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(BRIAN BAHR/Getty Images)
(BRIAN BAHR/Getty Images)

Stephen Smith

The secret to Olympic hockey gold Add to ...

The Winnipeg Falcons went to Antwerp in 1920 aboard a ship called the Melita and, when they disembarked, what they did was win hockey gold at the Olympics. Of course. I mean, obviously. That's what Canadian hockey teams do, Olympicly. What's the secret? Apart from skating faster, passing better, scoring ridiculously good goals? Our superior grit, not to mention our pluck. Spy inside our hearts and that's what's there, grit, pluck, gumption - circulating with the, you know, regular blood. It's what wins us hockey gold - that, and because we're Canadian and nobody else is.

Or so we thought. History doesn't necessarily agree. That's history's job: to complicate what seemed so straightforward. History sees a glass of water on the counter and has to dump in a big spoonful of flour, and stir.

I'm not saying those 1920 Falcons weren't great. Or the Toronto Granites from 1924. I have only respect for the senior teams that used to defend our national honour at all those old Olympics and world championships. Belleville McFarlands! Vees and Sea Fleas, Eaters of Trail Smoke! Hats off to you all. Great work, Whitbyites, Lethbridgers, Pentictonavians!

Trounced is the word the newspapers used in 1920 to describe our 15-0 victory over Czechoslovakia - a good word, deriving from the Middle English for bouncing mercilessly next to someone on a trampoline until they fall down and still you won't stop, even when they say please. We've done a lot of that over the years, bamboozling Hungarians and shamwowing Austrians. Early Olympic hockey looks like we were punishing all the novice hockey nations guilty of the crime of loving our game, wanting to learn from us, be like us.

Not so. The Falcons ran clinics for their opponents, tutoring before they trounced. In 1924, the Granites schooled the Swiss in the principle that, if you let us score 33 goals while notching none for yourself, that's truly embarrassing for you.

Tough love? Remember, hockey was really the only imperialism we had available to us for a long time. Plus, did we have a choice? "We weren't trying to rub it in," an early Canadian official explained. "They would never improve if we played down to their level." Exactly. We also realized that, to be triumphing properly, we needed verbs that reflected the magnificent margins of our whompings. This took a while, mostly because our inbred northern reserve wouldn't let us be sore winners.

Topple, scuttle, stun: All the vanquisher verbs we now take for granted have roots in early Olympic hockey. Useful rules of thumb: Verbs associated with fairy-tale ogres marauding through upland villages also work for big hockey victories, e.g. smash, crush, quash. The contractor renovating your basement is a good guide, too: hammer, plaster, shellac. Culinary terms don't really translate, which is too bad, considering the satisfaction involved in saying words such as fricassee and spatchcock .

What would be great would be if these Olympics were decided on merit, and our alloy of Crosbys, Iginlas and Brodeurs provided all the mettle we'd need. But after nearly a century of sending teams to worldly tournaments, we know there's a four-part formula that decides these things. Without the other three determinants - nautical, nominal and botanical - there's only so far the hockey can carry us.


This one is pretty obvious. Who believes that the 1920 Falcons could have won without Canadian Pacific's Melita to ship them to Belgium? Where would they have been without it? Saint John is where. The ship's carpenter is supposed to have carved the sticks they wielded in Antwerp, which is pretty great if true.

I guess the Granites could have steered overland to Chamonix in 1924. They probably would have been better for it, in terms of bonding and generally toughening up as they trekked the sea ice between Alaska and Siberia, along the Silk Route, quick left at Damascus, and straight on through via the Appian Way and the Path of Righteousness. Instead, they boarded the Montcalm.

How much does the quality of the crossing matter? It's true that the 1936 Port Arthur Bearcats had a terrible time getting to the Nazi Olympics aboard the Duchess of Atholl, a.k.a. the Rocking Duchess, puking out so much Canadian pluck that they lost the gold to Britain. Medically speaking.

Still, of the seven golds we've won, teams travelling by air account for as few as those catching the train: a paltry one each. When we've gone big and waterborne, we've won five. The numbers don't lie: Our winningest way to the Olympics has smokestacks and ring buoys to toss in case of goalie overboard.


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