The young sport that had been played in leagues in North America and Europe, and had a European Championship in place for just a few years, grew global in the picturesque city in the north of Belgium with the voyage of teams from Canada and the United States to join their European counterparts for the first time in an official event.
Belgium is not as well-known in ice hockey anymore but was a founding member of the IIHF and competed for the European and World titles during several decades before moving down the ranking in the modern times when ice hockey became a professional sport elsewhere.
One century after the first puck drop let’s have a look in this video what the 1920 Olympics were like and what the situation looks like today:
The former Vice President of the Royal Belgian Ice Hockey Federation is retired but still well-known in Belgian hockey circles as a hockey historian with an impressive collection of hockey artifacts that were entrusted to him by former players. He came to hockey through his son Stefan, who played the sport for local club Olympia Heist op den Berg and the Belgian national team.
Originally ice hockey was expected to make its debut already at the 1916 Olympics in Berlin. The venue was chosen in 1912 with the idea to promote better relations among European countries, but then came World War I and the Olympics had to be cancelled. Badly affected by the war, hosting the Olympic Games was not that easy for Antwerp. That was one reason the various sports that comprised the 1920 Games were spread out over several months.
Ice hockey and figure skating made the start in late April. It was the first time the Olympic flag and logo with the five rings were used and the first Olympic medals were handed before the summer sports began. These were played in July, August and September while the opening ceremony you could see in the beginning of the video took place on 14 August.
Early days of international ice hockey23 April 1920 was the historic day. Host nation Belgium, the European champion of 1913, played the newcomers from Sweden. Unfortunately for the hosts they lost 8-0 and it remained their first and last game of the tournament.
Playing the tournament was already a first in Olympic and IIHF history. The first official Olympic Winter Games took place four years later. The tournament in Antwerp 1920 was later also recognized as the first IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
The International Ice Hockey Federation was founded earlier, in 1908 in Paris, as Ligue Internationale de Hockey sur Glace (LIHG) during a time the sport became more organized outside of the motherland of Canada with the founding of national ice hockey bodies in Europe. Belgium, Bohemia (later Czechoslovakia), France, Great Britain and Switzerland were the founding members in 1908 and all but Great Britain took part at the first Olympic ice hockey tournament twelve years later.
Before that, European Championships were organized that also included Austria and Germany, who were among the countries banned from participating at the 1920 Olympics after World War I.
Three new countries entered the stage in Antwerp 1920 for the first time, making it the first global IIHF-sanctioned ice hockey tournament: Canada and the United States from North America, and Sweden as first Northern European nation.
Two periods, a small rink but seven players on the line-upThe Palais de Glace at Rue de la Sante 9 in the city centre was the venue to write history. It was built in 1910 and stood in the street that is now called Henri van Heurckstraat.
The tournament was different compared to ice hockey today. Although it was – opposed to most IIHF tournaments of that period – played in an indoor arena, the ice was narrow at 56 on 18 metres but had one more position on the ice. The “rover” position was eliminated from the rule book after 1920.
The tournament format used for ice hockey, football, water polo and tug-of-war was special too –the “Bergvall System” (also called Vancouver System in Canada). Teams played in a knockout stage to determine the winner. The teams who lost against the winner would then determine the silver medallist. And the remaining teams who lost to the silver medallists would determine the bronze medallist. Like that the medallists should be selected with a minimum number of games.
Shaping the teams for the global premiereWhile most of the European teams had a history from the previous European Championships, forming the teams was special for the three other countries at their IIHF debut.
Canada started the tradition of those days of not forming a classic national team at IIHF events, but rather sending the best amateur team of the country instead. For Antwerp, that team was the Winnipeg Falcons, the winner of the Allan Cup.
The club was originally founded by immigrants from Iceland who were not welcome by the local ice hockey teams and thus founded their own team to play Canada’s game. That’s why you will find many Icelandic names on the roster. The falcon was chosen as a symbol from the Arctic island they came from and if you look at today’s logo of Ice Hockey Iceland, you will see a falcon and a small maple leaf commemorating that Icelanders wrote hockey history for Canada in 1920. You can find a story on the Falcons published in 2010 here and a lot of old material on this website commemorating the Winnipeg Falcons at the 1920 Olympics.
