Hockey’s unusual history at the Summer Olympic Games

The Palais de Glace d’Anvers in Antwerp, Belgium.

The NHL won’t be sending players to Pyeongchang, in part because the IOC wasn’t willing to move hockey to the Summer Olympic Games.

It’s worth remembering that once upon a time hockey was featured during the Summer Games. The sport debuted as an Olympic event at the 1920 Summer Games in Antwerp, Belgium.

Let’s reflect on a simpler time when the International Olympic Committee decided that hockey was best played in April.

The tournament was played April 23 to 29 at the Palais de Glace d’Anvers, months ahead of the rest of the Olympic events, which were held in August. Seven teams took part in the competition: Canada, the United States, Czechoslovakia, France, Sweden, Switzerland, and Belgium.

Canada determined its representative for the Olympics based on who was the Allan Cup champion that year. Five days after the Winnipeg Falcons beat the University of Toronto in a two-game series that concluded on March 29, they found themselves on a ship en route to Europe.

Unlike contemporary hockey, each team played with six skaters and a goaltender. The extra skater was known as a “rover” and did not have a predetermined position. The NHL’s precursor, the National Hockey Association, eliminated this position in the early twentieth century, but other North American hockey leagues maintained it into the 1920s. This was the only Olympic tournament to feature the rover.

The tournament structure itself was also a bit unusual. Instead of using a round-robin format that we know today, the “Bergvall System” was adopted. Named after its inventor, Swedish water polo player Erik Bergvall, this process featured three elimination rounds—one for each of the three medals.

If a team was eliminated in the battle for the gold medal, it would go on to square off in a second elimination round for silver, and again for bronze, if needed. This meant that the winner of the gold medal was crowned in the middle of the tournament, with second and third place awarded after.

As you might have guessed, this system was not without its criticisms and was subsequently dropped from future Olympic hockey tournaments. Chief among the complainants was Sweden, who felt the system was unfair. After losing 12-1 to Canada in the final of the gold medal round, they lost to the U.S. in the silver medal round and were eventually shut out by Czechoslovakia in the final game of the bronze medal round, too.

The frustrating part for the Swedes was that, besides cratering in the championship round, the Czechs only scored one goal that entire tournament—good enough to clinch the bronze. (Meanwhile, Sweden scored 17 goals but allowed an unimpressive 20 goals against.)

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The Canadians finished the tournament with a goal differential of plus-28, but the Americans blew the doors off the Ice Palace, scoring 52 goals and limiting their opponents to just two tallies. In their opening game against the Swiss, the U.S. starched them 29-0—the third-most goals in a single game by two teams in the pre-war Olympic era.

Unsurprisingly, this was the first and only time that ice hockey was showcased at the Summer Games.

The first Winter Olympics, held in 1924 in Chamonix, France, put hockey on its proper stage.