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Remembrance Day, the Winnipeg Falcons and a time when hockey and war were closely connected

Today, we pause to remember.

The Grave of the Unknown Soldier
The Grave of the Unknown Soldier
Cara Thorington

There is something sacred about the monument. Perched ever so close, yet ever so far from Parliament Hill, it sits to remind us all of what has been lost. Scattered around the hill, there are other memorials, just as sacred, reminding us of who has been lost and the price Canada paid when they fought alongside the Allied Forces in World War One and World War Two, the Korean Wars and other battles Canada has joined in. The memorials are everywhere. The Korean War, Canadian war heroes like Sir Arthur Currie and Andrew Mynarski. But the central monument is the Canadian War Memorial and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Every year, Canada gathers there to remember those who have died for their country. Every year, we remember.

The silence is a stark contrast to the heavy shelling and the constant pounding the Canadians faced while at war. In Pierre Berton's Vimy, the noise is described as the sound of ten thousand thunders. Remembrance Day is a day for quiet remembrance; no jarring noises outside of the 21 gun salute, a sound so unexpected it shakes you awake, even though you were not sleeping.

Hockey is affected by wars too. I am not just talking about Don Cherry's most redeeming quality; his time spent with the troops overseas and him always mentioning those who have died at the end of Coaches Corner. No, I am talking about teams like the Winnipeg Falcons, who were forever changed following the war. Teammates died; others were left so horribly wounded that they would never play hockey again. I was going to write about the Falcons in-depth, but their story, how they played on following the losses in WWI, is heard to find in newspaper archives. What I can tell you is that two year after the end of WWI, they were back in Belgium, Antwerp to be exact. Only a day's walk from Antwerp is Ypres, where the first gas attacks happened in 1915. The last Canadian killed was killed in Ville-sur-Haine, a tiny town that the Canadians only took because they were ordered too. At that point, the losses from Canada's 100 Days were so steep that Sir General Arthur Currie did not even want to fight on. The Canadians had to because the Commonwealth forces were commanded to by their overlords in Great Britain, so they fought on.

Armistice was rumoured for years. On November 11, 1918 that rumour became reality. Finally, the Canadian soldiers were able to go home. Some were unable to return until March 1919 or later (I believe). It was a long, long time for the farm boys of Canada to return to the world that they grew up in. Some would never fully return because of a condition called shell-shock, a condition that we call post-traumatic stress disorder. And some never returned at all, their bodies left in the fields where they perished.

For those of you who do not know, Canada became known as feared fighters as WWI went on. The first recruits who went over to England were green and were not even properly outfitted to enter battle. They were re-outfitted with British equipement and were sent out into the field. They were raw. Some streets lost every young male throughout the war. The Canadians fought on. In April, 1917 Canada took Vimy Ridge, a ridge that the professional armies of Britain and France could not take. Canada suffered massive losses, but they were a fraction of the losses that Britain and France suffered. Following the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the Allied Forces looked to Canada for many of the toughest battles, a practice that cumulated in a string of battles known as Canada's 100 Days, a campaign that had Canada fighting numerous battles in a short amount of time while living with the hopes of armistice being reached. Armistice finally was reached while Canada was re-taking Ville-sur-Haine, Belgium. That was the first town taken in WWI, the re-capturing of Ville-sur-Haine was nothing more than symbolic.

Athletes are sometimes compared to warriors. Go by Vimy Road in Winnipeg. Go to Ottawa and walk around Parliament Hill, taking in the War Memorial and all the other monuments that surround the Hill; the ones for the Peace Keepers, the one for the Korean War veterans (still ongoing by the way, just in perpetual truce), the one for the aboriginal soldiers who were not treated as veterans until recently. Athletes are not warriors. Athletes are people who play sports. Some ended up going overseas and fighting. Some never returned. Some were athletes. Today, we remember all those who died overseas and at home while in the uniform of the Canadian Forces. We give honour to those who serve Canada today. We pause today, because we no longer have a country living in the fear that whole streets of boys will not return from overseas. We are so lucky.

The Korean War Memorial

The Canadian War Memorial

Wreaths laid on the Canadian War Memorial, November 11, 2009

"In Flanders Fields", Private John McCrae's wartime poem.  Peace Tower, Parliament Hill.

All pictures are my own. Information has come primarily from The Mad Man and the Butcher by Tim Cook and Vimy by Pierre Berton.