The Present Past: Bobby Hockey

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You might not of heard of Bobby Benson, but he was one heck of a hockey player in one small package. Benson was also a part of some pretty good teams, including the 1924 Calgary Tigers who competed for the Stanley Cup and the 1920 Winnipeg Falcons who absolutely demolished the world and won the very first Olympic Gold Medal ever given out in Ice Hockey (and it wasn’t even at the Winter Olympics). 

Benson’s story is also a good chance to talk about the way in which hockey Heritage is marketed to fans and the way we remember players from the past. Let’s get into it after the jump!

HISTORY’S ENTERTAINMENT VALUE 

The Heritage Classic games played by the NHL are probably the clearest example of the attempt to monetize hockey’s history for the purpose of mass consumption. Through merchandising and marketing, the game is sold to fans as an attempt to re-connect with players from hockey’s distant past and Calgary’s game in 2011 was no exception. The basis for Calgary’s sweaters were the Calgary Tigers who played from 1920 until 1936 in several different western hockey leagues. 

Personally, I was skeptical about the whole event and thought that the Flames link to this team was tenuous. I thought the whole event seemed like sports kitsch and I was far too refined to get excited about such a silly thing like an ‘outdoor hockey game,’ but, that is because I was a huge bummer and totally missed the point. The anachronism is what is so fun about these games; seeing multi-millionaire athletes shiver alongside fans was an endearing experience. The historian Marc Bloch said “Even if history were judged incapable of other uses, its entertainment value would remain in its favour.” Isn’t that the whole point of all these outdoor games? 

Plus, I will never forget locking eyes with a gentleman, the steam rising as he relieved himself into a garbage can (because the stadium was not at all adequately equipped to handle this many people). Surely then I knew this was a meaningful hockey memory. 

So what do we know about those Calgary Tiger teams? What kind of player played for them? What was the game like? It’s hard to answer these questions in way that satisfies all our curiosities but we can start by removing some modern biases we might have towards these teams from the past. 

When you see photos of these teams, with their high-necked sweaters, primitive equipment, and immaculate hairdos, it is all too easy to relegate these players to historic figurines, people who played but not in the way that we play. 

In truth, many of these teams, the Calgary Tigers included, were carefully crafted teams with free-agent starpower, undersized fan-favourites, and big-bruising defenders. Teams like the Calgary Tigers worked tirelessly to recruit top-talent from across North America. One of those highly sought-after recruits was Bobby Benson, a Calgary Tigers defenseman from 1922-25 and member of the 1924 Tigers team who lost the Stanley Cup to Montreal. Benson was much more than a footnote on this team though, by the time he joined the Tigers, he had a national profile as a member of one of the most famed hockey teams of the early twentieth century.

MEET BOBBY BENSON

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First things first: 1) Hockey sweaters are the best sporting uniform and it’s not close 2) Those are goalie pads? J.S Gigure’s pajama’s are probably wider than those 3) How amazing is the hair in this photo? (I’m sorry, I’ll get off the hair now).

Spot the handsome gentleman pictured third from the right in the image above. That man, all five-foot-four of him, is Bobby Benson, former Calgary Tiger defenseman and member of the first-ever Olympic Gold Medal in Ice Hockey from 1920. The team that captured Canada’s Gold Medal was the Winnipeg Falcons and the story of how they captured this medal is awesome. 

Before we get into that, let’s make sure you can get a good look at Bobby Benson, because his distinctive, diminutive appearance became his calling card in print media from the early twentieth century. Because it might be hard to see Benson, here is a zoomed-in look from that spectacular image:

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To understand Benson’s life is to understand the complex reality facing many growing up in a new country during turbulent times. Born in 1894 in Winnipeg, Benson was the son of Icelandic immigrants Benedikt Johannesson and Rosa Gudmundsdottir. Yeah, don’t think I didn’t check those names a few times before I hit publish. My heart goes out to Icelandic pen engravers and personal key-chain makers. 

It is important to note that when the Falcons won gold at the 1920 Olympics, it was not Benson’s first time on European soil. Benson had represented Canada before, albeit under much different circumstances. 

In 1916, Benson, who was then employed as a carpenter, joined the 223rd Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force headed for the conflict in Europe, which, by that time, that had reached a bloody stalemate. The 223rd Battallion was a group specifically recruited from Scandinavian immigrants and even served with one of his future Olympic teammates, Wally Byron. Here is an image from the Icelandic veteran’s database (Also: let’s gawk at how strange Icelandic is):

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Prior to heading to Europe, the 223rd Battalion trained in Winnipeg in preparation for war. During this training time, Benson frequently played hockey competitively in what was called the Winnipeg Patriotic League with many of his Falcon teammates. Before he headed east for Europe, Benson and his team was featured in newspaper articles raving about how skilled their team was. One of these stories featured cartoons of each of the players and they are fantastic. Here is Benson’s cartoon:

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Here is a link to the rest of the cartoons. They are all worth a look.  

These are great, aren’t they? Hey, come to think of it, why do we even need any photos in newspapers? They’re so…static. Let’s do these cartoons from each game rather than just photos! I think I just saved print media. Look at the opposition player in that cartoon. Isn’t that essentially Ladislav Smid? Shouldn’t we just have these instead of photos from the game? Calgary Herald, get in touch. Calgary Sun, you’re essentially a cartoon anyway so carry on. 

