Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Golden boys

Their Icelandic heritage kept the 1920 Falcons out of Winnipeg's exclusionary hockey leagues, but it couldn't stop them from winning the first-ever Olympic championship for our home and native land

  • Print

The idea that Winnipeg's new NHL team in 2011 might have been called something other than Jets was real.

Was Falcons the favourite? Likely not. Still, it may well have been the best fit of all, based on the story of the very first Olympic gold-medal-winning squad, all but one of them castoffs of Icelandic heritage from then-mainstream Winnipeg.

Were those 1920 Falcons and the new Jets underdogs to do what they did? Maybe not in the final chapter of the story, but considering the entire picture of each, absolutely.

Overcoming rejection as part of their history? In spades.

Getting things done the right way, with class and dignity? Two peas in the same pod.

Icelandic community pride does not live or die on the selection of a name for an NHL team, thankfully.

"I was quite elated when it was mentioned, but I knew I wouldn't hold my breath," said Brian Johannesson, whose father Konnie was a member of the 1920 gold-winning squad. "The NHL can be quite unpredictable, to put it politely."

"That would have been a great way to honour the team and a legacy that was established so long ago," said Gimli-born Winnipeg resident Dan Johnson. "But the notion of it didn't come to be. I know people wanted the Jets."

The genesis of the Falcons' entry into Olympic and hockey history stretches back to the 1890s, probably a little too far back to give it much volume in the public's hue and cry regarding the choice facing True North Sports and Entertainment in 2011.

Long ago in Manitoba, players of Icelandic heritage didn't have the option of being included in regular hockey leagues in the region, so they created their own opportunity, the club that came to be known as Falcons.

"Our history isn't well known -- very little about these fellows and what they went through to get where they did," Johnson said. "It wasn't easy for them.

"But there's no less a sense of a terrific sense of pride about their story. Like a lot of immigrant groups, their language and their culture and their activities were private affairs.

"But one of their main objectives was to be Canadians."

After the First World War, several of the key members of the team returned home and put the team back together.

The sum of the parts was impressive. In a difficult road to representing Canada, the Falcons faced stiff challenges. They defeated the Selkirk Fishermen to earn Manitoba's bragging rights. They dispatched the Fort William Maple Leafs to claim the Western Hockey championship. And they prevailed -- fairly easily, we might add -- over the favoured University of Toronto club to emerge as Canada's Olympic entry in Antwerp, Belgium.

Favoured at the Games, the Falcons didn't disappoint, assembling an aggregate of 29-1 in sailing to gold -- a story, if newspaper clippings of the day are the measure, that captivated the country.

But after 1920, the memories began to fade. The players died, their stories and families scattered across the country.

The memories had just about vanished, until Hockey Canada, determined to celebrate some of the nation's illustrious hockey history prior to Salt Lake City's 2002 Games, lighted the spark that brought the Falcons story back to life.

Due mainly to the accepted premise but factual vacuum that hockey was simply a demonstration sport in 1920, Hockey Canada chose to honour the Toronto Granites of 1924 as the first gold-medal winners in hockey. That plan required a mid-course correction, given the truth and the uproar.

"I remember one woman in Gimli got very upset about it, told everyone what was happening was just nonsense and that they had better get their facts straight," said Johnson, a member of the Falcons Forever committee that had already been plotting ways to revive the Flacons' accomplishments.

"I think Hockey Canada was caught off-guard by it all, but they came on board quickly and made the correct adjustments... This brought the Falcons back into the limelight, which was terrific because they were ignored for so long."

Johannesson, who began building the thorough www.winnipegfalcons.com website in 1999, credited Hockey Canada officials for quickly righting the wrong.

"I was very pleased that I wasn't going to have to go and start shooting people," Johannesson said with a laugh. "(Hockey Canada president) Bob Nicholson was so very co-operative. I sent him a couple of emails and got very nice replies. He realized that somebody had blundered and he was going to fix it."

Since that episode, the Falcons Forever committee and team offspring and relatives have done some determined work not to let history repeat itself.

