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

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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 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."

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

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