THE ROMANCE OF THE FALCONS CHAPTER ONE

Respectfully dedicated to the memory

of the late ‘Buster’ Thorsteinson, a sportsman and gentleman.

 

Trudging through a driving snowfall with his skates and hockey outfit, a big broad-shouldered Icelander from the South End set out to walk to the mile-distant rink for a crucial game in the great winter sport to decide the supremacy between the North and the South. Turn back the pages of time some thirty years and endeavour to catch an impression of the spirit which motivated his activities. We can picture him as the snow swirled up and about his sturdy figure, with no thought of the rigours of the elements but with glowing heart and with sinews straining with eager anticipation of the pulsating action of the game he loved. He hugs a couple of well-taped sticks under one arm. These are more than pieces of wood to him his trusty aids. One is almost a 'boner' (an expression used for an old worn out stick) but endeared to him through his familiarity with the feel of the handle, its balance and the spring of the wood as the flying puck leaves the blade.

 

Gentle of manner, modest of speech, tender of heart qualities ingrained in him as his heritage from deeply religious forebears; yet in keen competition he revelled in his virile power and was at all times eager to match his skill with no quarter asked or given; with a supreme will to victory, no matter what the odds.

 

Thus can be described a youth, typical of the young men who thrilled their friends and supporters with their exploits on the ice in the old 'Viking I.A.C.' (Icelandic Athletic Club (IAC)) days.

 

Exhibiting strong evidence of the traditional fighting spirit of their forefathers the Vikings, the Icelandic hockeyists of the early days, beginning about 1897 with play between the Icelandic Athletic Club and the Vikings, waged many a strenuous battle on the blades. In those days, heavy body checking was permitted under the rules and there was much give and take along the boards. The boys played for the thrill of the game and even under a great handicap as to equipment and rink accommodation. Nor was it the fashion to pad to any extent. A small pair of bamboo shin-guards and some padding in the knee-length pants, but no knee, elbow or shoulder pads. Old-time fans will recall that the hockey gauntlets of that day afforded little protection for those who wore them compared with the wonderful gloves now available for hockey players.

 

The old Félag's Hús (Club House) on Jemima (now Elgin) Avenue, and later club rooms on Princess Street, were the centres for boxing, wrestling, fencing, gymnastics, and so on, among the energetic young Icelanders of that period. The late Olafur Eggertson was a prime mover in the Icelandic Athletic Club while Frank Frederickson (no relation to the Frank of Olympic Hockey fame) was a fine athlete and a leading figure in the organization work (also a leader in dramatic presentations).  Another prominent member of the club was Harry Sivertson, son of Sigurdur 'Homeopathi,' that grand old man of medicine who ministered to the needs and ills of the old-time Icelandic settlement in Winnipeg. The IAC Hockey Club was organized by some of the boys of the Athletic Club the Swanson brothers, Jack and 'Swanny,' and Harry Sivertson being largely instrumental in bringing this about.

 

At first, there was no hockey opposition from the young Icelanders residing in the then Southern part of the city, but not to be outdone by the North-end IAC, a meeting was one day held at the home of Oliver Olsen, then on Maryland Street, and the Vikings came into being. The rivalry which existed between the North-enders and the South-enders through occasional competitions in football and baseball, was to be carried into hockey and with a vengeance!

 

'Icelanders Play Hockey' was the sports writers' headline after the first game between the Vikings and IACs and it was reported that they might be lacking in some of the finer points of the game but did they have colour! There was plenty of it the ice being splattered with red! This was only a forerunner of the sensational conflicts that followed and 'feud' was the only word for the year-in year-out partisanship that grew deeper, and had far-reaching effects upon the social life of the community. So much so that if a Viking was seen out walking with a North-end girl, his team-mates wondered if his loyalty to his Club was weakening and on the other hand, to win a 'queen' of the opposing camp was just one more way of showing superiority. Young Jack Swanson was bold enough to win the sister of the Vikings' crafty centre man, Mike Johnson, The girl remained a faithful supporter of the Vikings but her heart was with fair young Jack whose well-knit figure flashed along the right boards on the IAC attack.

