Celebrating our history

The return of the NHL to Winnipeg has reignited Winnipeg’s longstanding passion with hockey. The official announcement of the team’s name at the NHL entry draft seemed to make things right again in many fans’ minds, after the original Winnipeg Jets were forced to leave for Phoenix, Ariz. in 1996.

But the name debate wasn’t as cut and dry as most fans probably thought it should be.

Beyond the Jets, other names being floated around as possibilities were the Victorias and Falcons. The average Manitoba sports fan might not be aware of the weight those names hold in the hockey circles around this province, but author Richard Brignall is hoping to bring to light Manitoba’s significant contributions to the early formations of hockey in Canada.

A former sports editor for the Manitoban who is currently working as a freelance writer out of Kenora, Ont., Brignall recently published his ninth sports history book, Forgotten Heroes: Winnipeg’s Hockey Heritage. In it he has meticulously searched through Canadian newspaper archives and compiled compelling accounts from some of the earliest hockey games ever to be played in Manitoba.

From there, he traces the growth of the sport in Winnipeg and in rural prairie communities, and describes a Canada still flirting with the notion of accepting hockey as an integral part of its national identity.

During this time, Winnipeg emerged as one of the most dominant forces in Canadian amateur hockey.

Brignall deliberately avoids covering the WHA and NHL Jets, who are often the only teams sports fans point to when the topic of Manitoba hockey is brought up. Instead, the author focused on the development of the sport at the amateur-level, providing the reader with play-by-play analysis and recaps of the first significant hockey games to be played by Manitoban teams at the time; these include the Winnipeg Victorias successful challenges for the Stanley Cup, the first western team to claim the top hockey prize, and the rise of the Winnipeg Falcons to the top of the hockey world, including a detailed account of their journey to capture the first-ever hockey gold medal at the Olympic Winter Games hosted by Belgium in 1920. The win represented Canada’s first claim as the top hockey-playing nation, which came during a time when the sport was still growing in popularity at home and abroad.

Supplementing the play-by-play game summaries are individual player profiles and informative sidebar passages that detail the growth of the game in other parts of North America and brilliant photos, graphics and newspaper ads from the period. Brignall also includes excerpts from the most influential newspapers in Canada, which not only boost the credibility of the game summaries but also provide the reader with a glimpse at the charming and often poetic lexicon used by sportswriters of the time.

The book also emphasizes the growing popularity of the game amongst the greater public. Brignall describes how Winnipeg fans would converge in the lobbies of the main city hotels as they waited for telegraphs come in from out-of-town games, which is all too familiar to the scene at The Forks this past weekend: tens of thousands of Winnipeg hockey fans who could not afford or otherwise get their hands on tickets for the season opener against the Montreal Canadiens once again converged at a common meeting place to receive updates from the game — of course, this time around the updates were live-streaming footage of the game itself.

Whether you consider yourself an avid sports historian or are simply interested in how hockey transformed over the past century — from its humble beginnings as a winter past time for amateurs to the huge multi-billion dollar industry it is today — you would be remiss if you didn’t get your hands on a copy of this book. I would recommend it to Manitoban hockey players, fanatics and historians alike.