Mike Rowbottom ©insidethegames

Canada will take to the ice at the AccorHotels Arena in Paris on Friday (May 5) seeking to become the first nation to win a hat-trick of consecutive International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) men's world titles since the Czech Republic in 2001.

It will be the first time the French capital has hosted these Championships - the 2017 edition is shared with Cologne - since 1951. Back then, a team representing Canada in general, but one small Alberta city in particular, defeated all the odds, and six other nations, to become unlikely world champions.

When the Lethbridge Maple Leafs were chosen to contest the Championships held 66 years ago, according to a piece written for the IIHF site by Trevor Esau, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA) came under "harsh criticism".

Professional players were not allowed to compete in the IIHF World Championships until 1977, which meant that Canada were unable to call upon representatives from their six National Hockey League teams.

But there were hundreds of very good amateur teams in Canada, and even though the Maple Leafs had won the Western Canada Championship the season before, there was a strong body of opinion that felt other contenders would better represent the nation.

What may have bolstered that argument was the fact that the Maple Leafs of Lethbridge were only a year old. It is only the fourth largest city in Alberta behind Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer, founded in the 19th century on drift coal mining and even now with a population of less than 100,000.

The programme cover for the 1951 IIHF World Championships held in Paris, that were won by Canadian club side Lethbridge Maple Leafs ©James Sinclair
The programme cover for the 1951 IIHF World Championships held in Paris, that were won by Canadian club side Lethbridge Maple Leafs ©James Sinclair

Their extraordinary victory has taken its place as one of the great stories in Canadian sport and the annals of ice hockey, and earned them the nickname of Canada's "Cinderella" team.

To explain this reference, there is no better evidence than the detailed account of the whole tour that was written by Maple Leafs player Stanlee Obodiac and published as "No Substitute for Victory".

"This is undoubtedly the Cinderella hockey club of all time," writes Obodiac - the 1951 World Championship's leading scorer, who died in 1985 - in the very first line of his numerous lively diary entries.

Obodiac's first entry amply establishes the size of the challenge facing the newly-formed Leafs.

"Imagine…here we are representing the Dominion of Canada and on our way to the World Hockey Championships in Paris. And just last year the hockey players themselves organised this club chiefly for exercise, and to play in the Lethbridge district.

"They sharpened their own skates, used their own equipment, practised at hours only the night watchman knew…

"It is now history that this band of hockey ragamuffins swept to the Western Canada Championship.

"Then to the beggars fell the plum…Dr W H Hardy, President of the International Hockey Association, mused over the possibilities of sending the Lethbridge team to Europe to represent Canada.

"And here we are, on our way…"

The 18-strong Lethbridge Maple Leafs squad which toured Europe before winning the world title in Paris ©James Sinclair
The 18-strong Lethbridge Maple Leafs squad which toured Europe before winning the world title in Paris ©James Sinclair

By the time the Maple Leafs returned from their extended European tour, to be greeted with banquets and parades, they were not only world champions but also the inaugural winners of the first Sir Winston Churchill Cup after travelling over from Paris to play games at the Wembley Arena which rounded off a 44-match unbeaten run.

They had travelled close to 30,000 miles by bus, train, ship, plane and car and played before an estimated 400,000 people in 14 countries.

"The Maple Leafs had played in magnificent indoor rinks to capacity crowds, such as 15,000 in Zurich," Esau writes. "They had also played in outdoor rinks in dangerous yet humorous conditions. In Germany the players plowed the snow off the outdoor rinks every five minutes in a snowstorm before 12,000 fans cheering wildly for encouragement.

"At one stop, local officials pounded tacks into the bottom of pucks to make them slide better. They added venues as people wanted to see the Canadian team. The Leafs played in a small town with grandstands made of snow to accommodate 2,500 hockey fans.

"At times, the Leafs played on melted ice, running instead of skating and using golf shots but continued the game as they did not want to disappoint the thousands of small town fans."

Esau quotes one of the team, Tom Wood: "I believe it is one of the most unique stories of the history of Canadian amateur hockey. We played for the love of the game, the fellowship and the occasional beer."

The title of Obodiac's account was taken from the cablegram that General Douglas MacArthur sent to the Army in its annual football game with the Navy.

"It is so easy to write daily," Obodiac says in his foreword. "You remember everything. If I had waited until I arrived home I would have remembered very little.

"I wrote everywhere, on board ships, planes, trains, buses, in hotels, rinks and just anywhere where a typewriter would sit for an hour before fatiguing me and agonising the rest of the team. Whitey Rimstad, with whom I roomed most of the trip, would say 'there goes that woodpecker again'.

The "woodpecker" allowed Obodiac to fashion for himself and the wider world an enduring tribute to the 18 men who set out in that post-war era to represent 14 million Canadian people.

"Now remember these names," Obodiac insists. "Mallie Hughes, Karl Sorokoski, Dick Gray, Don Vogan, Shorty Malacko, Whitey Rimstad, Rob McGregor, Billy Gibson, Hec Negrello, Don McLean, Tom Wood, Bill Chandler, Stan Obodiac, Lou Siray, Napper Milroy, Bert Knibbs, Jack Sumner, Ken Branch.

A particularly cosy changing room for the Lethbridge Maple Leafs - from left, Mallie Hughes, Jim Malacko, Bill Chandler, Whitey Rimstad, Lou Siray, Tom Woods and Stan Obodiac ©James Sinclair
A particularly cosy changing room for the Lethbridge Maple Leafs - from left, Mallie Hughes, Jim Malacko, Bill Chandler, Whitey Rimstad, Lou Siray, Tom Woods and Stan Obodiac ©James Sinclair

"War is a period when young men are world travellers. Of these 18 men Mallie Hughes, Hec Negrello, Ken Branch, Dick Gray and I have been to Europe before."

