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"HAW" 2004 Obituary


HAWTHORN 

HAWTHORN o@ca.on.york_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2004-03-20 published
Alexander Gardner WATSON
'Everyone said we'd never win'
How an Royal Canadian Air Force medical officer took a sad-sack squad of airmen and built a team that brought home Olympic hockey gold
By Tom HAWTHORN, Special to The Globe and Mail Saturday, March 20, 2004 - Page F11
Victoria -- He was a hockey enthusiast who turned a makeshift team into world beaters. In 1947, Sandy WATSON was a Royal Canadian Air Force medical officer with an amateur's passion for hockey, but within a year he had put together a squad of airmen that overcame great odds to win an Olympic gold medal.
Dr. WATSON's part in the story of how the Royal Canadian Air Force triumphed at the Olympics began with the announcement that Canadian hockey officials had decided to skip the 1948 Winter Games. The news so upset the doctor, who died late last year at his home in Ottawa, that he vowed to create a team from scratch. "When I read the headline saying we -- this great hockey nation would not be sending a team, I was offended," he said. "And I thought maybe I could do something about it."
The International Olympic Committee had adopted tough new rules defining an amateur athlete. The Canadian Amateur Hockey Association felt the new standard eliminated most senior players from the competition.
With the entry deadline just 48 hours away, Dr. WATSON decided on what he would later describe as a whim to build a team from among fellow Royal Canadian Air Force members. The squadron leader won approval from hockey officials and superior officers in two frantic days of lobbying. Canada would take part in the Olympic tournament after all. Now all he needed were some players.
The Royal Canadian Air Force's postwar enrolment of 16,000 promised a wealth of hidden hockey talent. Dr. WATSON had managed a series of exhibition hockey games in England in the months following the defeat of Germany, pitting the air force against the army. The games featured such National Hockey League players as left-winger Roy CONACHER, a sniper for Royal Canadian Air Force teams during the war. Such professionals were ineligible for the Olympic team, of course, so Dr. WATSON knew the calibre of players would not be very high.
About 200 airmen were dispatched to Ottawa for a training camp in October, 1947. The volunteers were mostly a sad-sack lot, a shock for Dr. WATSON and coach Frank BOUCHER, an Royal Canadian Air Force sergeant. Some could barely skate.
The team made its public debut in an exhibition game played at the Auditorium in Ottawa on December 14, 1947. The opponents were McGill University's varsity team, deliberately chosen to offer minimal resistance. The air-force brass was in attendance, as were senior hockey officials and the governor-general, Earl Alexander of Tunis. To Dr. WATSON's horror, the McGill Redmen scored an easy 7-0 victory.
The newspapers were highly critical of the Olympic team. An all-Royal Canadian Air Force team seemed a folly. Senior officers in the air force could not have been happy about such a poor squad wearing the Royal Canadian Air Force roundel on their sweaters. They were likely to be embarrassed on the world stage.
Reinforcements were needed, so Dr. WATSON went hunting.
"We just put the thing together overnight, almost," he told the Medical Post in 1988. "Our guys had played together as a team for something less than three weeks before we left. The goaltender I never even met until we reached Europe."
Dr. WATSON's first move was to scout an Ottawa Senior League game. The New Edinburgh Burghs beat the Hull Volants 6-2, with five goals produced by a forward line of Reg SCHROETER, Ab RENAUD and Ted HIBBERD. Dr. WATSON invited the trio to join his squad, also taking former flying officer Frank DUNSTER and Pete LEICHNITZ.
Other players parachuted onto the team were defenceman Andre LAPPERIERE, a student at the University of Montreal; forwards George MARA and Wally HALDER from Toronto; and, goaltender Dick BALL, also from Toronto.
The recruits joined Louis LECOMPTE, Pat GUZZO, Irving TAILOR/TAYLOR, Andy GILPIN, Roy FORBES, Ross KING, Orval (Red) GRAVELLE and Hubert BROOKS on a team called the Royal Canadian Air Force Flyers, but whose military experience varied. While HIBBERD and LEICHNITZ were civilians sworn into the Royal Canadian Air Force with the rank of aircraftsman 1, Mr. BROOKS, a flying officer, had been a prisoner of war who escaped three times before joining Polish partisans. He was awarded the Military Cross.
With the team preparing to embark for Europe, Dr. WATSON faced another crisis. Mr. BALL, slated to be the starting goalie, failed his physical with a lung infection. Facing another 48-hour deadline, Dr. WATSON awoke Toronto bus driver Murray DOWEY with a telephone call at his home at 1 a.m. The practice goalie for the Toronto Maple Leafs was willing to play, but would need a leave of absence from his job. Dr. WATSON convinced his boss, Allan LAMPORT, a future mayor of Toronto, in a phone call at 1: 30 a.m.
