One Ottawa hockey legend tipped his cap to another, during a moving ceremony to honour Canadian war veterans.
In front of more than 200 people at the Canadian War Museum on Sunday, retired Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson read a 1916 letter of condolence from Frank McGee’s commanding officer to his family in Ottawa.
The legendary ‘One-Eyed’ Frank McGee was a standout player for the Ottawa Silver Seven at the turn of the century. The Silver Seven owned the Stanley Cup, then a challenge trophy, from 1903-06. In one particular game, against Dawson Creek, McGee scored 14 goals. Eight times he scored five or more goals in a game.
A prolific scorer despite losing the vision in his left eye in 1900 from getting hit with a puck, McGee retired from hockey in 1907, at age 25. McGee hailed from a prominent Canadian family. His uncle, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, had been a Father of Confederation. McGee’s father, John, was clerk of the Privy Council.
Frank McGee worked for the Department of Indian Affairs and was keen to join the war effort, despite his visual limitations. He tricked medical examiners into believing he had good vision, as Alfredsson explained to the War Museum audience
"They needed people (for the war)," Alfredsson said in an interview with Sportsnet.ca Monday. "I don’t know how strict doctors were at that time."
McGee’s nephew, Frank Charles McGee, said his uncle tricked the army doctor by covering his blind eye to read the chart. Then, when told to cover the other eye, he switched hands, rather than switching eyes.
McGee enlisted in the military in the spring of 1915 and fought in World War 1 with the 43rd Regiment (Duke of Cornwall’s Own Rifles) as a lieutenant in the 21st Infantry Battalion. McGee was wounded by a shell blast and had the option of recuperating his knee injury away from the action, but chose to return to his battalion and died at age 36 on Sept. 16, 1916 in the Battle of the Somme.
Alfredsson read the letter from commanding officer Lt.-Co. Alfred Jones to McGee’s family:
"I have intended writing to you ever since Frank left us, but I have had a great deal to do. This is my only excuse. Frank only came back to me two days before we went over on the morning of the 15th of September. During that day I lost every officer save one. And in the early morning of the 16th, Frank brought up 50 men to hold the line and push on past Courcelette.
"He reported to me and I put him in command of my first line. He knew what it meant, and he laughed as he went into it. He took most of his men through and reached the front trench. I had a message from him there telling me his disposition and that he would gather up more men and push on.
"He had to go up under extraordinary shellfire. He then came back and was gathering men up there for another attack when he was killed.
"I need not tell you what he was like under shellfire because know better than I could write. But his bravery always inspired the men under him.
"When he was with me first, I had learned to rely on him. But in the Somme, during his few hours there, he was wonderful. I can’t tell you more. He was buried where he fell and where so many of my battalion lie. If I come home, I will be able to tell you more. But it’s harder writing than you can know."
As Alfredsson explained to his audience, the remains of McGee were never recovered.
Speaking to Sportsnet on Remembrance Day in Ottawa, Alfredsson said he was first contacted by organizers of the Letters in a Time of War event this past summer.
"I didn’t really know what it was about, but it caught my eye," Alfredsson said, "so I said yes."
Alfredsson said he had his head down for most of the reading and wasn’t cognizant of the crowd reaction, but said the reaction afterwards was "very positive."
Other letters were read by soldiers, journalists and wartime nurses.
"Some of the readers had personal connections to people in the war," Alfredsson said. "It was really well done."
As always on and around Nov. 11, remembering our war veterans is a reminder of how blessed we are to live in a time of relative peace.
"There is no question," Alfredsson says. "You do go into a kind of battle in hockey and contact sports, but this really puts into perspective that it is really just a game. It’s not life and death.
"We live in very fortunate times and it’s important to remind ourselves it hasn’t always been that way. My generation has been but we want to make sure (a world war) doesn’t happen again so future generations can have the peaceful times we have."
Speaking on McGee, Alfredsson said he was awed by his bravery and athletic prominence, including in other sports like lacrosse and football.
Alfredsson, whose No. 11 was retired by the Ottawa Senators in December of 2016, gets to a lot of arenas these days but the Canadian Tire Centre is not one of them.
With his brother, Henric, Daniel coaches an Ottawa Sting minor hockey team that includes Alfredsson’s 13-year-old son Louie. Daniel and Bibbi Alfredsson have four sons.
In late December, the Alfredsson brothers will be taking their Minor Bantam Sting AA team to Sweden for a year-end tournament.
"It will be a lot of fun," Alfredsson says.