Great Britain has competed in every Winter Olympics since they started in 1924, and much as though I enjoy watching it I would be the first to admit that we’re not the most successful of winter sports nations. You could, of course, argue that given the relative lack of world-class winter sports facilities in the British Isles (even the annual British skiing championships have to be held in the French Alps), Team GB has actually been punching above its weight, with the last time we failed to win any medals at all being in 1992.
A particular national success has been the skeleton (or, as I call it, the going-down-the-ice-head-first-on-a-tea-tray event), in which the British have won a medal every time this has been an Olympic sport; thanks to Lizzie Yarnold, that record is safe for another four years. This is rather appropriate, as skeleton has its origins in the famous Cresta Run in St Morritz, which was built in the 1880s in order to stop British guests in the town from sledging (or, if you prefer, tobogganing) in the streets. Unlike everyone else, the British preferred to go head-first – the point at which skeleton and luge diverged.
Other winter sports in which Great Britain has tended to do well are curling (in which the Scottish team competes under the Union Jack), figure skating and the bobsleigh. In fact, prior to Jenny Jones’s bronze medal in the snowboarding, all of Team GB’s Winter Olympic medals had been won on ice (prior to 2014, the closest the British had ever come to a medal on snow was Gina Hathorn’s fourth in the women’s slalom in 1968, although there was also the matter of Alain Baxter’s controversial disqualification in the men’s slalom in 2002).
There is, though, an unusual entry on Britain’s modest list of Winter Olympic successes. It’s from 1936, and concerns the matter of a gold medal in ice hockey.
Nowadays, Great Britain tends not to qualify for the Winter Olympic ice hockey tournament. Team GB – and unlike in football and rugby, it really is Team GB for this sport – is currently ranked 22nd in the world, and with 12 countries taking part you can see how the numbers don’t add up. If we’re going to be honest, and we might as well be, Team GB got through the pre-qualifying for Sochi 2014 but lost out in the final qualifying tournament in Riga last year; specifically, we lost to Latvia (who qualified), France and Kazakhstan (6-0, that last one).
Back in 1936, though, things were different. The Bavarian skiing resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen hosted the games, and although the controversy associated with Nazi Germany hosting the Olympics is usually attached to the summer games of that year, which were held in Berlin, there was a fair amount of that at Garmisch-Partenkirchen as well. Perhaps the most noteworthy story concerns ice hockey, with the inclusion of Rudi Ball in the German team. He’d played for Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s but as he was Jewish he’d been dropped after the Nazis had come to power. However, he was considered to be one of the best ice hockey players in Europe, and amid much controversy – including threats from his team-mates to refuse to play if Ball didn’t play – he was reinstated, apparently striking a deal whereby his family could leave Germany if he played.
Canada were the favourites to win the ice hockey (not everything was different), and the tournament itself had what would seem today to be an odd structure, with the semi-finals and the final being group stages. Confused? Me too! Of the 15 teams that entered, eight progressed to the semi-finals (which were played as two groups of four), with four making it to the final which was a round-robin in which the scores from games played in previous stages between teams who’d made it that far were counted. This particular rule would become apparent as a result of the Canada-Great Britain game in the semi-finals.
That, by the way, was the crucial game. If the Americans had their miracle on the ice in 1980, this was Britain’s.
But, before we get to that, just how British was the British ice hockey team of 1936?
It’s a good question, as whenever this particular gold medal gets brought up (which, to be honest, isn’t very often), the usual accusation is that the British simply recruited some Canadian expats to play under the Union Jack. Great Britain had entered the Winter Olympic ice hockey tournament before, winning the bronze medal in 1924, and the team then had indeed been composed almost entirely of Canadians – either military officers stationed in Britain or students studying at British universities, the Winter Olympics being an exclusively amateur affair back then. For 1936, though, the British Olympic Association decreed that every member of the British team had to be not just British subjects, but British-born.
Although it was never going to challenge football as the most popular winter spectator sport, ice hockey enjoyed something of a boom in Britain in the 1930s. The brains behind promoting the sport in this country was a man called J.F. ‘Bunny’ Ahearne, who in 1934 became the manager of the British national team. He recruited Percy Nicklin, who had moved to England in 1935 to coach the Richmond Hawks after a successful coaching career in his native Canada, to help him find players in Canada (the only obvious source of good players) who would meet the British-born requirement. As coach, Nicklin was to be the driving force behind the team he assembled.
The thirteen-strong team that Ahearne and Nicklin got together for the 1936 Winter Olympics varied in age from 39 (Carl Erhardt, the captain, who was actually older than Ahearne!) to 18 (Jack Kilpatrick). One of them, Archie Stinchcombe, could only see out of one eye as the result of a childhood accident. As it turned out, only one member of the team had actually been born in Canada – Gordon Dailley, who had moved to Britain in 1933, apparently by working his passage across the Atlantic on a cattle boat; he was deemed to have qualified by residence. Of the others, ten were British-born but Canadian-raised (sources do vary, though, with Wikipedia claiming that Gerry Davey was born in Canada, whereas the British Ice Hockey Hall of Fame has him as being born in Essex). Some had already moved back to England before Nicklin began to build his team; Jimmy Borland, for example, had been playing for the Great Britain team since 1934.
The story of Edgar Brenchley, though, was typical of the team; born in Kent, his family emigrated to Canada when he was a child and he was brought up in Niagara. A promising amateur player, he played for an American team before moving back to England in 1935, when he started playing under Nicklin for the Richmond Hawks at the same time as Johnny Coward (born in Ambleside, raised in Fort Frances, Ontario) and Jimmy Foster (born in Greenock, raised in Winnipeg).
