Monthly Archives: February 2018

When Olympic Hockey Began

Well, Canada is still alive for a medal in men’s hockey after a 1-0 quarterfinal win over Finland. With Germany upsetting Sweden, the path to a gold medal matchup against either Russia or the Czechs is a little bit easier. And on the women’s side, it’ll be Canada against the USA tonight in what promises to be a great game for gold.

The history of hockey at the Olympics predates the first Winter Games, which began in Chamonix, France in 1924. The first Olympic hockey tournament was held as part of a Spring Sports Festival prior to the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium.

Antwerp had bid to host the 1920 Olympics back in 1912, but no decision was reached before the outbreak of World War I. Shortly after the Armistice on November 11, 1918, the International Olympic Committee offered Antwerp the first choice to hold the Games in 1920 if the Belgians still wanted to do so. The move was seen as a way to honour the suffering of the Belgian people during the War. Belgium accepted.

Scenes
Antwerp was still full of soldiers in 1920, but the city was mainly in tact. The scene was much different when the Winnipeg Falcons, many of them war veterans, were given a tour of the Belgian countryside. All pictures are courtesy of Brian Johannesson, whose father Konnie Johannesson played for the Falcons. For more stories and images visit WinnipegFalcons.com.

On December 16, 1919, the official program and schedule for the Antwerp Olympics was announced. The bulk of the competition was slated for mid July until late September, but events would kick off in April with a hockey tournament. (Figure skating, which had previously appeared as part of the 1908 London Olympics, would later be added to the spring schedule.)

Canada was represented at the 1920 Olympic hockey tournament by the Winnipeg Falcons, winners of the Allan Cup as the country’s senior amateur champions. The United States sent an amateur all-star team made up of players from Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Boston. A few of the Americans were born and raised in Canada, but they’d played in the States for several years and become citizens after serving in the U.S. Army.

Falcons

National teams representing Belgium, France, Sweden, Switzerland and Czechoslovakia were also at the Antwerp Olympics, but everyone knew the gold medal would be decided when Canada faced the United States. Due to the luck of the draw and an unusual tournament format, this occurred in a semifinal game on April 25, 1920.

The big game (as all the games were) was played at Antwerp’s Palais de Glace. It was a beautiful arena, but it hadn’t been built for hockey. The ice surface was only about 185 feet long and 59 feet wide. It was normally used for pleasure skating and it’s unclear whether or not the arena actually had seats. It did have tables and chairs, and could accommodate about 1,600 spectators – as well as an orchestra!

Arena

Canada versus the United States was going to be the greatest hockey game ever played in Europe, and it was a tough ticket. W.A. Hewitt (father of Foster) was the sports editor of the Toronto Star and an officer of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (among many other jobs). He served as the honorary manager of the Falcons in Belgium, and sent special reports on the games to the Winnipeg Free Press. “The game proved such an attraction,” wrote Hewitt of the Canada-U.S. matchup, “that the Palais de Glace tonight was unable to accommodate one-tenth the number of people who sought admission.

“The streets in the neighborhood of the rink were crowded from 6 o’clock, although the game was not advertised to start until 9 o’clock.  The doors were finally closed about an hour before the match…. Special squads of soldiers were employed to get the players into the rink … [and g]entlemen in evening clothes on the outside implored the players to allow them to carry their skates and sticks so that they could obtain admission.

USA

“It would have been a great joke to his Winnipeg friends to have witnessed the entry of Monsieur Mike Goodman, escorted by a detachment of soldiers and three men in full evening dress and top hats, carrying his skates, stick and grip – and they all got way with it, too, as valets to ‘Monsieur le Canadienne.’”

For those who got inside, the night was definitely memorable. “No one will forget easily the Sunday evening at the Ice Palace where [Canada] battled against the United States,” reads a translation of a Belgian recap of the tournament. “A full house, agitated [and] feverish, so much the public was sensitive to the spectacle and the intelligence inspired by this show of force.”

Swiss
This image of the 1920 Swiss Olympic team is typical of what the European hockey
teams looked like. They’re dressed more like soccer players than hockey players.
The goalie is wearing a shirt and tie under his white sweater.

“I have never seen anything like this sports competition,” wrote a reporter for a Swedish newspaper. “Every single player on the rink is a perfect acrobat on skates. They jump over sticks and players with ease and grace. They turn sharply with perfect ease and without losing speed. They skate backwards just as easily as forwards. The small puck was moved at an extraordinary speed around the rink. The players fought for it like seagulls that flutter after bread crusts from a boat. The players attacked each other with a roughness that would have knocked you into the next week.”

The American team was supported by a number of USA army officers and their friends, but the Canadians were the crowd favourite. Belgian fans were impressed by the way the Winnipeg Falcons had taken time to work with the European teams. “One of the customs our boys instituted was to coach and assist all our opponents,” Hewitt wrote. The Canadians took it easy on the Czechs in a 15-0 win in the quarterfinals, whereas the Americans ran up a 29–0 score over Switzerland. “We tried to limit ourselves to 14 or 15 goals against the European teams,” Falcons captain and future Hockey Hall of Famer Frank Fredrickson would later say. “Believe me, it was difficult!”

