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A history lesson on ice — players wear replica jerseys of Falcons
Sep 03, 2004

by Bruce Cherney

Three years ago, the Canadian Hockey Association defied historical accuracy and proclaimed that the Toronto Granites had won Canada’s first Olympic gold medal in hockey. But, the reality is that a Winnipeg team had skated to international glory four years before the Toronto squad had laced up their skates at an Olympic venue.

In 1920, ice hockey and figure skating were introduced to the Summer Olympic Games at Antwerp, Belgium. In 2001, the CHA incorrectly inferred that, because it was the Summer Olympics, hockey was merely a demonstration sport. The CHA had used an inaccurate book published in 1997 called Canada’s Olympic Hockey Teams: The Complete History, 1920-1998 as its source of information. That was a mistake. Both hockey and figure skating were part of the Antwerp official Olympic program and received full-medal status as a result. This has been recognized by both the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation.

The CHA’s conclusion — and the book’s — was presumably based upon the Granites winning the ice hockey gold medal at the first Winter Olympics which were held in Chamonix, France in 1924.

Because of the CHA’s erroneous conclusion, a crest honouring the Granites was worn on Team Canada’s jerseys at the Salt lake City Winter Olympics in 2002.

The small, but vocal, Icelandic-Canadian community protested the snub, pointing out the success of their ancestors in 1920. By the time the error was recognized, it was too late. The Toronto Granites were being promoted across the land by a national beer company, and Team Canada’s jerseys had already been produced with the Granite’s emblem. The players did react to the news of the jersey’s inaccuracy by pasting 

Falcons’ stickers on their helmets and added the Falcons’ logo to pennants given out by the players’ to their 

opponents.

When the announcement was made to use the Granite’s logo on Team Canada’s jerseys, Brian Johannesson, the son of Falcon player Konnie Johannesson, told the International Ice Hockey Federation News that he was donating his father’s 1920 jersey to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. “What pushed me into doing something was that team Canada chose the wrong emblem for their commemorative sweaters for Salt Lake,” he said. “It wasn’t malicious, I don’t think. It’s just a fact not many people in the East know about the Falcons because they were from the West.”

Phil Pritchard, director for hockey operations and curator of the Hockey Hall of Fame, in a press release called the donation of Johannesson’s Olympic sweater, gold medal and armband, and Canadian passport and other documents “among some of the most unique artifacts the Hockey Hall of Fame has collected over the years.”

Team Canada is correcting the historical mistake for the World Cup of Hockey which started this week. They wore replicas of the gold and black sweaters with a large red maple leaf on the front worn by the Winnipeg Falcons during their first game against the United States, which Canada won 2-1. Cam Cole, a sports columnist with the National Post, wrote of “our mustard-coloured heroes” the next day. Roy MacGregor, a sports columnist with the Globe and Mail, was more disparaging of Team Canada’s return to its historic roots by describing the jerseys as “homely mustard.” Apparently, the Eastern media still doesn’t get the significance of the Falcons’ victory in 1920. Yet, the players did, and were reported to be proud to be taking part in a history lesson for the 

nation.

On May 22, 1920 the members of the Winnipeg Falcons hockey team stepped off a CPR train to a tumultuous welcome. Crowds of Winnipeggers lined the streets cheering their Olympic hockey champions. The city fathers declared a half-day holiday to allow thousands to greet their conquering heroes, who in the spirit of their ancestors had become “Vikings on skates.”

The Falcons were the toast of the town and the nation. Before arriving home in Winnipeg, they had been feted in Montreal and Toronto.

Mayor T.L. Church of Toronto sent a congratulatory telegram to Winnipeg Mayor Charles Gray. Church called the Falcons’ “victory a most popular one here. Well done, Winnipeg!”

“To the land of the Maple Leaf goes the honour of winning the first Olympic championship at Antwerp,” proclaimed the Toronto Mail and Empire.

As the Falcons approached Winnipeg, the excitement grew. Local newspapers reported their progress and outlined the lavish plans to celebrate their Olympic victory, including a parade as soon as the CPR train carrying them arrived. The parade started at Main Street, proceeded down Portage and finished at Wesley Park, where the University of Winnipeg now stands.

An official banquet was sponsored by the city at the Hotel Fort Garry. The T. Eaton company held a dinner and dance for them three days after their homecoming. The menu featured cream “Frederickson” tenderloin, “Goodman” style, Roast “Byron” potatoes, “Slim’s” lemon pie, “Fridfinnson” rolls with butter and “Bobbie Benson’s” coffee.

For these young Icelanders — the only non-lcelander was Huck Woodson, a spare on the team — who had brought Olympic glory to Canada, it must have seemed to be one of the most dramatic changes in public opinion since they had donned skates. After all, their attempts to join local leagues had been constantly stymied by the Winnipeg WASP hockey establishment.

