It Was Almost a Miracle on Ice

Forty years ago this month, Father Bauer's unlikely Vancouver-based hockey team barely lost Olympic gold. The Tyee remembers what history has forgotten.

By Tom Hawthorn 20 Feb 2004 |
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Two minutes left in the second period. A 2-1 lead over the powerful Soviet Union. Final day of the Olympic hockey tournament.

So close. Twenty-two minutes from a gold medal and with it the promise of a lifetime of backslapping, banquet invitations, halls of fame. So close.

The Canadian players that day 40 years ago this month were all amateurs. Many were students at the University of British Columbia. They lived on campus and practiced at Kerrisdale Arena.

They were an experiment conjured from the fertile mind of David Bauer. He had been a skater with an impressive hockey pedigree who abandoned the puck for the pulpit. Father Dave, as he was called, could not stay away from his secular passion, regarding the ice of a rink as frozen holy water.

By the fall of 1963, he was coaching his brainstorm Canada's first national hockey team. The international hockey governing body had adopted tough rules defining amateur status, eliminating most senior hockey players in Canada and the United States from competition even as it protected "shamateurs" who enjoyed cozy jobs while playing for their Communist homelands.

Fr. Bauer promised to build an amateur team worthy of taking on the world's best, worthy of wearing the maple leaf on their sweater, worthy of earning the gold medal he alone seemed to think within reach.

Skookum spirit replaced experience

"We had a shot," recalls Roger Bourbonnais, 61, today a partner in a Vancouver law firm who was a 21-year-old left-winger at the 1964 Olympics. "We had youth and vigour and enthusiasm and courage and the Canadian spirit."

Bourbonnais and his teammates would never forget what happened to them at the Olympics, some still angry at an injustice 40 years later. They came so close to their own miracle on ice. But no one is making a movie about the Canadian college kids who challenged the world only to find themselves with an unwarranted reputation as failures who sullied their land's hockey reputation.

Bauer--the younger brother of NHL great Bobby Bauer, who played on the Boston Bruins' famed Kraut Line asked UBC human kinetics professor Bob Hindmarch to be general manager and assistant coach.

One of Hindmarch's first duties was a visit to the Pacific National Exhibition grounds, where he bought the Prize Home for $3,500. (The lucky winner preferred cash to a castle.) The building was trucked to campus, where it was placed in a field next to a wireless station left from the Second World War.

Many of the players bunked in the home, the late arrivals who lost out on closet space hammering nails into the wall to hang their cloths.

"They were skookum guys," Hindmarch said. "Big tough kids."

At 6-foot-3 and 187 pounds, Brian Conacher was the biggest on the team. The son of Lionel and the nephew of Charlie, he had inherited a bundle of hockey smarts.

Another offspring of a hockey great was Terry Clancy, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound right-winger who was the son of King Clancy.

While all forwards shared exceptional skating skills, and a suspect deficiency in scoring goals, the team's strength was on the blue-line. The quartet of defencemen included Hank Akervall, the team captain; bruising Barry MacKenzie; bashing Terry O'Malley; and 19-year-old Rod Seiling, a rushing defenceman whose precocious puck sense made him a scoring threat.

Smoke Eaters' legend guarded net

The goaltenders were Ken Broderick, a UBC student who had been a teen sensation with the junior Toronto Marlboros, and Seth Martin, whose brilliance made him a fan favourite in Europe when the Trail Smoke Eaters won the world championship in 1961. At 31, Martin was the oldest player and the one with the most experience at the world level.

The young players saw their assignment as a mission.

"The world was in a mess," Bourbonnais said. "The U-2 spy plane incident, the Berlin Wall, the Kennedy assassination."

Pundits gave them little chance of winning a medal, and they struggled in pre-tournament exhibition contests. But the youngsters won their first five games at the Olympic tournament at Innsbruck, Austria.

An incident in the game against Sweden became part of Olympic lore. When Sweden's Carl Oberg broke his stick, he tossed it (carelessly, if one considers him innocent; maliciously, if one does not) towards the Canadian bench. The jagged end struck Bauer in the face, opening a wound that bled.

The Canadians were incensed, ready to jump over the boards to defend the coach and what they saw as their own honour.

"All of us were rarin' to go," Bourbonnais said. "Bauer's hanging onto us, pulling us back onto the bench." The coach barked instructions for his players to stay put. He did not want to take penalties in a close game and Canada went on to win by 3-1.

Father forgave Swedish 'sin'

Bauer returned to the arena the next day to scout the Czechoslovakia-Soviet Union game. He invited Oberg to sit with him, sending a message that he harboured no ill will toward the Swede.