Let us endeavour to recall some of the originals in action and their characteristics of play the Vikings in red jerseys with large, white V s and white pants, the IACs in dark blue sweaters and black pants.  The IAC goal was soundly guarded by Harry Sivertson while with brainy, agile Percy (Ben) Olafson at point and 'Swanny' Swanson, the human dynamo, at cover point, the IACs were well fortified on the defence. Let us keep the forwards out of the picture for the moment and size up the defence at the other end. In the Vikings' net blond Fred Olsen was outstanding. Fred played with Manitoba College and later with the Victorias. He was known as the 'board fence' and travelled east with the Victorias in 1903 when they went in quest of the Stanley Cup. Reports of these games in Montreal described Fred as stopping flying pucks with all parts of his anatomy, even his head. In front of this great net minder at point was Paul Johnston who, it might be mentioned, was a marksman of the first rank (having been Manitoba champion trap shot), sportsman and amateur photographer par excellence. Rather slimly built, he was adept at blocking and out-guessing the opposition. Six foot Henry Thompson, towering on the Viking defence at cover point, dealt out robust body checks.  Possessing a fine physique, he was fast and added plenty of punch to the Viking attack.

 

Crafty Magnus (Mike) Johnson held down rover position for the South-enders. How Mike could hang onto that old puck and worm his way through the opposition! He achieved his stick work through 'ragging' the puck on outdoor rinks and on river rinks, where many of Winnipeg's best players learned the game.   Opposed to Mike as rover for the IACs, 'Fusi' Byron was perhaps the most sensational player of either roster. Fast and tricky, running and tearing into the attack, dodging around making extremely rapid motions with his stick, he was almost impossible to stop. Fusi had a great mop of hair and, with a head-tossing gesture reminiscent of some wild horse, he would throw back his flowing locks as he broke away on his frequent forays into the enemy territory. Whenever Fusi got the puck, two or three of the Vikings would jump right on him and what a time they would have stopping him!

 

The IAC forward line of Magnus Peterson, Jack Snidal and Jack Swanson comprised a clever attacking trio. Magnus Peterson, for thirty-five years at the City Hall, many of which he served faithfully as City Clerk, was fast and a clever stick handler. Jack Snidal of dental fame was a clever forward and an all-round athlete. Young Jack Swanson, flashing spectacularly up and down the right boards, was always a thorn in the side of 'Big Sam' Johnson, who patrolled the left boards for the Vikings. Big Sam, curly-haired, six-foot-two man-mountain, weighing no one knows how much over two hundred pounds was the Babe Ruth of the Viking Club and instilled a world of confidence in his teammates by his mere presence on the ice. His genial qualities made him a prime favourite with the player and fan alike.

 

The legend may have some basis in the fact that the nimble young Jack, on occasion, slipped through between Big Sam's legs. But when brother Swanny, who was himself quite stoutly built, would crash into Big Sam, even upsetting him by main strength the crowd would go wild! Here was action! and the fans on each side would take up the battle cry, crowds lining the fence cheering on their favourites and throwing taunts at the rabid partisans opposite. It has also become legend that on one occasion Big Sam, having been knocked out cold through violent collision with Swanny, lay flat on his back like some great giant and gave the impression of reaching from side to side of the playing surface.

 

Oliver Olsen was a clever forward. He was employed by the Dominion Rubber Company as a tire salesman. While his vocation was to 'tire' vehicles, as a skater he was 'tire-less.' Ami Anderson, who practised law for a great many years and filled the position of secretary-treasurer for the Club, quite often donned his skates and played a fine brand of hockey. Young 'Guinea' Anderson, short, rotund but extremely nimble played aggressive hockey as did Gunnar Gack), another Anderson brother, a big, burly defenceman who turned in some mighty useful games.

Feelings ran high among the players as well as the supporters of both teams. There was always plenty of excitement as the battle waged fast and furious. The crowds were like armed camps, on opposite sides of the rink, voicing their enthusiasm and partisanship in no uncertain manner. There were no seats in the old Brydon and McIntyre rinks but the fans stood jammed up against the fence surrounding the playing surface. The IAC supporters were supplied with narrow cordwood sticks out of the rink woodpile, to be used as noise-makers. When they slapped the fence with these four-foot sticks you can imagine the din! Old folks and young folks, men and women, crowded to these games and on occasion a spectator was liable to get out on the ice to forcefully give a goal umpire or referee a 'piece of his mind.'

