Anthony Wilson-Smith, the president of Historica Canada, said of the latest Heritage Minute that it is a “uniquely Canadian story in so many ways, about a group of young men with a passion for our national sport, set against the greater backdrop of war, tragedy and triumph. Their determination, courage and resilience teach us lessons that are very bit as important today.”
Wilson-Smith is referring to the Winnipeg Falcons, a collection of Canadians of Icelandic heritage who won Canada’s first gold medal in Olympic hockey, and the fact that most who played on the team fought in the First World War.
In the pre-war years, as the sons of immigrants, the Falcons players, despite their prowess on the ice, faced prejudice and were denied enter into established hockey leagues. But even in the face of the adversity at home, the young men were prepared to give their lives for their country.
Freddie Frederickson, a future NHL hall of famer, 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.
On April 23, 1917, the 223rd Battalion left for overseas, and many of the Falcons were now at war. Frank “Buster” Thorsteinson and George Cumbers of the Falcons died in the last year of the conflict. Cumbers was the only non-Icelander on the pre-war team, who grew up in Winnipeg’s “Little Iceland.”
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 still not accepted into the ranks of the hockey establishment. Discrimination was once again the order of the day. The Anglo-Saxon stocked teams of the Monarchs, Victorias and Winnipegs refused to play the Falcons, whom they viewed contemptuously as lowly immigrants.
“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.” Indeed, the other teams would soon be exposed to the hockey skills of the “Vikings on skates.”
After the war, 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.
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. The two teams were tied 0-0 after the first period, but 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 Falcons next faced the Swedes for the gold medal, the best European team, but not much of a match for the Canadians. During the mid-way mark of the first period (games were played in two halves), 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. 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.
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.
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 hockey establishment.
The Falcons survived only in name following their Olympic victory. The best players defected to other teams in mostly professional and semi-professional leagues.
Over the years, the Falcons’ accomplishments have been mostly forgotten. Even during the Salt Lake Olympic Games, they received a snub when Team Canada players donned replica jerseys of the Toronto Granites, who the Canadian Hockey Association inaccurately claimed were Canada’s first Olympic hockey gold medalists. But the Granites took gold in the 1924 Winter Olympics, while the Falcons won in the 1920 Summer Olympics. But since it was an official gold medal sport in Antwerp, the Falcons were the real first-time hockey gold medalists for Canada, which is acknowledged in the new Heritage Minute.