The Americans on the other hand decided to play games to select an all-star roster with players from clubs in Boston, Pittsburgh and St. Paul and used exhibition games to collect money for the trip – including a 3-2 loss to the Winnipeg Falcons, who would also travel to Antwerp by ship. The roster also included U.S.-based players originating from Canada, who were allowed to represent the United States.
Another team with a notable background was Sweden. The Swedes joined the IIHF in 1912 but made their debut only in 1920. Sure, there was enough ice in Sweden to play the sport but until then hockey on the ice was predominantly played with the sport of bandy, on a field of play the size of a football field, with eleven players each side like in football and two halftimes of 45 minutes. Bandy is played with a ball and when Sweden’s first national ice hockey team arrived in Antwerp, they for the first time played an official game with a puck while players from other teams were surprised about their short and curved sticks. The Swedes eventually bought new equipment in Belgium.
But the Swedes were convinced they could win Olympic points in the sport new to them. That’s why the football (!) federation of Sweden decided to send an ice hockey team to Antwerp coached by American Raoul Le Mat and with bandy players including three with ice hockey experience in Berlin and England. According to the paper “The Birth of Swedish Ice Hockey” by Kenth Hansen, newspaper Stockholms-Tidningen wrote: “With the experience and training that our bandy players have, there is hardly any question that in a very short time we can create a team, that can represent us in ice hockey with the utmost success.” It was the birth of Swedish ice hockey.
Impressive start by North AmericansOpposed to today there was no seeding so the seven teams were drawn into the quarter-final brackets the day before the opening game at the club house of the Royal Yacht Club of Belgium. France received a bye in the first round.
Despite being rookies, the Swedes showed their medal ambitions in the 8-0 opening victory against Belgium with an Erik Burman hat trick.
One day later the North American teams impressively entered the stage. The United States beat Switzerland 29-0 with Tony Conroy as the top goal scorer with eight markers. Canada followed with a 15-0 blanking of Czechoslovakia. Slim Halderson impressed with seven markers.
Canada’s “Falcons” en route to goldThe semi-finals on the next day saw teams from their continents drawn to play against each other. Sweden beat France 4-0 while Canada opened its rivalry against the United States with a 2-0 victory thanks to goals from Frank Fredrickson, who broke a scoreless first-period tie by scoring on his own rebound, and Konnie Johannesson. It was the game of the most skilled and toughest teams.
On the next day the Canadians lived up to their role as tournament favourites. Slim Halderson and Chris Fridfinnson scored quick goals in the second minute of play en route to a 12-1 victory. Frank Fredrickson shone with seven markers while Einar Svensson scored the 3-1 consolation goal for Sweden with a deflected shot that the Swedes celebrated as a miracle. It would be the only goal Wally Byron conceded en route to gold for Canada.
More games to decide silver & bronzeA “Tournament B” for the silver medals between the teams losing to Canada continued the following two days and was easily won by the United States, 7-0 against Sweden and 16-0 against Czechoslovakia, and the New York Times headlined: “United States is second at hockey.”
The tournament ended with the games for bronze against the remaining teams who lost to the United States. Sweden beat Switzerland 4-0 in the first game but faced tougher opposition in the deciding game for bronze against Czechoslovakia. The Czechoslovaks hadn’t scored a goal in their other two attempts but captain Josef Sroubek netted the puck early in the game with a long shot. The Swedes tried hard but Sroubek’s 1-0 goal remained as the game winner and the Czechoslovaks secured the bronze medals with just one win and one goal scored during the entire tournament.
Sweden as well as France, Switzerland and Belgium left the tournament empty-handed but with new experiences from the first Olympic ice hockey tournament.
Congress in Antwerp paved way for WorldsThis first tournament changed a lot in international ice hockey as it paved the way for the Olympic Winter Games and the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in the years to come.
