The “Winnipeg Falcons” Heritage Minute tells the story of a team of Icelandic-Canadians who served in the First World War before bringing home the very first gold medal in Olympic hockey.
The Winnipeg Falcons, a team of Icelandic-Canadian hockey players once rejected by their hometown league, won the very first gold medal in Olympic hockey in 1920. The triumph of the Winnipeg Falcons is a story of perseverance over adversity and of underdogs beating the odds.
The Winnipeg Falcons began as The Falcon Hockey Club, formed in 1909 when two rival teams from the Icelandic Athletic League combined. The Icelandic Athletic Club (IAC) and the Vikings, the only two teams in the league, formed in the late 19th century in response to the discrimination faced by Manitobans of Icelandic heritage who wanted to play competitive hockey. Though nearly all of the players were born in and around the Winnipeg area, the fact that their parents had come from Iceland meant they were perceived as foreigners by the predominantly Anglo-Saxon community. They were stigmatized to the point of not being welcome into the region’s mainstream leagues. Early success was difficult, but in 1911, the Falcons joined four other teams in the intermediate-level Manitoba Independent League.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, many players from the local Winnipeg hockey leagues enlisted to serve. By the spring of 1916, seven Falcons had enlisted in the 223rd Scandinavian-Canadian Battalion of the Canadian Army Regiment. After training for a year in Winnipeg and at Camp Hughes (near Carberry, MB), they left Halifax by ship for England in April 1917 to join the war effort.
Frank Fredrickson, the team’s Captain and Centre, trained pilots in Scotland until he was injured in a plane crash in 1918. Right Defenceman Konnie Johannesson served as a pilot in Egypt, and goaltender Wally Byron fought in the Battle of Amiens. Left defenceman Bobby Benson took part in a number of battles in France from the time he arrived on active duty until the war ended. Club President Hebbie Axford gained the rank of Captain in the Royal Air Force, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery.
Among the nearly 61,000 Canadians killed during the conflict were two early Falcons: Frank ‘Buster’ Thorsteinson and George Cumbers, best friends and players during the 1914 - 15 season, were separately killed in action in March 1918.
When the war was over, the serving Winnipeg Falcons returned home and the team was reformed. Of the enlisted Falcons players, four went on to win Olympic gold in 1920.This Heritage Minute explores the Falcons’ wartime experiences through flashbacks during an imagined locker room speech ahead of their gold-winning game.
In the 1919–20 season, the team was accepted into Winnipeg’s senior hockey league, from which they emerged as champions. This led to a Western Hockey Championship victory and an Allan Cup win that qualified the team as Canada’s Olympic entry to the Games in Antwerp, where ice hockey would make its Olympic debut. Technically speaking, the 1920 Antwerp Games were Summer Olympic Games, but they also included a week of winter sports prior to the summer events. The matches were played between April 23 and April 29, 1920, and also served as the first World Hockey Championships. All matches took place in the Palais de Glace d'Anvers.
Contemporary newspapers reported that the Canadians were welcomed warmly by the Belgians. The Falcons were the favourites of the European fans and they did not disappoint, rolling up a tally of 29–1 as they skated to the gold. This included a 15–0 win over Czechoslovakia, a hard-fought 2–0 win over the United States and a 12–1 decision over Sweden that completed the single-knockout tournament. In a show of sportsmanship, the Falcons gave their sticks to the Swedish team as a memento.
The newspapers referred to them as ‘the champions of the world’ and their victories and gold medal triumph were headline news across Canada. A Toronto Globe reporter likened their Olympic performance to the “gallantry of Canadian troops on Belgian soil in the defense of Ypres in the Great War.” When the victory was announced in the House of Commons, the Toronto Globe reported that the “entire House” responded with “enthusiastic applause”.
Upon their return home to Winnipeg in May 1920, the Falcons were given a hero's welcome. There was a nearly two-kilometre-long paradeof more than 200 cars, trucks and horse-drawn vehicles, and the city proclaimed a half-day holiday to celebrate the return of the champions. On May 22, 1920, a packed civic banquet was staged in their honour at the Fort Garry Hotel, where the city presented the team with gold watches. Winnipeg’s Icelandic people were exceptionally proud of the team’s achievements, and the Falcons told their fans that that their proudest moment after the gold-medal win was their welcome home by Winnipeggers.
A local paper also reported that the Falcons’ quick rise to supremacy at home and abroad prompted an about-face by high-ranking hockey trustees who apologized for their initial discrimination of the team, acknowledging in the Manitoba Free Press that “this wonderful team had placed Winnipeg at the top of the cities of Canada and had helped make Canada known among nations.” After the dream year that was 1920 for the team, the Falcons were in high demand by professional teams across the country. However, over time, the victory and the stories faded from the collective memory as the players moved on and eventually passed away.
In 2006, the Winnipeg Falcons were inducted into the Canadian Olympic Committee Hall of Fame. Visitors to The Hockey Hall of Fame can see Konnie Johannesson’s Olympic jersey, gold medal and a pair of his skates – all donated by his family – as part of a special Falcons display.
- Hebbie Axford – Jared Keeso
- Wally Byron – Jesse Collin
- Frank 'Buster' Thorsteinson – Ryan Irving
- George Cumbers – Dustin MacDougall
- Konnie Johannesson – Craig McCue
- Frank Frederickson – Jonathan Purvis
- Narrator – George Stroumboulopoulos