Former RCAF Flyer remembers his Olympic win

News Article / August 8, 2016

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By Alexandra Baillie-David

There are many things that Alzheimer’s disease has taken away from former Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Flyer Ted Hibberd, such as the once-familiar faces of his family and friends, and memories going back to his young adulthood. But there’s one thing the 90-year-old Ottawa native has always remembered: his gold-medal win at the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

Hibberd, 90, was recruited as one of only two players without previous military experience (a third civilian, goaltender Dick Ball, failed his medical and could not travel overseas with the team). Hibberd and Pete Leichnitz had been too young to enlist during the Second World War, but were selected because the Flyers needed talented amateur players. They were enrolled in the RCAF and became instant Aircraftmen First Class.

Before their time with the RCAF, Hibberd and Leichnitz played with the New Edinburgh Burghs of the Ottawa Senior League. Two players who were former members of the air force and one who was a former army member also came from the Burghs.

Hibberd was a forward and, standing at 1.67m, was speedy and agile – just the kind of player the Flyers needed.

The Flyers’ legacy

Although the Flyers beat Switzerland 3–0 in the final game, their road to victory had not been easy, nor was it even expected.

Initially, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA) was not going to send a hockey team to the Olympics, a decision some felt was “anti-Canadian”. Recent changes to the International Olympic Committee’s rules had placed strict limitations on who was considered amateur enough to compete, and CAHA did not have a team that qualified. That is, until Squadron Leader Sandy Watson, a senior RCAF medical officer and hockey fanatic, made a strong case for the Flyers. He managed to persuade the CAHA that the team, the Allen Cup winner in 1942, was a capable alternative. 

However, many Canadians were unsure of this last-minute team of RCAF airmen. It was clear from a number of devastating losses in December 1947 that, despite the individual skill of each player, a sense of morale was lacking among the team members. With the Olympics little more than a month away, the CAHA decided that recruiting more players from a civilian team would give the Flyers the best chance at winning. Within a few weeks of recruiting the five players from the Burghs, the team was on its way to Switzerland.

The Flyers brought home the gold after a tense final game against the Swiss in February 1948. Despite the skepticism of many back home, this team of 17 airmen proved that they could fly across the ice as well as they could fly in the skies.  

Now, nearly 70 years later, the Flyers’ legacy is still being honoured. For Hibberd’s 90th birthday on April 22, 2016, his family bought him a vintage Flyers jersey as a birthday present to celebrate one of the proudest moments of his life.

“He looked at it and recognized the jersey right away,” said Tim Schofield, who is married to Hibberd’s granddaughter. “He still has strong memories of his glory days playing for the Flyers. He liked the camaraderie between the players, something different from a normal hockey team.”

*1948 Winter Olympics photographs courtesy of the Hubert Brooks private collection.

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