The surviving members of the RCAF Flyers, the Ottawa-based hockey team that stretched the odds to win Olympic gold in 1948, stickhandled through strong opposition at a recent Canadian Forces awards night to emerge victorious as Canada’s greatest military athletes of the 20th century.
An audience of 350 at the Ottawa Congress Centre watched some rare newsreel film of the actual events as the opposition was narrowed down from a field of 50 teams and individuals in events that included Olympic, Pan-Am and Commonwealth games competitions, the Boston Marathon, an English Channel swim, Bisley shoots and the “Tea Bowl” football game in London in 1944 between Canadian and American servicemen.
Dubbed the Cinderella team by sportswriters of the time, the Flyers were volunteered as the national team after it appeared Canada would not enter a hockey team for the 1948 Winter Olympics. Retired Ottawa eye specialist Dr. Sandy Watson, then a squadron leader with the RCAF and manager of the Flyers, volunteered his squad. He scrounged equipment and raised money for a European tour and the Olympics, and was at the awards dinner to hear his team getting the military athletes-of-the-century award from the Canadian Forces.
Despite being written off by the press and fans, Watson and his team came through for the country in 1948. In Europe they played 42 games, won 31, lost five and tied six. At the Olympics they won seven games and tied the eighth to win the gold medal.
The team’s coach Frank Boucher and trainer George McFaul are also survivors of the Flyers 1948 team along with nine players—Ab Renaud, Reg Schroeter and Ted Hibberd of Ottawa, George Mara of Toronto, Murray Dowey of Etobicoke, Ont., Andy Gilpin of London, Ont., Pete Leitchitz of Brechin, Ont., Andre Laperriere of Outremont, Que., and Roy Forbes of Winfield, B.C.
Deceased from the championship squad are Frank Dunster, Patsy Guzzo, Louis LeCompte and Irving Taylor of Ottawa, Orville Gravelle of Aylmer, Ross King of Red Deer, Alta., Hubert Brooks of Portage la Prairie, Man., and Wally Halder of Toronto.
The Flyers got strong competition for the award from athletes Sgt. Gerard Cote of St-Hyacinthe, Que., winner of the Boston Marathon in 1943 and 1944, and Winnie Roach-Leuszler who as a 25-year-old army private in 1951 became the first Canadian to swim the English Channel. She told the audience how she was met by a British customs officer who asked if she had anything to declare as she walked ashore on the beach at Dover. “I couldn’t believe my ears. There I was wearing a silk bathing suit and nothing else, and he’s wondering if I have anything to declare.”
Another contender was the Canada-U.S. football game in London in 1944, won by the Canadians 16-6 before 40,000 fans, mostly soldiers. The Canadian Mustangs, 15-1 underdogs, upset the United States Pirates in the morale-boosting contest played half under U.S. rules and half under Canadian rules.