The first Falcons team featured Konnie Johannesson, Bobby and Harvey Benson, Mike Goodman, Slim Halderson, Chris Fridfinnson, Ed Stephenson, Connie Nell, Wally Byron, Babe Elliot and Frank Frederickson, all Canadians of Icelandic 

descent.

The 1920 Olympic champions 

included manager Herbert Axford, forward Halderson, defenceman 

Johannesson, spare Fridfinnson, coach Steamer Maxwell, defenceman Bobby Benson, centre Frederickson, forward Goodman, goalie 

Byron and spare Woodman.

That the Icelanders readily adapted to a game that would have been totally foreign to their immigrant parents is a tribute to their integration into Canadian society. Whatever was initially thought of the Icelanders, they were dedicated to healthy pursuits which included sports.

Icelanders came to Manitoba in 1875, the second major immigrant group to settle in the province following the arrival of the Mennonites a year earlier. The first group of 235 to reach what would become New Iceland, stepped off barges on October 21 prematurely released off 

Willow Point by the captain of the steamer International. The captain feared that winter weather setting in would make it impossible to land at the Icelanders' preferred site further north at the Icelandic River. After a severe winter, the settlers took up residence at Gimli, a kilometre north of Willow Point.

These initial group of settlers would be joined by about 2,000 others who would spread throughout New Iceland, and when the task of eking out a livelihood became too 

difficult, some would find their way 

to Winnipeg and beyond. Within a number of years, these Icelanders grew into a thriving community.

During the 1880s several Icelandic organizations were founded in 

Winnipeg, including those that promoted sport.

By the 1890s the Icelandic community in Winnipeg had two hockey teams — the Vikings and the Icelandic Athletic Club. The interest in hockey intensified to the point that it was decided to form a league comprising these two teams.

The pivotal year was 1908 for hockey in the Icelandic community when the first crop of players were getting older and finances were running low, so the two teams merged and the Winnipeg Falcons, a tribute to Iceland’s national bird, came into existence.

The young Icelanders were shunned by the established teams. The Anglo-Saxon stocked teams of the Monarchs, Victorias and Winnipegs refused to play the Falcons, whom they viewed contemptuously as lowly immigrants.

The Falcons persevered and in 1912 joined with the Strathconas, another group of Scandinavians, a St. Boniface team and a Kenora team to form the Independent Hockey League. They were later joined by a team from Selkirk and another from Portage la Prairie.

Frederickson, who would later become an NHL star and inductee into the NHL Hall of Fame, along with the Benson brothers, was a rookie with the Falcons for the 1913-14 season.

But then along came the First World War, distracting Canada from the pursuit of on-ice victory. Hockey players joined to fight the “Hun,” decreasing the numbers available to play.

In 1916, the Winnipeg Patriotic Hockey League was formed with those players who had not gone overseas. The hockey establishment, wanting to fill its team rosters, for the first time allowed the Falcons to join the mainstream league.

The Falcons held their own, eventually losing the division title to the Victorias. Frederickson led the league with 13 goals and 16 points.

Frederickson was a university student when he joined the Western Universities Battalion of the Canadian forces, and then the 223rd Battalion, which was a unit made up of Canadians of Scandinavian descent. Frederickson was joined in this battalion by a number of his former Falcon teammates.

“We, who were not born in this country call ourselves Icelandic when asked, “ said J.J. Bildfell in a speech to Icelandic-Canadian soldiers, “but our representation in the war as Canadians shows our loyalty to Canada, our determination never to forget how well we were received and how good our new country has been to us.”

The 223rd Battalion, the Victorias and Monarchs formed a league but their numbers decreased as men were sent overseas to fight.

On April 23, 1917, the 223rd 

Battalion left for overseas, and many of the Falcons were now at war.

At war’s end, the Falcons expected that the situation at home would have changed since they had proved their worth as Canadians on the battlefield, but they were no longer accepted into the ranks of the hockey establishment. Discrimination was once again the order of the day.

“We couldn’t get into the senior league ... because the players there were from well-to-do families and wanted no part of us, “ said Frederickson in Heroes & History: Voices from the NHL’s Past by Stan and Shirley Fischer. “But they couldn’t quite get away from us that easily.”

The Falcons again formed their own league along with teams from Brandon and Selkirk. The Falcons won the Manitoba Senior Hockey League title with an 8-2 record. Frederickson was the scoring leader with 23 goals and 28 points.

