Brian Conacher has a sprained right wrist, but that is not what was bothering him on a recent afternoon in Toronto. The wrist would heal, but some hurts last forever. And forever, for Conacher, refers to the 1964 Winter Olympics, and a last-minute flurry of hockey/backroom/diplomatic chicanery that deprived the first-ever edition of the Canadian national hockey team of a medal at the Innsbruck Games.
“We got cheated,” Conacher says.
Indeed, we (aka Canada) most definitely did. Canada, with its love of hockey lore, lauds its heroes and gentlemen. Howe and Orr and Henderson, Gretzky and Beliveau, Bower and more. But every great sweeping national narrative should include a villain or two, and arguably the worst ill seed ever to take an underhanded swipe at Canadian hockey was John Francis (Bunny) Ahearne.
Ahearne was an Irishman, and president of the International Ice Hockey Federation. He managed the Brits to a gold medal at the 1936 Games. It was Ahearne, in concert with Avery Brundage, the American president of the International Olympic Committee, whose career was dogged by allegations of anti-Semitism, that stabbed Canada in the back at the penultimate moment at the 1964 Olympic tournament.
Months before, all was happy and good for the Canadian national team — an international hockey experiment conceived by Father David Bauer. Bauer was a hockey-coaching Catholic priest of great renown at St. Michael’s College in Toronto. He witnessed the rise of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Sweden as hockey powers, and believed that if Canada — which hadn’t won Olympic hockey gold since the Edmonton Mercurys grabbed top spot in 1952 — didn’t quit sending our best senior club teams to compete, and get serious about the international game, the country would never win gold again.
“Father Bauer, in many respects, was a visionary, a pioneer in recognizing how good European hockey had become,” Conacher says. “It became evident that the Canadian style — rough and tumble, ‘we’ll beat them in the alley if we can’t beat them on the rink’ type of attitude — was passé.”
Bauer scoured Canadian and American college ranks to find top players whose rights, for the most part, were owned by NHL teams. Conacher, for one, was a Leafs prospect, but had opted to go to university instead of turning pro. Bauer then moved the players to a house on the University of British Columbia campus in the fall of 1963, where they took …read more
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