Goaltender Martin got the start for an important showdown against the Czechs. "I had a good feeling about playing in that game," he said recently from his home in Trail. "I felt there was no way I was going to lose that game." Martin had surrendered just four goals in 180 minutes in the nets for a sterling goals-against average of 1.33.

The first period was scoreless. At 14:05 of the second, Seiling scored on a pass from MacKenzie.

The Czechs kept attacking, but Martin looked unbeatable. The game turned on what seemed to be an inconsequential play several minutes into the third period.

"I went out of the net to clear the puck," Martin recalled. "[Miroslav] Vlach, the Czech forward, ran into me. It was unintentional. I hurt the inside of my left knee. Twisted it just enough." Martin was unable to continue. Broderick took his place, but it was as if a spell had been broken. The Czechs scored three times on the replacement.

The final game was against the Soviets, who were undefeated after six games. Still, a Canadian win would earn a gold medal.

Soviets played by different rules

The Soviet team qualified as amateur under international hockey rules, although these players were the elite of a system dedicated to icing the best team possible. As the author Andrew Podnieks described it in his 1997 book Canada's Olympic Hockey Teams, "Imagine an NHL All-Star team playing in the Original Six as a seventh team, the absolute best being given many years' worth of preparation. That was the Russian team..."

Fr. Bauer's university students had come far and were one game away from a goal few others thought possible. Before the game, the Canadian dressing room was as still as an alpine meadow.

"It was pretty quiet," Bourbonnais said. "The whole year came down to one game. We didn't need any pep talk."

With Martin's knee still sore, Broderick got the start. George Swarbrick scored at 5:57 of the first to give Canada a 1-0 lead. Yevgeny Mayorov tied the game midway through the second period.

Forhan scored his seventh goal of the tournament a few minutes later to once again give Canada the lead.

Canada killed off a penalty to Conacher. With two minutes left in the second period, Canada nursing a 2-1 lead over the Soviet Union, on the final day of the Olympic hockey tournament, the great Spartak player Vyacheslav Starshinov scored to tie the game.

Bauer called on Martin's legend

Bauer felt Martin's presence in net, even with a bandaged knee, would spook the Soviets and give the Canadians a boost. Between periods, Martin was told he would be starting the third.

"I'll do the best I can, Father," Martin said.

The Soviet coach, Anatoli Tarasov, was cagey, too. He ordered his players only to shoot if they had a certain goal. He did not want to give Martin a chance to warm up, or to build confidence.

At 1:36, Veniamin Alexandrov had his opportunity, scoring on a 3-on-2 rush on the Soviets' first shot against Martin. They would pepper him with 18 more that period without success. But neither could the Canadians score, and the game ended with the Russians winning the gold medal with a 3-2 victory.

The dejected Canadians trudged into the locker-room. They had been so close. One goal from gold. They sang for their coach, but their "jolly good fellow" sounded more like a dirge.

Canada's record was 5-2, which was shared by the Czechs and the Swedes. The goal differential among those teams placed Sweden in second place and Canada in third.

In the gloom of defeat, the coach had more bad news. Olympic officials had decided behind closed doors that the tie-breaker would be the goal differential for the tournament, not just for games involving the tied teams. The Czech players would be given bronze medals.

"Well, Father," said forward Marshall Johnston, "the priest and his flock got fleeced."

The Canadians received Olympic certificates recognizing their fourth-place finish. Some players crumpled the paper and threw it away.

'Losers' made history elsewhere

For the first time, Canada was exiting an Olympic hockey tournament without a medal. One goal away from becoming sporting heroes, the Canadians were instead seen as failures, overreaching college kids who had embarrassed the land that had given the world hockey.

Half the 1964 squad would win a bronze medal four years later at the Olympics at Grenoble, France. Both goalies and five skaters from the squad would go on to NHL careers, from as brief as Gary Dineen's four games to as accomplished as Seiling's 979. Most quietly returned to their studies and their careers.

The Canadian hockey team did receive one medal after the 1964 Games. Bauer was rewarded for his sportsmanship in defusing the desire for retaliation after being hit by a Swedish stick.

The other consolation was a trip to Rome for an audience with the Pope, one of the perks of having a priest as coach.

Everywhere the Canadian players had gone in Europe, the question posed by passersby, often delivered in mispronounced English, was: "Which one is Seeth Marteen?"

As the players massed in St. Peter's Square to await the meeting with Paul VI, some stared at the rigid Swiss Guards, the sentries famed for their unwavering rigidity. From one immobile guard, however, a whisper was heard. "Which one is Seeth Marteen?"

Tom Hawthorn is a Victoria writer who harbours an unnatural obsession with sports obscurities.  Visit his site at  [Tyee]

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