them once the game was all over and the teams lined up to hear the victor’s national anthem.

Centre Walt McKechnie of the Detroit Red Wings was one such, and he later shared his reasoning. “I didn’t ant to look at them,” he said. “I hate them. I don’t like their way of life. I don’t like anything about them. They stink. They’re great hockey players, you’ve got to give them that, but I hate everything about them. Am I supposed to stand there at attention when their flag is flying? Never in a million years. I’m no hypocrite.”