After completing their warm-up games, the team - coached by Gray and captained by Negrello - arrived in Paris for the Championships that took place from March 9 to 17 at the Palais des Sports.

The Maple Leafs were among representatives of 13 countries who were split into two groups, with the top seven playing a round-robin to establish the champion. The other six teams contested a challenge group that would later become the B-Pool and Division I.

The World Championships in Paris began with an Opening Ceremony involving 225 ice hockey players. Amidst a host of photographers and TV cameras, each team was led by its goaltender bearing the national flag - Austria, Belgium, Canada, United States, Finland, Great Britain, The Netherlands, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Yugoslavia and the French hosts.

At that time Canada did not have the red-and-white maple leaf flag that was introduced in 1965 but the Red Ensign containing the Union Flag as used in the flag of the United Kingdom. However, the maple leaf was on the jerseys of the players as they used their club logo.

After they had all lined up in order, La Marsellaise was played and IIHF President Dr. Fritz Kraantz welcomed the countries.

As Esau recalls in his article: "Goalie Mallie Hughes led the Canadians onto the ice. The team followed the goalie in rows of three. The nations entered the arena in alphabetical order and someone yelled to Mallie, 'hold our flag high Mallie, it's a pretty good flag'".

And it soon became clear that this flag flew over a pretty good team.

The Lethbridge Maple Leafs went on to defeat Finland, Norway, Britain, the US and Switzerland before meeting Sweden, who were also undefeated in their first five games, on the last day.

As they waited nervously at the Hotel Littre for their opening match against Finland, the Maple Leafs were happily distracted by a large number of cablegrams sent from home. There was one from the players' wives. Other well-wishers included Mae and Franks' Snack Shop, Consumers Hardware and Regina Breweries who said: "Gang at the Regina plant wish you best of luck to take world title. Might as well pick up the Churchill Cup on the way home".

Of course, there was also correspondence from the Mayor, Council and citizens of Lethbridge.

The Lethbridge Maple Leafs victory in Paris is proudly honoured in Canada 66 years on ©James Sinclair
The Lethbridge Maple Leafs victory in Paris is proudly honoured in Canada 66 years on ©James Sinclair

Finland were beaten 11-1 and Norway were beaten 8-0. Obodiac's diary records: "Tommy Wood says 'that flag's gotta go up four more times'".

There followed a day off when the Leafs blew into town - but first they watched other games at the Palais de Sports. "Someone was labelling the Yugoslavs as 'Tito's boys' and the Finns as 'Joe's boys,'" Obodiac reports. "We were also interested in the report that Germany and Japan had been admitted to play in next year's Games. Two more former aggressors can turn some of their energy into sport."

Obodiac details the day. "In the afternoon we did Paris. By tube, or what they call the Metro here, we went to the Place de la Concorde. We walked by the obelisk into the Champs-Élysées, that beautiful wide street that points so majestically at the Arc de Triomphe."

The boys dropped into the Palais de Parfumerie to pick up some presents for their wives and girlfriends. "No-one will go near Shortly Malacko now, he tried a dash of each behind his ears, on his lapels," Obodiac writes.

Next came the Eiffel Tower, and the lift. "Up and up we went," Obodiac records. "Hughes said 'someone must have been punchy to build this.'"

Soon it was back to business - and a 17-1 whalloping of Britain followed by a win over the US. The match against the Swiss, effectively a semi-final, was a challenge of a different order and the Leafs trailed 1-0 after the first period before scoring five goals without reply.

A full house of 17,000 packed in to watch the Championship game between Canada and Sweden, who needed at least to limit the number of goals against in order to take overall silver and claim the European title on goal average over Switzerland.

"All day we were feeling very tense," Obodiac writes. "We were almost afraid to go to the rink - as a soldier is afraid to go to war - but once we got to the rink we said - as in war - let's go get the b*******. That expression seemed to sum up how determined we were."

The Maple Leafs took a 3-0 lead, through MacLean, Negrello and Roth, before the Swedes got one back. McLean added a second goal and the crowd, initially favouring the Swedes, began to be "more admiring" of the Canadians as the game went on. A second goal from Roth made the final score 5-1.

"All of a sudden the game was over," Obodiac writes. "We were world champions. We hugged each other like a bunch of school boys. There were movie cameras and a battery of cameramen all about. Then they played O Canada and raised our flag for the victory. We all faced it as it rose to the top. Bill Gibson had a tear in his eye. Wood said it was the happiest day of his life."

The World Championship trophy was presented to Negrello on a pedestal at centre ice, with Sweden earning silver and Switzerland bronze. The Maple Leafs then carried the trophy on a victory lap around the rink to the applause of the large crowd.

Canada are hoping to defend their title in Paris this year ©Getty Images
Canada are hoping to defend their title in Paris this year ©Getty Images

"Back in our dressing room we seemed to be in the best city in the world to fill our trophy with champagne and drink from it as champions usually do," Obodiac recalls. "Someone else added that 'Lethbridge will be another Paris this Saturday night.'"

In the six World Championship games, the Leafs had scored 62 goals - of which Obodiac contributed 12 - and conceded just six.

Obodiac describes the coach, Dick Gray, addressing his players back at the hotel. "He had come a long way with his club. He had overcome many difficulties. Dick said it was the greatest spirit team he had ever played with.

"So ended the greatest days of our life."

In front of them all lay the trip to London for the Sir Winston Churchill Cup, during which time they also took in a snooker match at Leicester Square between the then world champion Joe Davis and Sidney Smith.

They met Davis during one of the intervals, and the snooker player asked them where they were from. "We're Canadian ice hockey players," was the response. "Have just come from Paris. One world champion talking to another world champion…"