When Icelanders ruled the world

Saga of Canada’s first Olympic winners that nobody wanted

20.08.2010
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The Winnipeg Falcons, a team of Icelandic Canadians, brought home the first ever Olympic gold medals given in hockey in 1920. Photo: Hockey Hall of Fame

Iceland is famous for its stories about the emigration to the near-arctic island they call "saga". It also has its hockey saga of Icelandic men that won hockey gold for Canada and are said to be the only Olympic winners of Icelandic origin. (The only Olympic medals awarded to Iceland were one silver and two bronze medals, in track & field and judo.)

The story begins in the late 19th century and ends with the first Olympic ice hockey tournament in Antwerp in 1920.

A huge wave of Icelanders left the country in the second half of the 19th century. They fled from rough living conditions following the 1875 eruption of the Askja volcano that poisoned great tracks of land, making the recent ash cloud of the Eyjafjallajökull look like mere smoke from a frying pan.

Some 20,000 people – a quarter of the country back then – left Iceland. Many went to Canada, most to an area they named Nyja Island (New Iceland), a reserve the settlers were granted by the Canadian government on the shores of Lake Winnipeg.

The “West Icelanders” still exist. According to the 2006 census, almost 90,000 people with Icelandic roots live in Canada, 30,000 of them form one of the bigger minority groups in Manitoba. But with winters even colder than in Iceland, and racial prejudice, the new inhabitants didn’t have an easy beginning in Winnipeg.

The Icelanders brought with them traditions unfamiliar to Manitobans like their patronymic name system or their belief in elves and trolls, a language that is closest to how the old Vikings talked.

The first generation born in Canada often grew up in Icelandic fashion and didn’t speak English until going to school. For such kids like Hall of Famer Sigurdur Franklin “Frank” Fredrickson, fighting for acceptance in school was as hard as Manitoba’s winters.

And when the kids wanted to play ice hockey, they couldn’t join the established teams because they were simply not accepted. And when they founded their own teams, the Winnipeg Hockey League shut its doors.

The first Icelandic teams started with founding of the Icelandic Athletic Club in 1898. The IAC team in north Winnipeg soon started competition by founding a southern team, the Vikings. Ten years later the rivals merged under the name Winnipeg Falcons to join an independent league with teams from outside Winnipeg. But the league wasn’t recognized by the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association.

The status as a wild team changed for the 1919-1920 season, the CAHA decided that the winner of the new Manitoba Hockey League would play the winner of the established Winnipeg Hockey League to determine the Manitoba representative in the Allan Cup.

The Allan Cup is still the holy grail of amateur hockey in Canada and for many years it was used to determine the team that would represent Canada internationally. The Falcon team in 1920 still consisted, with one exception, of players of Icelandic decent, although all of them were born in Canada apart from the coach.

After defeating the Selkirk Fishermen for the Manitoba title, the Falcons eliminated the Fort William Maple Leafs to become the West champion. In the Allan Cup final, they beat the University of Toronto Varsity team in two games, 8-3 and 3-2 to earn a place in the 1920 Olympic Games.

After a long cruise to Europe, the Canadian Falcon team started with a 15-0 victory over Czechoslovakia before their toughest challenge in a 2-0 win against the United States. The gold medal game ended with a 12-1 win against Sweden.

There was no official MVP in those days, but if there had been one, captain Sigurdur Franklin “Frank” Fredrickson would probably have won the award, scoring 12 of Canada’s 29 goals – three more than Haldor “Hallie” Halderson.

The players that nobody wanted before, were welcomed home as heroes with a mile-long parade in Winnipeg. The press named the Icelandic Canadians ‘champions of the world’. Later the tournament was recognized as a world championship by the IIHF. Ice hockey and figure skating were the first winter sports to be included in the Olympic Games in 1920 and the success of the event was vital in creating a separate Olympic Winter Games and the IIHF World Championship.

Nearly all the players returned to Canada. Only Fredrickson stayed in Europe and worked as a pilot in Iceland before returning to Canada to play pro hockey. His name is engraved on the Stanley Cup with the Victoria Cougars (1925) and the Boston Bruins (1929). He was one of several members of the 1920 Olympic team who turned pro after winning the gold, but the only one inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, in 1958.

While Canada has its Hockey Hall of Fame to preserve history, Ice Hockey Iceland devotes part of its logo to the Winnipeg Falcons. The logo has a glacier and a volcanic eruption, but the main theme is a red Icelandic Falcon in the background that was chosen to honour the Winnipeg Falcons. The fire of the eruption is maple leaf-shaped to underline the connection to Canada’s hockey history.

The saga of Fredrickson and the other Icelandic men can be used as a demonstration of devotion that helped overcome hurdles.

To follow: Part II – Iceland’s late love for ice hockey.

MARTIN MERK

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