However, the hockey played in the Winnipeg during his training would be the last hockey he played for two years. In April 1917, Benson and the rest of the 223rd Battalion shipped off for Europe to reinforce infantry in France. In May 1919, Benson returned home safely but, sadly, the Great War had claimed two of his Falcon teammates. The remaining Winnipeg Falcons returned home grateful for the opportunity to play again and began work on kicking a serious amount of hockey keyster.

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BTW: You can check out more info about the Falcons here, it’s a fantastic mom-and-pop website with tons of info.

The Falcons captured the Allan Cup (given to Canada’s top senior amateur team) and represented Canada at the first-ever Olympic ice-hockey tournament in 1920. Now, I know you all are keen Olympic enthusiasts so I can already hear you shouting at your monitors, “Taylor, you idiot, the first Winter Olympics weren’t held until 1924! You’re ruined!” Well, reader, here’s the rub, the Falcons captured gold in ice-hockey at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp. Dig that hombre. 

The Falcons participated in this tournament in April of 1920, in a tournament months before the Summer Olympics officially opened in August, the first ever Olympic ice-hockey tournament and first-ever World Championship all rolled into one. Oh, and speaking of rolled, that’s exactly what the Falcons did to the competition. In three games (it was a small tournament), the Falcons out-scored the competition 29-1. TWENTY-NINE TO ONE, including a 12-1 victory over Sweden in the gold-medal game (Benson scored one goal in this game). 

Mercifully, the Falcons only needed to win the three games to win gold which may have been due to the rules of the tournament or may have been the equivalent of stopping the fight in the early rounds. Either way, The Falcons returned home as Olympic Gold Medalists and World Champions.

There is some irony in the application of this story as: ‘brave young Canadians winning gold for their country.’ The uncomfortable reality is that that the Falcons team was created in 1911 because they were not permitted to play on other Winnipeg clubs due to their Icelandic ethnicity. The message sent to the Falcons in 1911 was essentially, ‘you are not Canadian enough,’ a chilling thought when you consider five years later, members of this team fought and died overseas for Canada. Throughout Canadian history, there are many examples of hockey being used as an instrument of division alongside its ability to unify the country. However, it is rare to draw both examples from the same team. 

SMALL BUT POWERFUL

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By the time the Tigers acquired Benson, he was already a pretty big name and had acquired a reputation as being a fast, skilled, and nasty player to play against. As I mentioned before, Benson was only 5’4 and listed at a mere 130 pounds which is crazy if you consider that he was a defenceman. Just so you have a comparison, if one believes his HockeyDB page, Johnny Gaudreau has four inches and 30 pounds on Benson. That is one small defender. 

During his time with the Tigers, Benson was rock-solid on the back-end. Benson became known for his speed and his aggression, averaging almost a PIM/gm in his time as a Tiger. There was precedent for Benson’s rough play as during the 1919-20 season, Benson led the Manitoba Hockey League in penalty minutes despite being one of the smallest players in the league as well.

Benson’s stature and play captured the attention of the journalists covering him as well. For example, the Ottawa Citizen, when previewing the Calgary Tigers’ 1924 season, called Benson a “midget husky” and meant it endearingly. I think. I don’t know, read it for yourself. The Citizen was far more complimentary a week later when they described Benson as: 

“the midget [really? again with the midget stuff?] defence reserve has tided Calgary over many strenuous periods. He is a stocky little specimen with the courage of a Roman and the fighting spirit of a cornered tiger [nice one. Tiger, get it?]. He is small but powerful and whenever Bobby misses them with the stick, he applies that sturdy little frame. 

It gets a little hard to read the rest of the passage, but here it the full article from Nov. 19, 1924.

Unfortunately for Benson, his 1924 season was cut short when his shoulder was injured. It’s kinda cool, you can see in this box-score from the Montreal Gazette when the injury occurred just nine games into his season. This was the last season Benson would spend with the Tigers as Benson left to join the Boston Bruins of the National Hockey League, playing only eight games for the Bruins. 

GO SEE THIS STUFF IN PERSON

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Thanks to Helena at CSHOF for her help with these photos and artifacts

Calgarians are very fortunate because they can check out artifacts from the Winnipeg Falcons team live and in person (and without having to travel to say, Winnipeg. Ew.). The photo above is from Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame which is located at Winsport (formerly C.O.P) and is across the street from the home of the best women’s hockey team in the known universe, the Calgary Inferno. 

Bobby Benson and the rest of the Winnipeg Falcons are on display there, along with one of the gold medals won in Antwerp (in the framed photo), and a championship pennant, alongside eleventy gillion other cool sports artifacts. It’s honestly a lot of fun, and not just for history nerds like myself. I highly recommend checking it out. 

Looking at these artifacts in person is cool because it makes the players, teams, and stories tangible. The Falcons’ story includes prejudice, sacrifice, and athletic achievement, but at its core, the Falcons, Bobby Benson, and all players from this era were still hockey players. So I suppose what I’m saying is: I’m okay with making today’s players a little chilly every now and again.