Of the two with no Canadian connections, both were defencemen; Erhardt had learned how to play as a result of having been sent to school in Switzerland and had played for his country since 1931, while Bob Wyman – who for a time held the British half-mile record in speed-skating – had learned how to play in London, although funnily enough he played for a team called the Grosvenor House Canadians.
All of those selected for the British team played in what was then the newly-formed English National League in the 1935-36 season – representing teams like the Wembley Lions, the Harringay Greyhounds, the Brighton Tigers and the Richmond Hawks (the Grosvenor House Canadians had by that season become the Wembley Canadians, later to be renamed the Wembley Monarchs). None of these teams exist anymore; the fluctuating fortunes of ice hockey – a minority sport in Britain – meant that teams tended to fold when the leagues in which they competed did. Today, London doesn’t even have a team in what is currently the Elite Ice Hockey League.
The Canadian hockey authorities did not take Nicklin’s recruitment drive lying down, and things probably weren’t helped by the fact that the French team had had the same idea. As far as the British were concerned, though, the Canadian Olympic Committee only protested against the inclusion of two players, Jimmy Foster and Alex Archer. Both had been suspended by the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association in 1935 for leaving Canada in order to play ice hockey elsewhere, and they were subsequently banned by the International Ice Hockey Federation, only to be reinstated after the Canadians withdrew their protest shortly before the Winter Olympics began.
In the event, Foster – Nicklin’s first choice as goaltender – played a crucial role in Great Britain’s success at the Winter Olympics, only letting in three goals and recording four shutouts, an impressive feat in a tournament that averaged over four goals per game (in total, of the 31 games he played for Great Britain, 16 were shutouts). His ever-presence in the side meant that the reserve goalie, Arthur Child, didn’t play a game and therefore wasn’t eligible for a medal. Archer, a right-winger and a former two-times Manitoban All Star, also played in all seven games, scoring two goals.
The Canadian selection policy back in those amateur days was to have the country be represented at the Winter Olympics by the previous year’s Allan Cup winners (to this day, the Allan Cup is the trophy awarded to the national amateur men’s champions of Canada). For the 1936 Winter Olympics, though, the 1935 Allan Cup winners were unavailable, so Canada was represented by the runners-up, the Port Arthur Bearcats. This did not stop them from being tipped to win gold.
In the first round, GB beat Sweden (1-0) and Japan (3-0) to progress to the next stage. Elsewhere, Italy recorded a surprise win over the USA while Canada swept all before them, scoring 24 goals in their three first-round matches. The pre-tournament favourites were living up to expectations.
The two met on 11th February in the semi-final group stage. Great Britain went ahead in the first minute thanks to Gerry Davey, who had fallen ill but had got out of his sick bed to play. Canada soon equalised but GB’s defence, especially Foster in goal, prevented the favourites from adding to their considerable goal tally. The score remained at 1-1 until well into the third period, when with 90 seconds left on the clock, Edgar Brenchley scored to make it 2-1 to the British.
Subsequently, a 1-1 tie against Germany and a victory over Hungary (5-1, compared to Canada’s 15-0 thrashing of the same side) saw Britain make it to the final.
Once in the final group, GB didn’t have to play Canada again as the semi-final result was taken forward. This has been cited by some as evidence of British skulduggery, but those were the tournament rules (similarly, the USA didn’t have to play Czechoslovakia again) and the Olympic authorities stuck to them despite Canadian protests.
Having defeated Czechoslovakia 5-0, GB tied 0-0 against the USA in a game that went through six periods before a tie was declared (this being the days before sudden death and shoot-outs). This assured GB of at least a silver medal. All that stood between them and the gold was the USA, who could win the gold themselves if they beat Canada by at least five goals. Exhausted by the six-period game against the British, though, they lost 1-0, this result meaning that Canada won the silver and the Americans the bronze.
As the Winter Olympics doubled as the World Championships, this meant that for the first (and only) time, Great Britain were the world ice hockey champions.
Carl Erhardt retired from playing after the Winter Olympics. At 39, he remains the oldest person ever to have won a gold medal in this event. Most of the team played in the World Championships the following year, when GB (the hosts) won the silver medal, a feat they would repeat in 1938; both times, Canada won.
After that, some of the gold-winning players continued to play in Britain while others returned to North America – Brenchley found himself playing for the Atlantic City Seagulls in 1939. Most of them would serve in the Second World War. Jimmy Chappell took part in the D-Day Landings. Bob Wyman became a lieutenant-commander in the Royal Navy. Johnny Coward, whose 1936 sweater can be seen today in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, served in the Royal Military Police and went back to Canada, and a job in a paper mill, after the war. Gordon Dailley went on to serve in the Korean War as well, and rose to the rank of colonel in the Canadian Army; later, he founded Canada’s first drive-through safari park. Jimmy Foster went back to Canada to work in an aircraft factory. Alex Archer, who scored 82 goals in five seasons for the Wembley Lions, carried on playing until 1945, when he fractured his skull in an international against Sweden; he then went into coaching. Erhardt, considered by many to be a fine all-round sportsman, went on to establish the British Water Ski Federation. Ahearne would become the president of the International Ice Hockey Federation. Three players – Gerry Davey, Archie Stinchcombe and Jimmy Chappell – played for Great Britain at the next Winter Olympics, in 1948.
That was the last time a British ice hockey team qualified for the Winter Olympics.
Various entries on Wikipedia