Magazine
A recap of figure skating and hockey from the VIIth Olympiad in Antwerp in 1920.

The Americans were a strong team individually, but they weren’t a true team like the Falcons and that proved to be the difference in a 2–0 Canadian victory. “Their play was constantly more disciplined,” read the Belgian recap. “Never a single player looking for individual glory, these men, in their united action, playing their assigned and required places, never to the detriment of the overall play, a team success exceeding individual achievement.… These qualities ensured a brilliant triumph of Canada.”

The next night, Canada defeated Sweden to win the gold medal. The final score was 12–1. The only surprise was that the Swedes scored a goal. “They were without a doubt the best of the European teams,” Frank Fredrickson would say. “They were very friendly fellows and we liked them a lot. I guess it’s safe to say we gave it to them.”

In a very real way, the skill and sportsmanship the Winnipeg Falcons displayed in Antwerp in 1920 helped lay the foundation for the international game that hockey would become.

A Bit of a Heartbreak

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone … but we’re talking baseball today. Pitchers and catchers have reported to spring training, so no matter what the groundhog said (and, around these parts, I’ve always wondered why six more weeks of winter isn’t an early end) we know that summer can’t be too far away.

Still, the baseball news is sad for Canadian fans. After 36 years at the microphone for Toronto Blue Jays baseball on radio, Jerry Howarth announced his retirement yesterday. His health has not been great in recent years, and he just didn’t feel his voice could hold up over the long season anymore.

Thanks

Jerry didn’t have the “classic pipes” of a sports broadcaster, but he had a passion for baseball and wonderful way of telling stories. He always made the listener feel like they were part of every game he was calling. “Hello, friends.”

I was not a baseball fan before Toronto got its team in 1977. Tom Cheek, and later Jerry Howarth (he joined the team in 1981) certainly did their part to spread the Gospel of the Blue Jays to my brothers and me. My parents had loved the minor-league baseball Maple Leafs and we quickly came to love the Blue Jays in my family. All those 100-loss seasons in the early days didn’t dampen our enthusiasm at all. It was fun (and inexpensive!) to take in a game at the ballpark – even if Exhibition Stadium wasn’t much of a ballpark. Even in those early days, you could find a radio tuned into the game in almost every room in our house.

It’s funny, but here in Owen Sound, I can usually get the games on my car radio from anywhere in town … until I turn onto my own block. Can’t get the games on the radio in the house at all. So, I watch on television. I’m not the first to say this, but baseball is a perfect game for radio … and I haven’t been able to listen to Jerry as much as I’d have liked to in recent years. Now, I won’t get that chance anymore.

Tom
My father took this picture of the Blue Jays’ first broadcasting duo, Early Wynn and Tom Cheek, at a spring training game against the Phillies in Clearwater, Florida, in March of 1980.

It seems that no one has anything but nice things to say about Jerry Howarth. He’s widely regarded as a lovely person. I haven’t had a lot of experiences with him, but the ones that I’ve had certainly confirm that.

When I worked for the Blue Jays ground crew from 1981 to 1985, I always tried to hang around Tom and Jerry as much as I could get away with when they were on the field before games. I loved to listen to them telling stories. A few years later (it must have been the summer of 1987), when I was working for a small company called Digital Media, I was able to arrange for us to get the occasional press pass. The very first time I was on the field as a “reporter,” I re-introduced myself to Jerry. I doubt that he really remembered me, but he immediately marched me up to Jesse Barfield and set up a quick interview for us. He certainly didn’t have to do that, but that’s the kind of person Jerry Howarth is.

In 2001, when we published The Toronto Blue Jays Official 25th Anniversary Commemorative Book, I had a chance to be in the radio broadcast booth during a game to talk about the book. It was a thrill to be on the air with Tom Cheek, but I remember that when I was done, Jerry asked me quietly about my favourite parts of the book. I told him that while the Pennant-Winning and World Series years of 1985 to 1993 had, of course, been fun, my favourite story was something smaller. It came under the category titled “Oddities and Others” and was the story of the final game of the 1982 season.

Jesse

Until the baseball strike of 1981, even a diehard fan like me knew that the Blue Jays were terrible. Still, the team played better in the second half of 1981 and, with players like Willie Upshaw and Damaso Garcia, the outfield of George Bell, Jesse Barfield, and Lloyd Moseby, and platoon partners Rance Mulliniks and Garth Iorg and Ernie Whitt and Buck Martinez, we finally got a glimpse of the future in 1982. The team was 44–37 in the second half, and with a series-sweeping win over expansion cousins Seattle on the final day of the season, the Blue Jays  finished with nine wins in their last 12 games to escape last place for the first time in franchise history … sort of.

With a record of 78–84 in 1982, the Jay actually finished tied for sixth with Cleveland in the seven-team American League East. I can remember fans chanting “We’re Number Six!” in the stands after the game, and “Bring on the Indians!” knowing that we would beat them in this theoretically tiebreaking playoff and escape last place for real.