The IIHF held its first Congress in six years and after World War I during the afternoon of the gold medal game day at the Palais de Glace in Antwerp and adjusted its rule book “to adopt entirely the new Canadian game rules” as it was written in French in the minutes while also paving the way in the statutes to hold World Championships.
On the field of play there were now a goaltender and five skaters like we know it today, and two replacement players were allowed to substitute other players. The game would now be played in three periods of 20 minutes in World Championships (but after a protest from the Czechoslovak delegation remained at two periods of 20 minutes in European competitions at that time).
At that congress the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association and the United States International Skating Union of America formally joined the IIHF by acclamation to represent the two North American countries in the IIHF.
The “Championship of 1921” was awarded to the new-born hockey nation of Sweden. It didn’t become a World Championship yet as hoped because Canada and the U.S. eventually didn’t travel to Stockholm but one year after Antwerp host Sweden avenged the loss against Czechoslovakia to win the European title.
The first Olympic Winter Games were played four years later so that Chamonix 1924 and St. Moritz 1928 were the second and third World Championships. The first stand-alone World Championship was played in 1930 and started in Chamonix but due to issues at the natural ice rink ended with medal games in Berlin and Vienna (see story). That’s when the Worlds became – with a few exceptions – an annual event.
Canada won the first six world titles (including three at Olympics) until 1932. In Prague in 1933 the United States became world champions and at the 1936 Olympics, Great Britain was the first European team to win gold.
Belgium lost momentumHost Belgium was led on and off the ice by Paul Loicq, who was a player, captain, coach and referee at the 1920 Olympics and later entered the IIHF’s history books as its long-time President from 1922 to 1947.
However, on the ice Belgium wasn’t able to capitalize on hosting ice hockey’s Olympic debut.
“These Games didn’t attribute much to ice hockey in Belgium. The next years ice hockey was only played in Antwerp as the rink in Brussels folded,” Casteels explained the bad fortune for Belgium. In 1930 also the Palais de Glace was given up. It served as a car park under the original roof until the building was demolished in 2019 to make space for apartment buildings.
Hockey still alive in AntwerpToday the highest level of competition in the country is the BeNeLiga that includes the top teams from Belgium and from the Netherlands (apart from the Tilburg Trappers, who play in the German third-tier Oberliga). Some teams and players can be called semi-professional, some amateur. The local Antwerp Phantoms belong to the latter group and keep ice hockey in Antwerp alive. With the closure of the downtown rink, ice hockey is now played at the southeast border of Antwerp in the district of Deurne.
“Antwerp remained kind of a hotbed for hockey. In the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s ice hockey was primarily played in the Sports Palace, which still exists, but the ice rink disappeared. When that happened, the clubs went to two new ice rinks built in the ‘70s, one here in Deurne and one a little bit further away in Heist op den Berg,” said Christian Pierre, Secretary of the Antwerp Phantoms.
This month members of the club should have joined a parade with representatives of the other sports to commemorate Antwerp 1920 and an exhibition was planned at the national sports museum. The COVID-19 pandemic unfortunately foiled such plans at least for now.
There would be other reasons to be worried as well for hockey in the city. The old ice rink in Deurne was destructed as the roof could have collapsed. The Phantoms now play at a temporary rink with a tent to keep ice hockey alive. But the regular season ended with games during two weekends being cancelled due to strong winds.
An oasis for the futureHowever, there’s hope at the big construction side next to the rink where soon a building named Sportoase (“sport oasis”) should come into existence at the site of the old ice rink.
“It’s going to be a huge sports complex. It’s going to be an aquatic centre for swimming and diving as well as an ice sports centre with two ice pads,” Pierre said. One with a full-size ice rink and a tribune will be used for the Phantoms games, the smaller one for the kids. “In the fall of 2021 we will be happy to play and skate in the new ice facility here in Antwerp-Deurne.”
And that’s good news for the future of ice hockey in the region. Kids in Antwerp can again dream big in the city where Canada became the first Olympic and World Champion in ice hockey 100 years ago.
We celebrate this big anniversary today with this story and video and will show you during the next weeks the top moments of 100 years of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship on IIHF.com and our social media channels. Stay tuned!