Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Canada put stamp on Olympic hockey in 1924

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Unlike the Sochi Winter Olympics, at the first Winter Olympics held in Chamonix, France, a village in the Alps from Jan. 25 to Feb. 4, 1924, there was no threat of terrorism, little security, no drug testing, limited newspaper coverage, and definitely no $50-billion budget.

There was, however, a similar distress about the mild weather. Four days before the competition was to start, the temperature in Chamonix was spring-like and the outdoor venues -- all sports including hockey and curling were played outdoors -- were slushy. Then, on Jan. 25, winter returned and it was clear, cold and crisp for much of the week.

At Sochi, an estimated 2,500 athletes representing 88 countries are participating; at Chamonix, there were only 258 athletes from 16 countries. Canada's 1924 contingent consisted of 13 members -- 12 men, of which 10 were on the hockey team, and one woman, Cecil Eustace Smith, 15, from the Toronto Skating Club.

The Chamonix games were not technically called the Winter Olympics in 1924; that retroactive recognition happened a year later. Though figure skating and hockey had been featured at earlier Summer Olympics, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to hold a separate "International Winter Sports Week" in 1924 in conjunction with the Paris Summer Olympics that were being held a few months later. Once the IOC decided to hold the Winter Olympics every four years (the winter games were held the same year as the Summer Olympics until 1994), Chamonix was re-designated "I Olympic Winter Games."

The Canadian team participated in only three events. Smith placed sixth, beating rising star Sonja Henie from Norway, who was only 11 years old, but within a few years became one of the world's greatest figure skaters. Melville Rogers from Ottawa ranked seventh in men's figure skating and speed skater Charles Gorman from Saint John, N.B., came in a collective fourth in the three competitions he skated in.

Canada did not participate in curling, played by three men's teams from Great Britain, which won the gold medal, France and Sweden. The sport was largely ignored after that, though it was played again in 1932. It was not until the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, that curling again achieved official Olympic status, and the first time that Canadians team competed and won medals.

Now & Then

In contrast, and in another constant over the decades, the one sport at the Chamonix games that Canadians excelled at and which captured the imagination of Canadians back home was men's hockey.

Hockey was first introduced at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium; the tournament, also recognized as the inaugural Ice Hockey World Championship, was held in April.

Until the 1990s, the Canadian team was represented by senior amateurs, the winner of the Allan Cup, and from 1963 to 1970 by Canada's National Team.

In 1920, the Allan Cup victors, the Winnipeg Falcons, won the tournament and gold medal in Antwerp; while in 1924 the country's best senior team was the Toronto Granite Club, which had captured the Allan Cup in 1922 and 1923.

The IOC and the other seven teams participating at Chamonix accepted the rules of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association with one exception: U.S. hockey officials demanded goalies had to stand throughout the games. No flopping was permitted, though photographs do show goalies down on one knee.

The Canadian team arrived in France a few days before the games were to start. They were impressed by the outdoor facilities. The rink, according to goalie Jack Cameron, was "twice the size" of the one at the University of Toronto.

In an article he wrote for The Canadian Press, Cameron commented about the large grandstands and iced snowbanks surrounding the ice, as well as the "loud" and "colourful" sweaters favoured by many of the 10,000 or so spectators who had descended on the village (213,000 spectators are expected at Sochi).

"Breeches and golf knickers, dominate both men's and ladies wear," he added. "High boots and shoepacks with loud-checkered and stripped golf socks are also in fashion."

One problem marred the good feelings almost immediately.

A day before the first matches were to be played, the Canadians skated onto the ice for a practice, which they believed had been approved. Within minutes, officials from Sweden, Finland and Norway complained the practice was in fact unauthorized and the Canadians were ordered off the ice.

Patrick J. Mulqueen, chairman of the Canadian Olympic Committee, was furious.

"I expected to find sportsmanship here but it does not exist," he said. "We have not been on the ice since we left Canada and now we are barred from a little practice because of Scandinavian protests." Mulqueen suggested Canadian athletes would not march in the opening parade, but that threat was withdrawn after an acceptable practice schedule was confirmed.

The U.S. men's hockey team came to Chamonix fearing only the Canadians, a valid concern.

The word "dominant" does not quite describe how the Canadians overwhelmed their three opponents in the round robin play. In three games, the Canadians outscored the other teams 85-to-0. In the game against the newly established country of Czechoslovakia, Canadian forward Harry Watson scored 11 goals in a 30-0 victory, and then a record-setting 13 goals two days later in a 33-0 rout of Switzerland. Because so much of the play in all of the games was spent in the other teams' end, goalie Jack Cameron frequently went for a leisurely skate near his net to keep loose.

The final match for the gold medal against the Americans was a bit closer and rougher. Journalists later called it, "the "hardest fought and swiftest hockey that Europeans had ever seen and were thrilled by the desperate stand made by the United States under the pressure of the better co-ordinated Canadian team."

When it was over, Canada had won the gold with a score of 6-to-1.

Canada's victories starting with the 1920 Ice Hockey World Championship and the 1924 Winter Olympics marked the beginning of 35 years of near Canadian supremacy. The return of the Soviet Union to the World Championships and the Olympics in the early 1950s changed all that and Canadian amateurs suddenly, and inexplicably from a Canadian viewpoint, found themselves facing a fierce adversary on the ice.

After taking the gold again at the 1952 Winter Olympics, Canada would not win another gold medal until its NHL stars did so at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002.

 

Now & Then is a column in which Winnipeg historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 7, 2014 A11

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