Attendance was only 19,064 (in my memory, the crowd was bigger … but not much) yet everyone stuck around to the end. When Jim Clancy finished up his complete-game victory, he was cheered off the field and threw his hat and his glove into the seats. Alfredo Griffin brought a bag of balls out of the dugout, and he and his teammates began tossing them to the fans too.

1982

There would be bigger celebrations in the years to come, but that one always felt special to me – a treat for the real fans. I can recall Jerry smiling as I reminded him off it. I don’t know what (or if) he remembered of it personally, but he certainly seemed to appreciate the story.

Best of luck wherever the future takes you, Jerry.

Your retirement certainly marks the end of an era.

Another Birthday Mystery…

Quick trivia question for you. Which goalie holds the NHL record for lowest career average? No tricks. It’s not someone who played one career game and managed a shutout. Is it Georges Vezina? George Hainsworth? Terry Sawchuk? Jacques Plante?

Nope. It’s Alec Connell.

In 12 seasons between 1924 and 1937, Connell posted a career average of 1.91. He also set an NHL record with six straight shutouts during the 1927-28 season in a scoreless streak that stretched 460 minutes and 49 seconds. It’s true he only played 417 games in his career (a top goalie today would reach that number in about seven seasons) and that he played during the lowest-scoring era in hockey history with only limited forward passing for some of that time. Still, somebody has to be the lowest, and Alec Connell is it.

Card

Tomorrow marks Connell’s birthday. (His given name was Alexander, with no apparent middle name, but whether he actually went by Alex or Alec is a whole other debate!) He’d be turning 118 years old. Probably. He might actually be turning 119. Or maybe only 116.

I know… You’ve heard these things from me before. Just recently, I wrote a little bit about Johnny Bower’s birthday mystery and I’ve written entire stories about the birth dates of Art Ross and King Clancy. But I hope you’ll indulge me one more time.

NHL records show that Alec Connell was born on February 8, 1902. That’s what the Hockey Hall of Fame has too. It’s what we had in the two editions of Total Hockey back in 1998 and 2000. I don’t have access to any of the earliest NHL Guides, but I think that’s a date we inherited from way back. My guess would be that at some point in the mid 1930s, when it seems the first efforts were being made to catalogue this type of information, Connell decided it might be advantageous to be a few years younger.

It’s said that Connell didn’t begin to play hockey until he was in the Canadian Army and training at Kingston, Ontario, during World War I. He couldn’t even skate, which seems odd for a boy of his era who grew up as part of an athletic family in Ottawa. Still, with his prowess at lacrosse it was thought he’d be a natural at hockey, and being a non-skater, who was also a catcher in baseball, goalie seemed the best position for him.

By 1920, Connell was back in Ottawa and would begin to put up impressive numbers with various teams in the amateur City League. In 1924, he turned pro with the Ottawa Senators and beat out Joe Ironstone (one of pro hockey’s first Jewish players) with an impressive training camp and a strong performance in two preseason games against the Calgary Tigers of the Western Canada Hockey League.

Clip Alec Connell’s debut with the Senators on November 24, 1924 earned a note
in the sub-headline and a cute cartoon in the next day’s Ottawa Journal.

Young and skilled, no one probably cared much about Alec Connell’s age at that point … and if someone had asked him, he might not have been sure of it himself! One thing seems pretty obvious, though. He was NOT born in 1902.

Connell must have been born by 1901 because he appears in the Canadian Census that year as the youngest of seven children in an Irish Catholic family. His birthdate is listed as 8 Feb 1900 and his age as 1.

1901

Ten years later, all seven Connell children are still living at home, but young Alex (as he’s listed) has aged 11 years and is now recorded as being born in 1899.

1911

His War records are equally confusing. He has a medical history that seems to show he enlisted in 1917, so he may well have chosen to lie about his age.

WWI 1917

Strangely, in an Attestation Paper apparently signed by him on October 7, 1918, (when he would have been of age) Connell’s date of birth is left blank.

1918

But in another Attestation Paper dated May 9, 1919, (which actually seems to be about the time that he was demobilized from the army) his birth date is recorded as 1899 February 8.

WWI 1919

(For those of you noting that his Trade or Calling is listed as “Chauffeur” and knowing that his nickname was “The Ottawa Fireman,” Connell didn’t actually join the Ottawa Fire Department until 1921. And he wasn’t really a fireman. He served for 29 years as Secretary to a succession of Ottawa Fire Chiefs.)

So, was Alec Connell born in 1899 or 1900? The best evidence points to 1900, although this birth certificate wasn’t actually filled out by his mother until 1919:

1919

Most convincing is the record of his baptism at St. Brigid’s parish in Ottawa, which occurred on February 12, 1900:

1900

Although it’s a little bit difficult to read, it says that Alexander Connell is the legitimate son of James Connell and Sarah Courneen, and that he was “born on the eighth inst.” Inst in this case being an abbreviation for the Latin instante mense, meaning a date of the current month.

So, happy 118th birthday Mr. Connell. And do you prefer Alec or Alex?