OLYMPICS

Remember the Falcons

A Canadian saga of hockey angst and anger

Jonathon Gatehouse February 25 2002
OLYMPICS

Remember the Falcons

A Canadian saga of hockey angst and anger

Jonathon Gatehouse February 25 2002

Remember the Falcons

OLYMPICS

A Canadian saga of hockey angst and anger

Jonathon Gatehouse

A collection of mementoes from one of Canada's greatest hockey triumphs: cherished black-and-white photos, yellowed scrapbooks, a worn pair of leather skates, even a gold medal. It's an emotional tribute designed to inspire a select group of athletes at the Salt Lake City Games to bring new glory to their homeland—Iceland.

Still steaming over a perceived slight by Canadas hockey establishment, descendants of the Winnipeg Falcons, a team of mostly Icelandic immigrants who won Canada’s first Olympic hockey gold in 1920, have sent their family treasures to Utah for an exhibition with a pointed message. If Canada cant see fit to honour its hockey heritage, maybe someone else will. “You hate to see history distorted,” says Dr. John Fredrickson of Vancouver, son of Falcons’ captain Frank Fredrickson. “But people have short memories.”

At issue is the Canadian Hockey Association’s unveiling last August of a retrolooking jersey for the mens’ Olympic squad. Hoping a link with the glorious past might help Canada’s current hockey stars win gold for the first time in 50 years, the CHA chose an old-fashioned maple leaf logo based on the uniforms of the country’s second Olympic champions, the 1924

Toronto Granites. Falcon supporters (all the team members have passed on) call the move a slap in the face, just like the CHA’s subsequent explanation that it wasn’t clear whether hockey was a full or demonstration sport when it was played at the 1920 Summer Games. Dissatisfied with Team Canada’s decision to honour the Falcons by adding a sticker to players’ helmets for their game against Sweden on Feb. 15, the Winnipeg fans collected Falcons memorabilia to display at Iceland’s Olympic headquarters in Salt Lake. “The helmet is a little bit like the jockstrap, it’s a piece of protective equipment,” Fredrickson says dismissively.

Icelanders are a persistent people, as their 1,000-year commitment to a windswept Arctic island with lots of lava, but no arable land, attests. And the descendants of the thousands of Icelanders who migrated to Manitoba in the late 19th century are no less determined. The shoddy treatment the Falcons received from Winnipeg’s upper crust—Icelandic immigrants had to form their own hockey league because established teams refused to play Lutherans—is still a sore spot. Although the Falcons were hailed as hometown heroes when they returned victorious from the Games in

Antwerp, Belgium, their descendants are irked that few Canadians seem to remember the team. Some even sense a broader conspiracy in the sweater selection. “It’s a classic East versus West story,” says Ron Goodman, whose uncle Mike Goodman was a swift-skating forward. “Those damn Torontonians did it to us again.”

The “Falcons Forever” campaign, to collect artifacts and money for the Utah exhibition and a permanent museum in Gimli, Man., has galvanized the Icelandic community. And Bob Nicholson, president of the CHA, ruefully admits Team Canada’s new sweaters have been more newsworthy than he might have preferred. “But that’s hockey in this country, and that’s good because people really care,” he says. The controversy has spurred the team to make greater efforts to honour all six of Canada’s gold-medal-winning teams, he says. In addition to the helmet stickers, which will change each game, Canada’s opponents will receive commemorative pennants.

It all makes perfect sense in Canada, but the other party in this saga of hockey angst and anger is a bit nonplussed. The National Olympic Committee of Iceland is grateful for the nice display, but uncertain the six downhill skiers it sent to Salt Lake City can feel the magic. “Older people are aware of the Falcons, but I’m not sure the athletes are,” says Liney Halldorsdottir, head of Iceland’s elite sports. “I just know because I had read it in a book.” Jonathon Gatehouse