 

It was the seven-man game and the players who started the game usually stayed on for the full sixty minutes. Unless a player was injured to such an extent that he could not return to the ice, a substitute or spare man did not often have a chance to get into the game. No substitution was permitted after half-time and the boys went two thirty-minute periods. It was a case of getting your second wind and staying with it to the finish. To relieve the strain on the forwards, 'lifting' was sometimes resorted to and this became a fine 'art.' Some of the defencemen of that day could lift a puck from one end of the rink to the other, the rubber going high up among the rafters as it soared goalwards. In those days the defence men's positions were point and cover-point, the latter taking up his position a short distance in front of the point man and the rover did a lot of defensive work as well as feeding the forwards, in distinct contrast to the present-day system of two men abreast on defence and no rover. In 1933 ten men were allowed to dress on each team with practically unlimited substitution, and with the forward pass to speed up the game.

 

After each tussle, the bumps exchanged were forgotten and the members of the two teams were the best of friends. Often a supporter of the winning team who had won a wager on the game would invite the players to an oyster supper, usually at Emma and Panaro's restaurant then on the east side of Main Street between McDermot and Bannatyne. It was quite an event when the boys talked and joked over their supper in the old cafe, leaving about midnight for home. Times certainly have changed!

 

At the end of the season the losing team banqueted the winner in royal style, usually at the Criterion Hotel. And what a night that was!   Time has a way of either increasing or decreasing the glamour of events. In the case of these old time conflicts between the Vikings and the IACs, reminiscences seemed to grow more interesting with the years, so there must have been more than a little to enthuse over in these battles of skill.

 

When reminiscing, the wonderful athletic talent of Winnipeg during that era should not be overlooked. So, let us digress for a moment. Never the light of day shone on finer specimens of manhood than were to be found connected with athletic clubs of Winnipeg at that time. In the City Hockey League, some truly great teams were battling it out for supremacy. Take for instance the Winnipeg Rowing Club when their roster included Claude Bennest, Percy Browne, Chas. Johnstone, Billy Breen, Billy Kean, Joe Hall, Claude Borland and Billy Bawlf. Those were the days when 'Barney' Holden, Fred Lake and Riley Hearne were the ideals of aspiring hockey players, the days when Tony Gingras, the great French player, was splashing across the hockey firmament, when the old Victoria Club was often in the forefront of hockey supremacy, when Dan Bain, the Flett brothers and many others were thrilling the fans with their exploits on the ice.

 

Those were the days when Jimmy Boswell, one of the greatest athletes the city has ever produced, was in his prime. Possessed of a magnificent physique, superlative courage and 'sunshiny' nature that endeared him to all, Jim was an all-round athlete. He excelled at rugby, also at bicycle racing along with such stars as Riddell and McCullough when that sport was in its heyday. Incidentally, a number of the Icelandic boys competed creditably in this fast company, notably Mike Johnson and Henry Thompson. Jim was used to tumbles in the bicycle racing game. A serious injury in a rugby game nearly cost him his life. However, his rugged constitution eventually was the means of bringing about his recovery. Later, in a dare devil automobile race from Stonewall to 'Happyland' on Portage Avenue, when that park was officially opened, his racing car skidded in the dirt at an'S' turn and in a flash, realizing that a crash was inevitable and that he had time for only one of two things push his mechanic out or jump out himself true to his natural make-up, he saved the mechanic and 'took it' himself as the car turned over. For weeks his life hung in the balance and for many score yards along the streets adjacent to his home, saw-dust was strewn to help maintain the silence which was so essential. Again the iron physique and the splendid reserve power preserved by his clean living gradually brought him back. Broken though he was so far as any future activities were concerned, the same spirit prevailed and on through the years he has become the best loved figure in Winnipeg's realm of sport and among the hockey fraternity particularly.

