Philip Barker

This week, 3x3 ice hockey is one of the new attractions at the Lausanne 2020 Youth Olympic Games. The small-team format has been successfully introduced in basketball and Olympic bosses will no doubt keep a keen eye on its progress here.

It comes during a year when ice hockey celebrates 100 years as an Olympic sport.

It is a key part of the winter programme, yet it enjoys the unusual, although not unique distinction of an Olympic debut in a summer Games.

In the early years of the 20th century, there was resistance to the establishment of a Winter Olympic Games from the Scandinavian countries which had already set up their own Nordic Games. There had been ice skating at the 1908 Olympic Games in London. A European ice hockey championship had been established as early as 1910, but there had not yet been a global competition.

When plans were laid for the 1916 Olympics in Berlin, an Olympic ice hockey tournament had been planned as part of a week of winter sports. The entry forms sent out by the German organisers specified "Canadian ice hockey with puck". This was an important point, as at that time some countries still played ice hockey using a ball. Despite extensive preparations, the 1916 Berlin Olympics never happened because of World War One. 

Antwerp 1920 saw ice hockey's Olympic debut ©Getty Images
Antwerp 1920 saw ice hockey's Olympic debut ©Getty Images

When the fighting stopped, the first post-war Games were assigned to Antwerp, and the news that ice hockey would be included was received with enthusiasm in Canada and the United States. It also caused great excitement in Sweden, where bandy rather than ice hockey was played. They used bandy sticks for practice, because a consignment of hockey sticks en route from the US was held up at Gothenburg Customs.

The Americans had indicated their readiness at a meeting of the National Hockey Association of the United States at the Boston Athletic Association building. American Skating Union President Cornelius Fellows had only received the invitations from Antwerp organisers in January 1920.

"I replied that although the time was short, I believed it could be done," he said.

They decided that "the ultimate winner of a series of elimination matches between an all-Boston team and teams representing Pittsburgh, Cleveland and St Paul athletic associations should represent the United States in Antwerp".

This proved impracticable because the club teams included other nationalities.

"The rules on amateurism and nationalism are short, but explicit," said Frederick Rubien of the American Olympic Committee. "They will prevent several fine athletes now in this country from competing for the United States, but as the code affects all nations alike, we cannot complain," he said.

Officials insisted team selection be conducted with the "utmost discretion". Eventually it was decided to send a team of seven with seven reserves. The Americans were determined these would be as strong as they could make them. In the meantime, Winnipeg Falcons had won the Canadian amateur championship and were therefore nominated for the Olympics. Many of their team were of Icelandic heritage, which is why the Falcon was chosen as their emblem. To help with finance, three warm-up matches were arranged before the North American teams set out.

"The Canadians made the Americans go all out to the limit of endurance in a game that was full of thrills," reported the New York Times.

The Americans won the first match with a last-minute winner. The Canadians bounced back in the second, before the Americans won again to boost their confidence before setting out for Europe. The matches were to be played in late April - by today's standards, very late for winter sport.

The 1980 US hockey team hold the Olympic Torch during the Opening Ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City ©John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images
The 1980 US hockey team hold the Olympic Torch during the Opening Ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City ©John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images

There was a last-minute hitch in American preparations. The designated hockey team manager, Roy Schooley, was forced to withdraw because of an illness in the family. Instead, skating official Fellows assumed managerial duties and hurriedly packed his bags at short notice. The party sailed on the steamer Finland. It was the very same ship used eight years before to carry the US team to the Stockholm Olympics.

This time, the hockey players were joined by figure skaters.

"A battery of nine moving-picture cameras greeted the team and recorded the events attending the sailing," the New York Times said. From the mid-Atlantic, team officials sent a cable reporting "cold, windy weather on the crossing".

Even so, the players took part in workouts on the deck and, by the time they landed in Belgium, Fellows was able to boast that, "all members of the party were in good physical condition and eager for the practice games".

American Olympic Committee President Gustavus Kirby also spoke on behalf of the team. "Hard opposition is ahead, and the American team will probably meet the most formidable rivals in its entire history."

Seven nations had entered the competition. The Swiss were full of confidence after an 8-4 victory in a warm-up match against Belgium, but their optimism evaporated when they were drawn to play the US. A Swiss official is said to have told his American counterpart: "Don’t kill us!"

In fact, the Americans slammed home 29 goals without reply. The Canadians were almost as dominant in their opening match against Czechoslovakia. They were seven goals up by the halfway mark and went on to win 15-0. Harold "Slim" Halderson scored seven.

According to Canadian newspaper reports, "their play evoked many rounds of applause from the spectators".

The Canadians then went en masse to watch France take on Sweden. "The Falcons were much amused by the appearance of two members of the French team. One of the players trotted onto the ice wearing a long black beard, and the other was middle-aged and bald." Reporters conceded that "they were both 'spry' on their feet and displayed lots of 'pep'".

Unfortunately for the French, Sweden scored four times to advance to the final.

Now came the match that most believed was to decide the gold medal. US manager Fellows insisted "the team are expecting their hardest fight from the Canadians".

The Canadian women are modern-day powerhouses in ice hockey ©Getty Images
The Canadian women are modern-day powerhouses in ice hockey ©Getty Images

The start was delayed because of a dispute over the referee, but it lived up to expectations. "Both teams were on their mettle" and halftime came with still no score.

But the Canadians took the lead through their captain Frank Fredrickson, "with one of his famous corkscrew rushes".

The sellout crowd included a large number of British soldiers. The goal "was the signal for a tremendous ovation from the British Tommies who had attended to root their colonial representatives to victory". A second goal from Konrad Johannesson made sure of victory, though goal-minder Wally Byron was finally given the chance to show what he could do as the Americans pressed in vain.

"Every single player was a perfect acrobat on skates," wrote Swedish journalist Oscar Soderland in the Stockholms-Tidningen newspaper.

In the gold-medal match, Canada beat the Swedes 12-1.

"Tonight's victory was fully expected, it being largely a question of the score they would run up against their sturdy, but less experienced opponents," Canadian newspapers reported. 

The Swedes did at least come away with the sticks of their opponents, given as souvenirs.

After further matches, silver went to the USA and Czechoslovakia took bronze. Then the teams gathered for a farewell party which continued until late in the night.

Until 1956, the Canadians reigned almost supreme in men's ice hockey. Almost, because in 1936, to general astonishment, the gold medal went to Great Britain, though many of the players had honed their skills on Canadian rinks.

The advent of the Soviet Union established a new order in Olympic ice hockey for almost 30 years, interrupted only by the USA in 1960 and more famously in 1980, the year dubbed "Miracle on Ice" by the American media.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Sweden, Czech Republic and the Canadians have all tasted victory, but in Pyeongchang, Germany's fairy-tale run was ended by the Olympic Athletes from Russia.

In an echo of the early days of the men's competitions, the Canadians have been dominant in the women's game since its introduction to the Olympics. The 2018 champions United States are the only other team to have won gold, also topping the podium at Nagano 1998.