Mr. DOWEY was called back at 2 a.m. and told to report at Downsview airport at 6 a.m. to catch an Royal Canadian Air Force plane to Ottawa. The airport was fogged in that morning, so a sleepy Mr. DOWEY caught a train to the capital.
His appearance did not immediately impress the team manager.
"Around noon a skinny, bedraggled kid, looking like something dragged through a knot hole, arrived at my office," Dr. WATSON once told the Ottawa Citizen. "We swore him in the Royal Canadian Air Force, got him kitted up with a uniform and he looked even worse."
The Canadians were given poor reviews by the European press. A tie and a one-goal victory over lightly regarded English teams did not auger well for the Flyers.
The round-robin Olympic tournament was held in an outdoor rink at St. Moritz, Switzerland. In the opening game, Sweden scored against Mr. DOWEY after just two minutes and 35 seconds of play. But the Canadian goalie would be the team's star and a crowd favourite with his innovative use of a catching glove. Canada beat Sweden 3-1, before rolling over Britain (3-0), Poland (15-0), Italy (21-1) and the United States (12-3).
A scoreless tie with Czechoslovakia was followed by a 12-0 drubbing of Austria. The gold-medal game was played against the Swiss hosts on February 8. Dodging snowballs thrown by local partisans, the Flyers won 3-0 to claim an unlikely gold medal and a place in Olympic lore. Canada finished with seven wins and one tie. Mr. DOWEY allowed just five goals in eight games for a miserly 0.62 average.
Two days later, Mr. BROOKS married his Danish sweetheart, Birthe GRONTVED, in a ceremony at a small church in St. Moritz. Barbara Ann SCOTT, the Canadian figure skater who also became an Olympic champion at those same Games, was the maid of honour and Dr. WATSON was best man.
The Flyers barnstormed Czechoslovakia, France, Belgium, Sweden, England and Scotland while overseas. They completed the European tour, including the Olympic matches, with a record of 31 wins, five losses, six ties.
"Nothing in my life gave me the same thrill (as) organizing that trip and then actually winning it," Dr. WATSON said.
While something told him that Canada had a chance, few at home believed it when the team set out.
"Everyone said we'd never win," he told the Medical Post. The headline in the Ottawa Citizen the day they left summed up the opinion of the sporting press: "The Flyers, like the Arabs, are folding their tents and silently stealing away."
Alexander Gardner WATSON was born on March 28, 1918, at Cellardyke, a fishing village on the north shore of Scotland's Firth of Forth. As captain of a minesweeper, his father had trawled for mines during the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. Long months spent fishing the dangerous waters of the North Sea seemed unsuitable for the father of a young family, so the WATSONs moved to the Ontario fishing village of Port Dover on Lake Erie when Sandy was a toddler.
A brilliant student, he spent a year studying at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, before completing a medical degree at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He won a scholarship to Cambridge, where he earned a bachelor of surgery. He later studied at Harvard and Columbia Universities in the United States.
An Royal Canadian Air Force wing commander during the war, Dr. WATSON became in peacetime one of Canada's eminent ophthalmologists.
In 1967, he helped found the Sally Letson Foundation for post-graduate training. He served as the foundation's executive director for 25 years.
He was chairman of the department at the University of Ottawa medical school from 1968 to 1985. Dr. WATSON was the driving force behind the university's Eye Institute, which opened in 1992.
He was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1988.
Among his patients were a Parliamentary Guide's worth of notables, from governor-general Jeanne SAUVÉ to New Democratic Party leader T.C. (Tommy) DOUGLAS/DOUGLASS. He treated prime ministers John DIEFENBAKER, Lester PEARSON, Pierre TRUDEAU, Joe CLARK and Brian MULRONEY.
Dr. WATSON also became the eye specialist for the Montreal Canadiens, a legacy of his desperate plea for assistance while putting together the Royal Canadian Air Force team. The Canadiens contributed, while Conn SMYTHE of the Toronto Maple Leafs refused. (Major SMYTHE was army, of course.) One young prospect examined by Dr. WATSON was a gangly, teenaged goaltender who needed contact lenses. Dr. WATSON reported the goalie's vision was good, and Ken DRYDEN would lead the Canadiens to six Stanley Cups.
Dr. WATSON, who retired in 1997, died at home in Ottawa of prostate cancer on December 28. He leaves his wife, Patricia, sons John and Alexander, and five grandchildren. He also leaves a sister, Faye McVEAN. He was predeceased by a sister and a brother, who drowned as a teenager.
His death came just 17 days after that of Mr. BOUCHER, the coach, who also died in Ottawa. They are survived by eight of 17 players.

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