Johannesson's Falcons website is rich with documents and original reporting, and the committee was instrumental in creating a physical tribute to the team that exists in the concourse of Winnipeg's MTS Centre, the home of the new Jets.

"We met with Mark Chipman, who was really supportive," Johnson said. "And we were able to raise enough money to get it done. The whole thing, to me, was so very strange, a lot of it just because nobody had really done their homework. It was nice to finally get this fixed and also get the proper recognition in the Hockey Hall of Fame."

To that end, before the uproar, a small 8x10 photo of the Falcons was all the credit that existed in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Now there is much more, including Konnie Johannesson's jersey, his gold medal and a pair of his skates.

"There's always been this fuss that we should put something about the Falcons in the museum in Gimli," Brian Johannesson said. "But my focus was that they get 1,000 people a year, and the Hockey Hall of Fame gets more than 1,000 a day, so that's why I put the jersey in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto."

So the story grows again and the idea of that in the last 10 to 15 years has intensified Johnson's passion on behalf of the Icelandic community.

"They were the forgotten team, such a wonderful group of men that represented the province and the country so well," he said. "They're something to be proud of."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Winnipeg Falcons

What: First winners of a gold medal in hockey at the Olympic Games

Where: Antwerp, Belgium

When: April 1920

Who: The players were Bobby Benson, Wally Byron, Frank Fredrickson, Chris Fridfinnson, Mike Goodman, Hallie (Slim) Halderson, Konnie Johanneson, Allan (Huck) Woodman. Woodman was the only team member not of Icelandic heritage. Other key members of the Falcons club and team included president Hebbie Axford, trainer Gordon Sigurjonsson, secretary-treasurer Bill Fridfinnson, manager/coach Fred (Steamer) Maxwell and Olympic team manager W.A. Hewitt (Foster Hewitt's father).

Olympic results: Canada defeated Czechoslovakia 15-0, the U.S. 2-0 and Sweden 12-1 in the single-knockout tournament.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2012 J16

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Lindor Reynolds speaks candidly about life with terminal cancer

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Marc Gallant/Winnipeg Free Press. Local- Korea Veterans Association stained glass window at Deer Lodge Centre. Dedication with Minister of Veterans Affairs Dr. Rey Pagtakhan. March 12, 2003.
  • MIKE.DEAL@FREEPRESS.MB.CA 100615 - Tuesday, June 15th, 2010 The Mane Attraction - Lions are back at the Assiniboine Park Zoo. Xerxes a 3-year-old male African Lion rests in the shade of a tree in his new enclosure at the old Giant Panda building.  MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

View More Gallery Photos

  • Africa edition

    Africa is one complex and gloriously unmanageable 'theme' to choose to kick off our 2012 series, Our City Our World, which is why it took up the whole newspaper on Jan. 18.

  • China edition

    Hard-working Chinese immigrants, once banned, have risen to the highest echelons of Manitoba.

  • Germany edition

    German immigrants have played a surprisingly large role in the development of the province.

  • Iceland edition

    Arriving in Manitoba in the 1870s unprepared for a brutal winter, Icelandic settlers and their descendants have left their mark on our province.

  • Italy edition

    Industrious Italians rose from peasant roots and adapted to Canadian society by mastering L’art d’arrangiarsi (the art of getting by).

  • Latin America edition

    It used to be the only time Prairie folks met Spanish-speaking people was when they vacationed down south. More often now, they're the people next door.

  • Middle East edition

    When the first Middle East families immigrated to Manitoba, mosques were unheard of and even yogurt was exotic. But now all that has changed.

  • Philippines edition

    A booming Filipino community nearly 60,000 strong has transformed Manitoba.

  • South Asian edition

    As the city's Indo-Canadian population experiences dramatic growth, its pioneers recall their warm Winnipeg welcome.

  • Ukraine edition

    Scarred by Holodomor, the Ukrainian community helped shape Winnipeg's cultural mosaic.

  • United Kingdom edition

    Manitoba's history is built on a foundation provided by settlers from the U.K., who came here seeking better lives.

Related Items

Poll

Do you support Pimicikamak First Nation's protest against Manitoba Hydro?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google