RCAF Flyers wrote Olympic history

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News Article / February 7, 2014

By Vic Johnson

The Air Force won gold in February 1948 when the RCAF Flyers hockey team triumphed at the Olympic Winter Games held in St. Moritz, Switzerland. They had not been expected to win anything and in fact were a bit of an embarrassment to some.

After all, they were current and ex-Air Force members, along with some Army colleagues, who just happened to play hockey in their spare time! But the Flyers surprised everyone and proved that the old Air Force adage of “max flex” means you can do just about anything in the line of duty.

The 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, begin today. But let’s take a moment to turn the clock back to 1948.

By 2008, 60  years after their spectacular Gold Medal win at the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland, the surviving members of the Royal Canadian Air Force Flyers hockey team had faded into obscurity for most people.

Following their stunning victory in post-war Europe on February 8, 1948, the underdog team was disbanded– the players returning to their previous duties – and oblivion.

Although they were inducted into the Canadian Armed Forces Sports Hall of Fame in 1971, as the years passed, they were forgotten by nearly all Canadians.

Except for the military hall of fame, ”the Flyers were never made part of any Canadian Halls of Fame for sports, hockey or the Olympics, nor were any of the players, said Ottawa author Pat MacAdam, author of a 2007 book on the 1948 games entitled Gold Medal ‘Misfits’.  

That’s in contrast to Canada’s sweetheart figure skater, Barbara Ann Scott, who also took Gold at the same games, then went on to great fame as a skating superstar. The Barbara Ann Scott doll became a must-have for any young girl in the early 1950s. 

The genesis of the RCAF Olympic team was a bold initiative by Squadron Leader A. Gardner “Sandy” Watson, a senior medical officer at RCAF Headquarters in Ottawa and a hockey fanatic. Upon learning that Canada could not field an “amateur enough” team to meet the new stringent guidelines for the 1948 games, persuaded his superiors that the RCAF could do it – but on a shoestring budget. He caught the attention of chief of the air staff, Air Marshal Wilf Curtis and the rest, as they say, is history.

From a lacklustre start, and a string of losses in exhibition home games, this ragtag assortment of “misfits” gathered from bases across Canada was panned by all the major media. The Ottawa Citizen editorialized: “The decision to retain as Canada’s Olympic entry a weak RCAF team which is tied for last place in the Ottawa Senior League will be greeted with dismay from across Canada.”

The final team was still being drafted hours before their departure from New York aboard the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth. But once in Switzerland they would soon jell into a dynamic force to be reckoned with.

Here’s how the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame describes their feat on their website: “At only the fifth Olympic Winter Games ever, the Flyers reeled off six straight victories before registering a scoreless tie with heavily-favoured Czechoslovakia. In their final game against the host Swiss team, a win by two or more goals ensured the team a gold medal. In a hostile environment, the Flyers rode 22-year-old goaltender Murray Dowey to a 3-0 shutout win. Dowey . . . finished the tournament with five shutouts in eight games.”

During their overseas tour, which included a series of exhibition games seen by some 250,000 people, the team racked up a record of 31 wins, five losses and six ties.

A famous photograph of a joyous Barbara Ann Scott being hoisted on the shoulders of team mates Ab Renaud and Reg Schroeter became the iconic image of the 1948 Games.

The Flyers returned to a heroes’ welcome on April 6, 1948, and were met at Ottawa’s Union Station by a delegation of VIPs that included Governor-General Viscount Alexander. They were then escorted in a motor cavalcade of Buick convertibles through the streets of the city to a welcoming luncheon at the old RCAF Beaver Barracks, and they attended a series of receptions over the next week.

Now fast forward exactly 60 years to the day of their winning Olympics game. On Friday, February 8, 2008 an assemblage of some 200 “friends of the Flyers” gathered at the hall of Ottawa’s St. Anthony’s Soccer Club to honour two of the eight surviving Flyers at a noon luncheon.

Ab Renaud of Ottawa and André LaPerrière of Montreal were there to accept replica gold medals from the president of Hockey Canada. Following the presentation, Michael Chambers, president of the Canadian Olympic Committee announced that the team would finally be inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in Calgary on April 12, 2008.

The two Flyers team mates were then presented with replica team jerseys by Dean Black, executive director of the Air Force Association of Canada, on behalf of the association, to wear while dropping the puck for the next evening’s NHL hockey game between the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Canadiens.

It was a fitting outcome to 60 years of public indifference, and a great tribute to an amazing group of amateurs who took on the world – and won.

With files from the official Canadian Olympic Team website. Master Warrant Officer (retired) Vic Johnson was a Canadian Armed Forces photographer and is former editor of Airforce magazine.  

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