Band of Brothers: The Winnipeg Falcons story

The Winnipeg Falcons, Canada's first Olympic hockey team. (Getty)

Seth Howander took one look at the Canadian team and decided the leggings and leather apron he usually wore in net weren’t going to cut it. Then the Swedish goaltender gathered up all the absorbent cotton he could find and covered himself in the stuff.

You can’t blame Howander and Team Sweden if they weren’t quite prepared for the first Olympic hockey tournament, back in 1920. Nobody seemed to be. According to newspaper articles from the time, the Czechoslovaks "run on their skates" and "seem to have no system, either in attack or defence." The Swedes "practised with curved bats and a rubber ball," and considered a flat puck "a novelty." The American team showed up late because of bad weather, and delayed the whole tournament. Canada’s coach, Fred "Steamer" Maxwell, didn’t even make the trip, because he had "another engagement."

There are stories for days.

But the Canadian team that won the country’s first-ever Olympic gold is special, and not just because they were first, or because guys wore little to no equipment back then. This team shared a bond unlike any we’ve seen since.

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The Winnipeg Falcons that earned the right to represent Canada at the Games in Antwerp, Belgium, were a team of outcasts who’d just returned home from war, who’d united over an experience none of us can fathom, and also, over one all of us can: hockey. The Falcons were the first to make a statement to the world about this sport and Canada.

"The world suddenly realized hockey was not what they had thought it was," says Brian Johannesson, the team’s historian. He earned that title thanks to stuff he found stashed in his parents’ laundry cupboard. His father, Konnie, played defence for the Falcons. "The Canadians came along," Johannesson says, "and they steamrolled everyone."

To really appreciate the Winnipeg Falcons you have to go back to the start.

The team formed in 1911, establishing their own league because the existing senior men’s loop in Winnipeg wouldn’t let them play. The Falcons were all of Icelandic decent, and Winnipeg had a very strong British background and presence. "If you didn’t fit into that society, you were kind of pushed off to the periphery," says Jim Busby, whose great uncle, Frank "Buster" Thorsteinson, was a Falcon. "And they must have looked like a real strange lot. They were bigger than average, they had this really hard-to-understand language, and they sort of stuck to themselves."

The senior team the Falcons assembled was quite something: Goalie Wally Byron was noted for his consistency, and as "one of the best custodians playing amateur hockey in Canada," in the Manitoba Free Press. Captain, centreman and leading scorer Frank Fredrickson was a future Hall of Famer who later turned pro and won the Stanley Cup with the Victoria Cougars. Fredrickson’s best friend since age 10 was the biggest defenceman on the team, Konnie Johannesson. Thorsteinson played the rover position (international hockey tournaments featured seven players to a side back then) and got his nickname because he was a bruiser, but he was also a heck of a player.

These guys had all gone to school together, and most went to church together. The fact the other league wouldn’t let them play only strengthened their bond as a team.

And then, in April of 1916, every member of the Winnipeg Falcons senior team joined another cause: The Great War. They served in France and England and Egypt, in all aspects of the effort. Some, like Konnie, found their passion: He joined the army so he could fly, and served as a flying instructor in Egypt. Konnie flew planes for the rest of his life.

But two Falcons never returned home. The men—Thorsteinson, killed by poison gas, and George Cumbers, who fell to German artillery—are laid to rest at Barlin Cemetery in northern France. There are more than 1,000 graves there; that the two friends are just eight gravestones apart is a "beautiful coincidence," says Busby. He’s been to the site of his great uncle’s death, and researched his role in the war, as well as in hockey. "Two Falcons didn’t make it back, but nobody came back unscathed," Busby says. "They have these horrible experiences. They all came back with these scars."

But they all returned to hockey. After reorganizing in the summer of 1919 and picking up a couple of players, including Canadian speedskating champion Mike Goodman, the Falcons took to the ice that winter. What happened next was rather unexpected.

It was a different road to get to the Olympics as Canada’s hockey team in 1920. A team had to win its province, and then challenge for Canada’s amateur championship, the Allan Cup. Immediately after the Allan Cup, the winners would travel to Antwerp for the Olympics.

