It’s time to right one of hockey history’s greatest wrongs

They skated their hearts out for Canada at the 1964 Winter Olympics. Nearly 58 years later, these players still don’t have their medals
By Steve Paikin - Published on Oct 26, 2021
Team Canada’s 1964 squad, which competed in the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. (hippostcard.com)

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Next year will be the run up to the 50th anniversary of the most dramatic international hockey series ever: Team Canada vs. the Soviet Union, in which Paul Henderson achieved immortality by scoring the winning goal in the last three straight games. 

But before that team enjoys the well-deserved attention it will receive, I want to bring to your attention the story of another hockey Team Canada, whose tournament should have ended at a medal ceremony but didn’t. And it’s well past time to rectify this injustice. 

Let’s go back to the 1950s and ’60s. After having dominated international hockey for decades, Canada was fading from its place on the world stage. The fact was, other countries, such as the Soviet Union, were drafting players into the military and putting them into year-long hockey programs. Our best players were all in the National Hockey League, and, as professionals, they weren’t permitted to compete at international events. So we began sending hastily assembled amateur teams that would routinely lose. 

In the early ’60s, the legendary St. Michael’s Majors’ coach Father David Bauer convinced Canada’s amateur hockey brass to let him establish a national program in which our best amateur players could spend a year together and gel as a team, setting them up to be more competitive at international tournaments. It was Father Bauer’s players who travelled to Innsbruck, Austria, in January 1964 to compete for Canada in the Winter Olympics. 

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There was nothing about that team’s players that suggested they were destined for greatness. In the dozens of games used as tune-ups for the Olympics, they barely won more than they lost; even then, they won against inferior junior players. 

But something happened when the team got to Austria. They got good. Really good. Before you knew it, they were a legitimate gold-medal threat. 

These Olympics, though, turned out to be somewhat cursed for Canada. For example, a Swedish player who’d broken his stick tossed it toward the Canadian bench, where it struck Father Bauer and cut him across the forehead. Bauer insisted that his team seek no retribution; in fact, in an incredible display of sportsmanship, he watched two other teams play the next day, accompanied by the Swedish player who’d wounded him. 

Next, Canada was playing some of its best hockey against Czechoslovakia when one of the Czech players “ran” Canada’s goaltender, Seth Martin, knocking him out of the game. Canada’s replacement came in cold and couldn’t match Martin’s heroics —Canada went on to lose the game. 

But the worst was yet to come. In the tournament’s most anticipated game, against the Soviet Union, Canada dominated for two periods only to see its lead slip away in the third after a controversial penalty call left the team short-handed. The USSR eventually won 3-2, capturing the gold medal. 

There were now three countries tied for second place: Sweden, Czechoslovakia, and Canada. The rules suggested the difference between goals scored and allowed should be employed to break the tie. By that count, Sweden claimed the silver medal. 

But international politics then interceded in the worst way. In the third period of the Canada-USSR game, the International Ice Hockey Federation’s president, John “Bunny” Ahearne, decided to interpret the rules differently. Instead of taking only the top four teams' goals for and against into account, he resolved to take all the teams' goals for and against into account. With that new interpretation in place, the bronze medal now belonged to the Czechs, not the Canadians. 

Canada’s numbers weren’t as buoyant as those of the other countries: the gentlemanly Father Bauer refused to let his players run up the score against inferior countries. As a result, other countries scored more than the Canadians did, because they didn’t hesitate to give inferior teams a pounding. 

The chicanery was all so last-minute and bizarre that the Czechs didn’t even show up for the medal ceremony. They figured they’d come fourth, so why bother? Team Canada’s players arrived for the medal ceremony in formal attire, ready to claim their bronzes, but were told, sorry, guys, you’re going home with nothing. 

It was a badly kept secret at the time that Ahearne had it out for Canada, was tired of watching Canada dominate, and was happy to come up with some last-minute wrinkle to prevent the Canucks from medalling. Father Bauer, who could smell political mischief a mile away, responded with his typical grace and humility and simply urged his charges to leave Austria with their heads up. 

Over the years, Hockey Canada, which oversees amateur competition here, has made some half-hearted efforts to rectify this injustice, but it hasn’t been able to convince the IIHF to re-examine Canada’s case. The federation has hidden behind the notion that, if they were to consider this claim from Canada, other countries would want to protest this, that, or the other thing. So it has let the issue lie. 

The problem, of course, is that Canada’s players, who acquitted themselves so well over there, are now in their late 70s, early 80s, or dead. And they are losing hope that they will see their legitimate claims for medal justice recognized in their lifetimes. 

Four members of that ’64 Canadian hockey team gathered last week for an online conversation on a show called Hockey Time Machine. They reminisced about how much they’d loved playing for their country and expressed disappointment that, all these decades later, nothing has been done to rectify the situation. 

“I don’t think there’s any appetite in Hockey Canada’s hands to move forward,” said Paul Conlin, 78, who’s now an Ottawa-based lawyer. He’s grown weary of trying to make the case for himself and his teammates. 

It’s a particularly bitter pill for the surviving members of the team to swallow, given that professional NHL’ers have taken over playing at international tournaments now. Father Bauer’s team was the last group of amateurs to play for Canada before the 1972 Summit Series. These men still want Canadians to know that they represented their country honourably during the ’64 Olympics — for no pay — and ought to be appropriately recognized with the bronze medals they believe they earned. Most of the players may have had the proverbial “cup of coffee” in the NHL. But, in the main, this was the most important hockey experience of their lives. And the lack of a just ending to their story still rankles. 

“The fact that we still have reunions every two or three years shows we still cherish the memories we had with one another,” said Barry MacKenzie, now 80, who played in both the ’64 and ’68 Olympics and is in the IIHF Hall of Fame. “We still think we’re gold-medal winners even though we only won the bronze.” 

Every day of his life, Marshall Johnston, 80, who actually did win a bronze medal at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France, looks at a picture of that ’68 medal ceremony. He’s not smiling in the picture. Four years later, he was still ticked at how he and his teammates were screwed out of a bronze in Innsbruck. 

“I didn’t feel like smiling in ’64 or in ’68,” Johnston said. “We’ve had a lot of disappointments.”

Even for Rod Seiling, who played nearly 1,000 games in the NHL and formed part of the immortal 1972 Team Canada, the lack of resolution around this issue stings 58 years later. 

“When you stand on your blue line and listen to your national anthem, it gives you a real sense of pride and accomplishment,” said Seiling, who’ll turn 77 next month. “But it is a big hole what happened in that last game and the way it happened. We deserved to be medallists. And it was taken from us. We didn’t lose. It was taken from us.” 

Seiling can’t help but be reminded of this scandal every day of his life. He lives in Waterloo on, if you can believe it, Father David Bauer Drive. 

It seems clear that the IIHF has no appetite to revisit this issue. And Hockey Canada doesn’t seem to want to spend its currency on it either. 

The solution is simple. Hockey Canada should forget about prosecuting its case internationally and simply have some bronze medals struck to give to the surviving members of the team. Have a ceremony. Do it up right. The 58th anniversary of the Innsbruck Olympics is coming up next January and February. It would be a perfect time to right one of hockey history’s greatest wrongs. 

We’re going to massively celebrate the 50th anniversary of Team Canada’s 1972 victory over the Soviets next year — and rightly so. But how about, before we do that, we get some justice for an earlier Team Canada that represented us well and deserves better. 

Come on Hockey Canada. Strike the damned medals. Just do it.


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