The league victory allowed the Falcons to play against the Winnipegs, the city champs, for the Manitoba senior title. The Falcons easily defeated their rivals 5-0 in the first game and 10-1 in the second game. With this victory, the Falcons were on their way to the western final for the Allen Cup to face Fort William. They handily defeated the Ontario team 7-2 and 9-1 and advanced to the Allen Cup final against the University of Toronto, whom they beat 8-3 and 3-2.

Taking the cup also had the added benefit of an Olympic Winter Games berth. The Falcons were on their way to Antwerp, Belgium as Canada’s amateur senior champions. 

Hard-pressed to arrive in the European city on schedule to compete, they couldn’t return to Winnipeg to pack an extra set of clothes.

“But for the Falcons, a scanty wardrobe, a frantic schedule, and a few North Atlantic gales were nothing,” wrote Eric Zweig, the author of Hockey Night in the Dominion and editor of Total Hockey, the official encyclopedia of the NHL, in the Beaver article The Return of the 

Falcons.

“Team captain Frank Frederickson had faced greater adversity in the First World War when he nearly drowned in the Mediterranean, his ship hit by a torpedo. Several of his teammates had faced the savagery of the Great War. In their lives as hockey players, both before and after the war, they had had to battle derision — not for how they played, for few could fault their prowess and sportsmanship, but for who they were.”

In Antwerp, the Falcons’ rivals for Olympic glory was Sweden, Belgium, France, Czechoslovakia (now the independent nations of the Czech Republic and Slovakia) and the United States. The Falcons considered the Americans to be their only real competition.

In their first game, the Falcons easily beat the Czechs 15-0 and then were to face the Americans. 

Unlike Canadian hockey of three periods, the Olympic competition consisted of only two periods, and after the first period, the Americans and Canadians were deadlocked at 0-0. In the second and last period, Frederickson scored on a breakaway and then the win was ensured when Konnie Johannesson scored, giving the Winnipeg team a 2-0 victory.

“The Canadians who beat us in the Olympic final are a fine lot of men,” American team captain J. W. McCormick said when he arrived back in the United States. “We have no complaints or excuses to offer. Captain Frederickson of the Falcons, told us that we were the only ones who had thrown a scare into his fellows.”

The Falcons next faced the Swedes, the best European team, but not much of a match for the Canadians. In its report of the Olympic final, the Associated Press said the Swedes were “hopelessly outclassed,” but “their stubborn defensive work kept the tally way below what the balance of play indicated.”

During the mid-way mark of the first period, the Canadians were ahead 5-0 when the Swedes miraculously scored a goal. Actually, the Canadians later admitted they had let the Swedes score because they regarded them as good fellas.

When a Swedish defenceman picked up the puck, the Canadians fell all over themselves giving the Swede a clear path to the goal. The puck went past Wally Byron, who had fallen down when the shot was taken.

“I guess it’s safe to confess that we gave it to them,” Frederickson later said. “The Swedes went wild. They were yelling and cheering, shaking hands with themselves, shaking hands with us. It was great.”

Frederickson scored seven of Canada’s goals in the 12-1 victory over the Swedes. In all, he scored 12 goals during the competition, Slim Halderson added nine and Mike Goodman was the other multiple scorer with three goals.

The outcome of the Olympic games were first revealed to 

Winnipeggers by bulletins in front 

of the city’s newspaper buildings. When the winning scores of games were posted, the Free Press reported that people cheered wildly and tore off to tell others. Victories were spread by word-of-mouth and displays on the screens of movie theatres, “causing intense enthusiasm in every case.”

In the House of Commons, MP Dr. M.R. Blake (North Winnipeg) “rose and asked permission to speak on a matter of international importance,” reported the Canadian Press. ‘The Winnipeg Falcons have won the international hockey championship in Antwerp 12-1,’ he said, and the members applauded vigorously.”

The scene was the same in the Manitoba Legislature and also during a city council meeting after Mayor Gray announced the result. “His words were received with great enthusiasm, and it was voted to send a message of congratulation from the city to the local team,” reported the Free Press.

The Falcons survived mostly only in name following their Olympic 

victory. Players defected to other teams in mostly professional and semi-professional leagues. Frederickson and Halderson joined the 

Victoria Cougars of the Pacific Coast League, Benson went to the Calgary Tigers of the Western Canada League, while Goodman joined a team in Duluth.

“With what they had left, the Falcons were very ordinary and got nowhere,” wrote the Winnipeg Tribune’s Tony Allen in an April 26, 1950 column on the history of the Falcons.

(For more information, photos and newspaper articles on the Falcons, Brian Johannesson has created the website www.winnipegfalcons.com. The Icelandic Canadian magazine in 2002 reprinted a history of the team by Fred Thordarson which originally appeared in the Canadian Sports and Outdoor Life magazine. CBC-TV has produced a half-hour documentary specifically about the Falcons for its series The Olympians called Vikings on Ice.)