1948 RCAF Flyers (Courtesy Library and Archives Canada/Sandy Watson Collection)
The 1948 RCAF Flyers were a team thrown together to compete in the Olympic games in Switzerland, but they were booed off the ice and had no support from Canadians, who believed the team would embarrass the country. Instead, the group came together and shocked the nation by winning Olympic gold.
In the early days of hockey at the Olympics, Canada was represented by the team that captured the Allan Cup. In 1947, that was a club from Quebec, the Montreal Royals. But the Royals winning the championship created a predicament for the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, which led to one of the most unlikely stories in Olympic hockey history.
The issue with the Royals representing Canada, said Jim McAuley, an Ottawa-area sports historian, was that several of the players weren’t considered amateurs. Some on the Royals were actually earning pay for their play on the Allan Cup championship team, which wasn’t allowed per Olympic rules. As such, Canada considered not sending a team. That’s when Dr. Sandy Watson stepped in.
“(Watson said) we can create a team and represent Canada at the Olympics,” McAuley explained. “That’s what their intention was. He went to his authority and they told him, ‘OK, go ahead, try and put this team together.’ They made a commitment to the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association that they would go and represent Canada.”
After tryouts in Ottawa — which included some players eliminated as they had played pro before — the Canadian Olympic team made up of RCAF Flyers was selected. But before the team headed head to St. Moritz, Switzerland, where the Olympics were held in 1948, they wanted to gel more as a unit. They set up a few exhibition contests, and the result was awful.
“They were getting blown out,” McAuley said. “They played McGill University, for example, and were blown out 7-0. They played the local Senators team and got embarrassed. Went down to Trenton (Ont.), they had a team at their airbase, and they got beat there.”
The team was booed off the ice in Canada, McAuley said. No one had faith in the Flyers club medalling at the tournament, and few believed they would even put up a good fight. But Watson made an effort to boost the team by picking up a few last-minute players who had been playing in Toronto recreation leagues. But as they were set to head to New York to board a ship headed for Europe, the RCAF Flyers squad hit another snag: their goaltender couldn’t pass the required medical.
“They called to Toronto and they said look there’s a guy plays in this league, he’s a really good goaltender, he works for the Toronto Transit (Commission), he’d be the guy you’d want to take with you,” McAuley explained. “So overnight they sent him up to Ottawa, he goes through the medical thing and the next day they’re driving to New York.”
That goaltender was Murray Dowey, one of three surviving members of the team. Dowey, whose story is featured in a documentary airing all Remembrance Day on Sportsnet, ‘Against All Odds,’ would be one of the stars of the club at the Olympics as he posted five shutouts in the tournament. The entire team in front of Dowey came together once overseas, too, and shocked the entire nation when they captured the gold medal.
For weeks after the tournament ended, the team would stay together playing exhibition games -- including icing their coach Frank Boucher, himself a tremendous player -- in order to raise funds to cover the expenses of their trip to the Olympics. Following that, the team would never truly play together again. The story doesn’t end there, however.
One of McAuley’s close friends became Albert ‘Ab’ Renaud, who was a forward on the RCAF Flyers. “You can ask anyone in town who knew Ab later,” McAuley said. “He lived until he was 90. He was so proud of the fact he represented Canada at that event. He would always have his ring on. He was really proud that he could go as a Canadian.”
In 2003, Dr. Watson passed away, and Renaud, who knew McAuley’s interest in sports history, contacted her with the idea of passing along some of the items from the 1948 RCAF Flyers team to McAuley. McAuley has since passed the collection on to Library and Archives Canada. The Archives put the collection on display this week, and are now in possession of, “over 200 photographs, telegrams, scrapbooks, programs, medals, and other records documenting the team’s activities and games at the Winter Olympics.”
McAuley’s connection to the RCAF Flyers runs deeper than his memorabilia donation, though. Sixty years after the Flyers’ gold medal win, McAuley helped get the RCAF Flyers recognized for their incredible effort in Switzerland. In 2008, McAuley phoned Renaud to ask if he would like to celebrate the 60th anniversary, to which Renaud agreed. They set up a small gathering which grew exponentially larger and eventually included media members and then-Hockey Canada president Murray Costello.
“Shortly after that…the remaining members were invited to a Manitoba Moose game and they were inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in Calgary,” McAuley said. “All of these various things happened after we had this little party for the 60th anniversary.”