Old glories still live

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 10:38 AM ET

CALGARY -- Billy Gibson laughs. "You call that a schedule of exhibition games? We played 44 games and never lost one. We played 13 in 14 nights in Switzerland.

''We travelled every day and never slept in the same bed twice.''

Team Canada players head out tomorrow morning for Halifax, Quebec City, Riga and Prague to play pre-tournament games to begin Canada's quest for a third straight IIHF World Hockey Championship.

So, no, this will not be a record for a Canadian team preparing for the IIHF World Hockey Championships.

Ryan Smyth, Dany Heatley and Roberto Luongo could skate away with the complete collection of the first three-peat for Canada since 1950-'51-'52.

Nobody did it back then.

But a few had two.

Gibson won a world championship with the Lethbridge Maple Leafs in 1951 in Paris and then joined the 1952 Edmonton Mercurys to win the Oslo Olympic Winter Games, which then doubled as the world championship.

TOOK THEIR FIRST TOUR

But he wasn't there in 1950 when the Mercs took their first tour and won the world in London, England.

Al Purves, Billy Dawe, Don Gauf, Jack Davies and Bobby Watt were the five Edmonton players who were on the 1950 Mercurys team which went over and won the world championship in London.

"We were gone three and a half months both times,'' remembers Dawe.

"We played a lot of hockey. There wasn't very much opposition. I can't even remember who the toughest opposition was in 1950.

''It wasn't as good as it was two years later. Then we could see that the teams in Europe were coming along and Canada wasn't going to have a such an easy time of it anymore.''

That said, he never dreamed it would take until 2003-'04-'05 to have a shot at winning three in a row again.

"No way. Never entered our minds. This was not a big deal for us. Something we thought was going to happen every year.''

Dawe remembers the 1950 trip.

"We flew down east. That was a novelty back in those days. Then we caught the boat, the Empress of Canada, and landed in Scotland.

''We played in the British Isles, Scandinavia and European countries, the same countries we'd return to play in again in 1952, but generally the other side of those countries.''

In '52 it was a 90-day trip in which the Mercurys went 42-7-2. But if it hadn't been for one lonely tree which prevented the team bus from falling the rest of the way down a gorge when the bus crashed, they all would have died.

"We almost lost the whole team,'' remembered Davies.

"Our bus driver had to move to the shoulder of the road to avoid an oncoming car.

''He lost the shoulder and rolled the bus. It must have been a 100-foot drop.

''We plunged over the side. Suddenly there was a thud. We were rolling and there was broken glass spraying everywhere. Then about a quarter way down the gorge the bus hit the tree. It was the only tree visible for miles.

"We were somewhere in northern Sweden in a bus which had left the road and crashed and was hanging there against that one last three which kept us from going down to our death and guys can't help but start laughing,'' Watt tells the story.

"Monty Ford, our trainer, ended up upside down in his seat in the front of the bus, with a jacket covering his head. All of a sudden we heard his voice say, 'Oh my God, I'm in heaven!' ''

The first Mercurys trip in 1950 and the Lethbridge trip in 1951 weren't near as eventful.

Those players all have stories of playing games on outdoor rinks, in snowstorms, stopping every five minutes to scrape the ice themselves, and of group tourism and games that held lifelong bonds.

"We put our uniforms on in churches and in hospitals and I remember playing outdoors at racetracks where they'd have horse racing right after the hockey game,'' says Gibson of the Lethbridge trip.

Actually they played 62, won 51, lost seven and tied four - with the 44-game winning streak Gibson mentioned as part of the package. For years the failure of Canada to win an Olympic gold medal in hockey brought the 1952 Edmonton Mercurys to life. Then when Wayne Gretzky's Team Canada won Olympic gold in Salt Lake 50 years later, they were inducted into Canada's Olympic Hall of Fame.

SMALLER SPOTLIGHT

Now the 1950 Mercurys and the 1951 Lethbridge Maple Leafs have a chance to get a shot at being remembered to share a smaller spotlight after all these years.

"When the Maple Leafs left Lethbridge, we were so underfinanced you wouldn't believe it. They didn't have the money raised when we left. They raised it while we were on the tour. The Mercurys had funding,'' he said of car dealership owner Jim Christiansen, who put up $100,000 to take the two tours.

"But it all worked out with the Maple Leafs. I have great memories. We played a game in Lausanne with 21,000 fans, many of them were swinging from the fir trees.

"When I came home from the world championships with the Maple Leafs the phone rang and it was the Mercurys asking, 'Billy, do you want to go to the Olympics?' Any Canadian kid that doesn't want to go to the Olympics to play hockey is crazy.''

THE LETHBRIDGE BUNCH

Don Vogan was a member of that Lethbridge bunch and ended up being stationed in Edmonton in 1965. He coached hockey in Sherwood Park and hired a young man by the name of Ken Hitchcock to be his assistant coach one year.

"It was a pretty nice trip,'' he remembers.

"We played before a lot of people. We had a really good time and saw a lot of country. Everything was so different over there. For a 21-year-old guy, it was an education.''

One of the members of that team was a guy by the name of Stan Obodiac. He'd go on to work for decades as the media relations director for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He filed reports back to the Lethbridge Herald and turned it into a small book.

"He worked on that every night,'' said Vogan.

While that team didn't have a bus crash, their train across the prairies hit a truck and killed the driver, Obodiac wrote, suggesting there was some talk about the trip being "hexed.''

CROSSING THE ATLANTIC

The Lethbridge team went by rail, with occasional stops to play games along the way, all the way to Halifax. Crossing the Atlantic by ship, as did all three teams, they played their first few games in England.

"I want to say the Edmonton Mercurys must have been wonderful ambassadors for Canada, for wherever we go, everyone thinks they were princes and wonder if we can emulate them or not,'' wrote Obodiac.

He also wrote of how the team was inspired by a telegram from Edmonton just before beginning the world championship tournament: "We expect confidently you to retain championship for Canada. Good luck - Edmonton Mercurys. Mr. Christiansen.''

TWELVE GOALS

Obodiac led the team in scoring with 12 goals in the tournament with Gibson, who would lead the way for the Mercs the following year, scoring eight.

When they returned home, after travelling 50,000 km and playing in front of an estimated 400,000 fans in 14 countries, they were hosted at a banquet in Lethbridge.

It was at the banquet, wrote Obodiac, where W.G. Hardy of Edmonton, then president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, told the team:"You have no idea of the achievement the Maple Leafs performed.''

None of them, or those on the two Edmonton teams, had any clue somebody would be writing in 2005 about Canada's chance to win three in a row for the first time since then.


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