The Falcons made it out of Manitoba, then traveled via train to Toronto for the Allan Cup matchup against the University of Toronto Blues. There wasn’t a lot of optimism among the Falcons about how it would go: They packed only enough clothes for a few days.

"They didn’t have the slightest idea they were gonna win," says Johannesson, now 79. The bookies got a "terrible hammering," he says, because Toronto was heavily favoured. "Well, the Falcons played like a machine, apparently," he says. "They played like a team, whereas the university students were a bunch of individuals." And so, the Winnipeg Falcons earned an Olympic berth. That a couple of their teammates weren’t there for the trip was never far from mind. "For the men on that team," Busby says, "Frank [Thorsteinson] wasn’t there, but he was the spirit of the team."

The city of Winnipeg and province of Manitoba each ponied up $500, and residents fundraised to get the team some clothes before they boarded the ship for Antwerp. The Canadian Olympic Committee had designated a manager and chaperone for the Falcons during the Games. The choice was perfect: A fellow named W.A. Hewitt, a man with a son named Foster whose voice would become synonymous with Canada’s game.

Since the U.S. team was weather-delayed, the Olympic tournament was reduced to six days in April instead of the planned 10. The Canadian team, an eight-man squad with just one sub, was billed by the newspapers as the favourite among the seven competing teams. Not only were they skilled hockey-wise, but they were tough. These guys grew up in Winnipeg in the 1900s. "The only team they really worried about was the Americans," says Johannesson, "because half the Americans were Canadian anyway."

Belgium, France, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, Sweden and Canada held practices as they waited for the Americans to arrive. That’s when a bit of panic set in among the European teams. Seeing the Canadians play, and because protection back then was virtually non-existent beyond skates and gloves, some found cotton, while others lined their shins with magazines. "They had never seen anybody play hockey like that," Johannesson says. "The Europeans played like unskilled gentlemen."

After watching their competition practice, the Falcons did the most unlikely of things: They started coaching the other teams. "We virtually trained the Swedes, Czechoslovaks, Belgians and French teams for their contests against us," Hewitt noted in the Manitoba Free Press.

It didn’t really help. Canada opened the tournament with a 15–0 win against the Czechoslovaks, and in the game report Hewitt noted: "The Canadians at no time exerted themselves."

The biggest sell of the Olympic tournament came when Canada met the U.S. in the semifinal. Newspaper reports say the Palais de Glace d’Anvers couldn’t accommodate even one-twentieth of the people who wanted to watch, as Canada defeated the U.S., 2–0.

Falcons goalie Wally Byron was in fact perfect at the Olympics until the final against Sweden on Monday, April 26. According to newspaper reports, the play leading up to the goal was so surprising to Byron "that he fell down" and Sweden scored. The prevailing thought among those who’ve studied these games: It was a set-up. "The Swedes were sort of allowed to score a goal," Johannesson says. One newspaper report even said the Swedish team said "thank you" to the Canadians, right after they scored. "There was a lot of sportsmanship involved," Byron says. Canada won the gold-medal game, 12–1.

There were parades and fanfare and gold watches following the win. But before they went home to Winnipeg, the Canadian players took tours of the battlefields of nearby Flanders. They saw the wreckage, much unchanged since several of them were last there, as soldiers. "Some of these guys were going back to places they personally recognized," Busby says. "It must have been very emotional."

Konnie never mentioned much about the war. He never talked much about the Olympics, either. A team picture was displayed in the front hall at home, and a couple of parade pictures hung upstairs. "Hockey was just something he’d done in his youth," Johannesson says. "It didn’t seem important at the time."

Stashed in the laundry cupboard of the family home, Johannesson found a scrapbook, collected by his mother, full of newspaper clippings detailing that first hockey-inclusive Olympics. Johannesson’s father’s Falcons jersey was tucked in a paper dry-cleaning bag.

"You know the one thing that’s always amazed me?" Johannesson says. "They hadn’t played for two years, since they’d been at war. They reorganized, and they had from November until April to become a winning team. This must’ve been quite a miracle."

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