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World War I soldier athletes

Posted on November 18, 2014 by 40 Mile Commentator

By Rob Ficiur

The Great War (now called World War 1) began July 28, 1914. The conflict broke out with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. Instead of dealing with the underlying political differences in diplomatic ways, the European nations followed their pre-arranged alliances and entered into the ‘War that Would End all Wars’. While most thought the war would last only a few months it dragged on for four years four months and claimed the lives of nine million soldiers.

Most of World War 1 was fought along 400 miles of trenches in eastern France. To keep their enemies away both sides built trenches from which they could defend their territory. Battles usually involved some variation of soldiers trying leaving their trench and running through no man’s land to try and drive the enemy out of their trenches. In the end over 12,000 miles of trenches were built in that area to keep the enemy away.

One hundred years later it can be easy to critique the war. The causes may seem trite to have caused so many casualties. The trench to trench strategy cost both sides countless lives for very little ground gained. Remembrance Day is not about deciding if a conflict was handled the way we think it should have been. The day is set aside for us to remember and honor those who offered and gave their lives.

The nine million who died were individuals with families and homes. The following are a brief summary of the life of six World War 1 veterans. All of these were athletes before the war but chose to set aside their careers to serve their country like so many others.

Conn Smythe, was the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1927-1961. In March 1915 Smythe and his Varsity Blues team won the Ontario Hockey Association championship.  A week after the championship victory, the nineteen year old Smythe and eight team mates enlisted.

Smythe saw action on the front lines in the war. In February 1917, Smythe earned the Military Cross, when during a battle Smythe ran into the fight to help several wounded Canadian soldiers be brought back to safety. A month later Smythe earned another medal for dispersing an enemy party at a critical time in battle.  Twenty years later, now the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Conn Smythe signed up for World War 2.

Bobby Powell was Canada’s top tennis player of that era. He reached the Wimbledon finals in 1908 and led Canadian Olympic tennis team in the London games that year. In 1914, Bobby Powell enlisted to serve his country. He died in 1917 in the Battle of Vimy. 

Allan “Scotty” Davidson led the Kingston junior team to two Ontario Hockey Association championships in 1910 and 1911. Three years later Davidson helped Toronto Blue Shirts win the 1914 Stanley Cup.  When the war broke out Davidson volunteered. He was killed in action while fighting in Belgium in 1915. In 1950 he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

George Richardson played for the 1906 Ottawa Hockey Club (that was their name) that won the Stanley Cup. In 1908 Richardson, then with the Kingston 14th Regiment team, he helped the team win the OHA championship. He then joined the Kingston Frontenacs club as an executive. When World War I was declared Richardson joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He was killed in action February 10, 1916.

Frank McGee, though blind in one eye, was the Wayne Gretzky of his era. Over one hundred years later he still holds the record for scoring 14 goals in a 1905 game.  Those 14 goals, include eight consecutive goals scored in less than nine minutes.  McGee won 3 Stanley Cups with the Ottawa Hockey Club/Silver Seven playing centre and rover from 1903 – 1905. Frank McGee was killed on September 15th, 1916 at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. When the Hockey Hall of Fame was founded in 1945, McGee was one of the original nine inductees.

Hobey Baker was an elite American college athlete in several sports. Yale University’s rules stated that students could only play two sports, so Baker played dropped baseball but continued with hockey and football. Statistics were not kept of his time at Princeton, but biographer Emil Salvini estimated Baker to have scored over 120 goals and 100 assists in three years, an average of three goals and three assists per game. When the United States entered World War I Baker was able to use his pilot training. A month after the war ended Baker died when his plane crashed during a training exercise. Today the top collegiate player in US College receives the Hobey Baker award.

These six stories of sacrifice and dedication to country was repeated one person at a time in the 620 000 Canadians who volunteered to serve their country, including the 67,000 who gave their lives.

Next week this column will remember and honor some of the World War Two veterans who put their lives on the line for the freedoms we have today.

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