The RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) Flyers was a men’s amateur hockey team comprised mostly of RCAF personnel that was assembled quickly to represent Canada at the 1948 Winter Olympics. After losing exhibition games in Canada, the media declared the team a national embarrassment. Several roster changes improved the team and it won the Gold Medal at the Olympic Winter Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
The first modern Olympic Games occurred in 1896. Winter sports were part of the Games starting in 1908. At the 1920 Olympics, the first gold medal for hockey was won by Canada’s Winnipeg Falcons. The first Olympic Winter Games were held in 1924. They were to be held every four years, but the 1940 and 1944 Winter Games were cancelled due to the Second World War. The Winter Games resumed in 1948. (See Canada at the Winter Olympic Games.)
At that time, the hockey team chosen to represent Canada at the Olympics was the winner of the Allan Cup. Since 1909, the Allan Cup has been awarded to Canada’s best senior amateur men’s hockey team. In 1947, the Montreal Royals won the Allan Cup, but it was discovered that several members of the team had been paid to play and so were not amateur athletes. Until 1984, Olympic rules stated that all Olympic athletes had to be amateurs. With the Royals unable to represent Canada, it looked like Canada would have no hockey team in the upcoming Winter Olympics. (See Canadian Olympic Hockey Teams.)
Two days before the International Ice Hockey Federation deadline for stating whether Canada would send a team to the Olympic competition, Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) medical officer and squadron leader Dr. A. Gardner “Sandy” Watson convinced the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association that he could assemble a team from members of the air force. On 15 October 1947, Association president Al Pickard announced that Dr. Watson’s RCAF team would represent Canada at the Olympics to be held in St. Moritz, Switzerland, from 30 January to 8 February 1948. (See Canada at the 1948 Olympic Winter Games.)
Preparing for the Games
Watson hired former American Hockey League player Sergeant Frank Boucher as the team’s coach. Watson and Boucher then contacted RCAF bases across Canada looking for players. On 13 December, less than seven weeks before the Olympics were to begin, the RCAF team, dubbed the Flyers, played its first exhibition game against the McGill University hockey club. The Flyers lost 7–0. Days later they played Ottawa Army, a team made up of members of the Canadian Army, and lost 6–2.
The media harshly criticized the team with the suggestion that it be withdrawn from the Olympics to avoid a national embarrassment. An Ottawa Evening Citizen article (dated 18 December 1947) stated: “The decision to retain as Canada’s Olympic hockey entry a weak RCAF team which is tied for last place in the Ottawa City League, will be received with dismay all over Canada.”
The 1948 Winter Olympics
Roster changes were made mere weeks before the team sailed to Europe from New York City aboard the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth. Six RCAF members were replaced by new players, coming from the RCAF reserve, Ottawa City League and Université de Montréal. An inspired change came when the team’s goalie could not pass a required physical examination and was replaced by Toronto Transit Commission employee and amateur netminder Murray Dowey. He would prove nearly unbeatable.
The Olympic hockey round-robin tournament consisted of eight teams plus the apparently hapless Canadians. All games were played on an outdoor rink. The Czechoslovakian team was favoured to win the tournament. In each of its games the Canadians encountered officiating that seemed biased against them and in several games, onlookers threw snowballs at the Flyers’ players.
In their first game, the Canadians beat Sweden 3–1. The Flyers then began a string of decisive victories, defeating the United Kingdom 3–0, Poland 15–0, Italy 21–1, and the United States 12–3. Canada and Czechoslovakia fought to a 0–0 tie and then Canada beat Austria 12–0. In the final game, on 8 February, Canada defeated Switzerland 3–0.
At the tournament’s conclusion, both Czechoslovakia and Canada had earned seven wins and a tie. Canada was declared the winner because the Flyers had a higher goal-average win. The team on which most Canadians had given up had won the 1948 Winter Olympics gold medal.
The Canadian’s top scorer was 22-year-old defenceman Wally Halder, who in eight games earned six assists and scored an incredible 21 goals. Goaltender Murray Dowey was applauded for allowing only five goals in eight games while earning an impressive five shutouts. Rounding out the roster for the RCAF Flyers were Hubert Brooks, Frank Dunster, Roy Forbes, Andrew Gilpin, Orval Gravelle, Patrick (Patsy) Guzzo, Thomas (Ted) Hibberd, Ross King, Andre Laperriere, Louis Lecompte, Julius (Pete) Leichnitz, George Mara, Albert (Ab) Renaud, Reginald Schroeter and Irving Taylor.
For weeks after the Olympics ended, the team played exhibition games to raise money to pay for their expenses. Upon its return to Canada on 7 April 1948, the team was met at Ottawa’s Union Station by a cheering crowd, picture-taking media and dignitaries. Governor General Viscount Alexander paid tribute to the Flyers two days later at an event at a RCAF officers' mess in Ottawa.
The Flyers played a final benefit game in Ottawa on 10 April 1948. Their opponents were an All-Star team made up of hockey players from the National Hockey League and Quebec Senior Hockey League. More than 5,000 fans were in attendance when Defence Minister Brian Brooke Claxton dropped the ceremonial first puck. The Flyers lost the game 6–3, but team member Hubert Brooks later recalled that “at that stage not too many people paid attention and we were happy it was now all over.” Proceeds of the event went to the Canadian Appeal For Children Fund.
For years the team seemed to be forgotten. Then the RCAF Flyers were honoured in 1971 with an induction into the Canadian Armed Forces Sports Hall of Fame in Edmonton. They were commemorated with a permanent exhibit at the National Air Force Museum of Canada at CFB Trenton. In 2007, author Pat MacAdam told the team’s unlikely story in a book entitled Gold Medal "Misfits": How the Unwanted Canadian Hockey Team Scored Olympic Glory. In April 2008, the RCAF Flyers were inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in Calgary.