Canada has won gold in Men's hockey eight times throughout history. Despite the Soviet Union dominating from 1956 to 1991, this still makes Canada the winningest country at the Olympics. Going back through Olympic hockey history you can learn many obscure facts, like for example, did you know that the British won gold in 1936? I'm not kidding, look it up. Canada won silver that year, which means Canada has been bested by the British in hockey. Go figure. Oh, and also, hockey was then part of the summer Olympics. Still not kidding, look it up.
Early Olympic hockey followed a different format than the current edition. It was actually kind of silly. Upon the introduction of ice hockey to the Olympics at the 1920 games in Antwerp, the tournament began with immediate elimination play. The tournament had a "Gold Medal Round" featuring all competing teams. Canada took on the Czechs, The U.S. took on the Swiss, and the Swedes faced Belgium. NHL players were not involved in the Olympics back in the day so the Winnipeg Falcons, Canada's best amateur team, earned the right to represent their country.
The Gold Medal round began with a series of drubbings. Canada thumped the Czechs 15-0, the USA demolished the Swiss 29-0, and the Swedes took down Belgium 8-0. There was also a team from France, which received a bye into the semifinals, for reasons I have not been able to ascertain. In any case, Sweden beat France 4-0 to eliminate them, and the Falcons handled the Americans by a score of 2-0 to advance to the gold medal game against Sweden. Canada then destroyed the not-yet-powerhouse Swedes 12-1 to win the first ever hockey gold.
But that didn't mean Sweden got the silver medal. The format was that the three teams defeated by Canada en route to gold would play off for the silver medal. The Czechs, for whatever reason, got a bye, and the Americans thumped the Swedes 7-0 and then the Czechs 15-0 to take the silver. Then the bronze medal was a playoff between the three remaining teams beaten by either the U.S. or Canada. The Czechs in the end edged out Sweden 1-0 to take the bronze. The huge shocker for me is that the format allowed for you to make it to the gold medal game, and still leave without a medal at all.
Now let's talk about the Winnipeg Falcons for a minute. They were a team founded in 1911 primarily composed of Icelandic Canadians who were kept out of other area teams due to ethnic prejudice. By 1919-1920, they were part of the Manitoba Hockey League, and won the Allan Cup as the best amateur team in Canada. Hockey teams were not as numerous then as they are now. The Falcons iced a team consisting of one goaltender and seven skaters. They were: Walter Byron (G) Robert Benson (D) Konrad Johannesson (D) Allan Woodman (Rover) Haldor Halderson (F) Magnus Goodman (F) Chris Fridfinnson (F) and Frank Fredrickson (F, Captain.)
You can hear the Icelandic heritage of the team simply by reading the names. While they weren't NHLers when they won gold, some of these guys actually did make it to the NHL eventually. Robert Benson spent time with the Montreal Maroons and Boston Bruins. Frank Fredrickson was an NHL journeyman, playing seven seasons with the Detroit Cougars, Boston Bruins, and Pittsburgh Pirates. Haldor Halderson spent two seasons in the show, playing for the Detroit Cougars and the Toronto Maple Leafs, although they were still the St. Pats when he played there.
Obviously this team was world class. They put up 29 goals while allowing only three en route to Olympic glory. It was a team comprised mainly of guys who were exiled from other teams because their parents weren't born in Britain or Canada. Every single player was born in Manitoba, yet they had to create their own team just to be involved in the sport. It's inspiring that they did this, and went on to win the first ever Olympic tournament in the sport, for a country that initially tried to reject them. I salute each and every one of them as Canadian heroes.
Canada won six of the first seven Olympic gold medals in hockey before the Soviets took over for a while. The Soviets had a better system, and most of their players weren't coming over to North America in that time period. The reason America calls it the miracle on ice is because a bunch of college kids defeated what could be loosely compared to Team Canada's current roster. It was a miracle that they should be proud of.
The gold medal has been awarded 23 times in the sport of hockey. Of those 23 medals, Canada and the Soviet Union hold 15 combined. We are decidedly the dominant nations in history, which should suffice to explain our lofty expectations that come around every four years.
Andrew recently wrote an article explaining that gold for Canadians is a relief. We are in my opinion the top contender every time because we farm the best talent. Now, things have changed drastically since 1920. I would never expect our team to hammer the Czechs 15-0. The chances of the USA putting up 29 goals on Jonas Hiller are definitely nil, and I really don't see how we would put up 12 against Sweden unless they decided to only ice four skaters. It's not that Canada's getting worse, it's that the sport caught on in other countries over the years, and they want to compete with us. It's a good thing, because now we get a bit of a challenge.
The history of Canadian hockey at the Olympics is fascinating. You have initial dominance that lasts for seven tournaments over 32 years, and then a 50 year drought where the Soviets dominated. The NHL joining the Olympics in 1998 meant that we got to ice the absolute best team that we could imagine, including the greatest player to ever lace up. The Soviets are gone, it's just Russia now and we have Gretzky, sure thing right? But he doesn't shoot in the shootout and Dominik Hasek leads the Czechs to gold, leaving Canada in despair. I was eight years old, so you can't make fun of me for saying that I cried for a week.
Then you have the return to glory in 2002, thwarting the would-be second coming of the miracle on ice, in the same place it happened in 1980. Follow that with the enormous question mark that was the suckfest in Turin, and Canadians are back to wondering if we really are the best. Then the home ice triumph that had this Canadian in a different type of tears than he was in 1998. Are we back? I think so, but we'll have to wait to find out.
We spent 32 years as simply superior to every other nation, then we spent 50 years icing an inferior roster than that we could, unable to top the Soviets. Now we can have that 150 million dollar roster and we expect nothing less than victory. Anything less is sheer disappointment. In the words of Andrew Berkshire: Is it any wonder that the first emotion that Canadians feel when wins do come is relief, then joy?