 

To return to our story, each year, from 1897 to 1902 the original two-team Icelandic league functioned. Interest never seemed to wane until the last year when a certain amount of persuasion was required to get the old Vikings out. And this last season (1902) produced the most stirring finish of any. With the two teams tied, having three wins each, the seventh and deciding game was also tied at full time. The Vikings eventually scored in the overtime to win the championship for the sixth successive season, after one of the most gruelling games the team had ever played. That was the game where rugged Swanny Swanson, IAC defenceman, striving with all his might and skill for the long sought championship, essayed rush after rush. The forwards, ever attacking, were not quite able to gain the mastery of the game, the Vikings matched them at almost every turn and still retained the extra ounce of 'punch' and the confidence that the winning habit instills. Young Jack Swanson rushed along the right wing and was sent hurling by a solid body check from big Henry Thompson. Knocked unconscious at the moment his head struck the fence, Jack fell back, his head coming in contact with the ice with such force as to put him out for half an hour and opening a cut requiring seven stitches. Byron, Snidal and Peterson swept down the ice time after time but could not pierce the Viking defence, and the great net minding of Fred Olsen was just enough to turn the tide in the Vikings' favour. Their forwards working with the determination that would not brook defeat, the team finally came through with the win.

 

While they did not succeed in winning the league once, great credit is due the IAC Club for their continuing endeavours and pertinacity, year after year, in striving for the elusive victory.  After the 1902 season, the old-timers of the original IAC and Viking teams hung up their sticks and interest lagged. It was some two years later before the old feud was revived with the IACs turning out winners of the Hanston Trophy on the ice in the 1905-6 season. But from then until 1909 there were many repetitions of the former famous duels. Readers may recollect the names of some of the players of that period. Defence stars were Sam Laxdal and Steve Dalman. The latter was able to take more punishment in the scant protection of hockey outfits of that day than possibly any man now playing hockey. In goal one of Slim Halderson's brothers, John, played a mighty good game while two other brothers, Bill, at rover, and Chris, at left wing almost made the team a family affair. Alex Johnson was a good forward and Eric Jorundson, left wing, and the writer at centre provided two ambitious youngsters eager to live up to the reputation of the team. 'Baldy' Walter Wilson played with the Vikings of that time, although he also played later with the IAC.

 

An outstanding player for courage and stamina was 'Ole' Erickson. He suffered one of the few major injuries ever incurred by a hockey player in Manitoba. During a game with Brandon, a player accidentally struck him in the face with his stick. Ole skated over to Bill Halderson and asked, "what is the matter with my eye, Bill?" When he left the ice his plight was not made known to his teammates, but in the dressing room afterwards we felt that a tragedy was being enacted. True enough, we found out later, Ole had had his eye gouged out! Another sample of this courageous player was that of playing throughout the game with a clean fracture of his little finger, without telling a single person about it.

 

'Cully' and his Pro-Career

 It was in this two-team Icelandic league that 'Cully' Wilson began his hockey career. Later when he joined the Monarchs, after serving with the Vikings and the Falcons, Cully played a brilliant rugged game and soon drew the attention of the professional moguls. He was one of the first of all local players to join the moneyed ranks afield and he served for some sixteen years with great distinction with professional clubs from coast to coast. He runs a mighty close race for the title of the most bescarred of all players, but with an indomitable spirit it never seemed to slow him down.

 

Early Neighbourhood Life

As mentioned before, the Icelanders of Winnipeg of that time were sharply divided into two rival camps. The North-enders resided in the neighbourhood of Jemima Street (Elgin Avenue) while the South-enders bailiwick was in the wide open prairie to the west of Sherbrook Street in the neighbourhood of Nellie Street (Ellice Avenue).

 

Dairies were scattered allover the prairies. To the west of Nellie and Sherbrook was much low land, which was generally under water during the whole of the spring. Just back of Maryland and Ellice there was the famous 'Cat' Island, a large round knoll which resembled a saucer. The bigger fellows would wade out to the island and the younger ones would be carried on their backs. Here all kinds of games, battles and contests took place. Nearly every youth of the neighbourhood took to the sport as ducks to water.

 

There was ol’ Kelly Valgardson's dairy. Around and around his huge haystack the boys would race. It made an ideal racetrack. When he could stand the din no longer he would kick open his front door and roar at the top of his voice, "You young ….., get off my property!" The boys used to get a great kick out of his yelling and we fondly imagined his voice carrying right down to the far away river bank.

Where the John M. King School now stands was the site of our skating rink. We hauled water in barrels on small sleighs from the corner of Ellice and Sherbrook. I will always remember an ancient old man with a flowing white beard which made me think of St. Peter or Methuselah who came daily to the pump on a sleigh drawn by a huge St. Bernard dog. He would climb slowly up out of the little sleigh, pick up his axe and chop the ice which formed in large quantities around the pump.