It was a city at odds with itself, reeling from the effects of a year-earlier deadly turmoil that still threatened to further shred its social and political fabric. Labour bore the scars of the failed May-June Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, and while the business community had successfully beaten down the aspirations of wage-earning workers, its victory came at a heavy cost — suspicion and distrust reigned among the two opposing factions. Into this city of deeply-embittered combatants, a group of unlikely heroes emerged, who managed to rekindle civic pride and restore the belief that the common cause that had been previously lost could at least be temporarily regained.
The source of revitalized pride was a hockey team, the ranks of which were made up of the sons of immigrants from a small and sparsely-populated island in the North Atlantic.
“Winnipeg Falcons,” proclaimed the May 25, 1920, Manitoba Free Press, “winners of the Allan Cup, emblematic of hockey superiority in Canada, and conquerors also in the hockey series at Antwerp, Belgium, significant of Olympic and world honors, arrived back in the city (on May 22) ... the occasion being signalized by an exuberant display of public enthusiasm. A triumphal procession of decorated and bedizened horse and motor vehicles escorted the victors on their arrival through the streets ...”
The newspaper said the celebration “eclipsed any other of its kind ever staged in Winnipeg to signalize the return of a successful sports organization.” In fact, the parade from the CPR station, down Main Street and Portage Avenue to Wesley College (now the University of Winnipeg), vastly surpassed in public participation those held for the Winnipeg Victorias, the 1896 and 1901-02 Stanley Cup champions. In proportion to the city’s population at the time, the public celebration the players received even exceeded that given on May 31 of this year, when True North announced that NHL hockey was returning to Winnipeg. A half-day civic holiday was even declared in order to allow all Winnipeggers the opportunity to greet the returning Canadian and Olympic hockey champions.
“Moving cameras clicked and each individual member of the team was besieged by a group of cheering fans, who insisted on shaking hands, and hearty cheers accompanied the players through the station to where the orange-and-black decorated cars were waiting for them. Before they managed to make their clearance from the szCPR property, however, a group of young ladies suddenly broke through the line, and saluted the members of the team with a shower of kisses ...”
Over 200 cars and other vehicles were commandeered for the parade, each bearing the orange-and-black colours of the Falcons’ jerseys. Proceeding the procession was the Free Press band playing Here Come the Conquering Heroes.
At the Wesley College baseball diamond, Allen Cup trustee C.C. Robinson presented the Canadian championship trophy to Thomas Johnson, the honourary president of the Falcons. In the evening, a special banquet was held for the Falcons at the Fort Garry Hotel. According to MLA Robert Jacob, who represented Manitoba Premier T.C. Norris at the banquet, “Winnipeg, with all its different peoples, was a unit in its pride in, and welcome of, the Falcon hockey team. A band of real Winnipeg boys had brought home to their native city the highest hockey honors in the world.”
The “real Winnipeg boys” were of Icelandic heritage, who, in stark contrast to the reception they received in 1920, initially had to fight for their right to play organized hockey in the city. The young Icelanders were shunned by established Anglo-Saxon teams.
When the First World War broke out, many of the Falcon team members joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force and served overseas. At war’s end, the Falcons expected the situation at home to have changed, as they had proved themselves to be true Canadians on the battlefield, but such was not the case.
“We couldn’t get into the senior league ... because the players there were from well-to-do families and wanted no part of us,” Frank Frederickson, who later became an NHL star and an inductee into the NHL Hall of Fame, told Stan and Shirley Fischer for their book, Heroes and History: Voices from the NHL’s Past. “But they couldn’t get away from us that easily.”
Eventually, the Falcons were allowed to play against the Winnipegs, the city champs, for the Manitoba senior hockey title, and emerged as 5-0 and 10-1 victors. As the Manitoba champions, they advanced to the Allen Cup, and went on to play the University of Toronto in the final, handily beating the Ontario team 8-3 and 3-2 to become the best amateur team in Canada and earning a berth in the Summer Olympics at Antwerp, where the first-ever gold medal for ice hockey was the ultimate prize. In the Belgium city, the Falcons defeated the Czechs 15-0, the Americans 2-0 and the Swedes 12-1 in the Olympic final to claim the gold medal.
The outcome of each Olympic game played by the Falcons was shown on newspaper billboards in Winnipeg. When the winning scores of games were posted, the Free Press reported that people cheered wildly and ran off to tell others. Displays of the game results on local movie theatre screens caused “intense enthusiasm in every case.”
In the House of Commons, MP Dr. M.R. Blake “rose and asked permission to speak on a matter of international importance,” reported the Canadian Press. When the North Winnipeg MP announced that the Falcons had defeated Sweden in the Olympic final, “the members applauded vigorously.”
Similar outbursts of celebration were duplicated in Winnipeg’s council chamber and at the Manitoba Legislature.
Today, Falcons is one suggestion for the name of the new Winnipeg NHL franchise. The name has an historic significance that cannot be overstated. The Falcon players showed great perseverance to overcome adversity and discrimination in order to become world champions and the toast of the town.
Long-suffering Manitoba hockey fans have been awarded for their own perseverance through the efforts of True North owners Mark Chipman and David Thomson, who finally brought back NHL hockey to the city. If the Jets was to be the NHL franchise’s name, undoubtedly the owners would have announced such was the case immediately after the successful season ticket campaign. Since they haven’t, and probably have another name in mind, the Falcons, as a past source of renewed civic pride, is a name that should be at the top of their list.