Hockey Central

The Oxford Canadians

During the early 1920s, and again in the early 1930s, a team from Oxford, England, made up largely of Canadian Rhodes Scholars, dominated ice hockey in Europe. Through their skill on the ice, and their grace and charm off it, they were able not only to win games but to serve as ambassadors for their sport in the villages, cities, towns and resorts in which they played. Their efforts did much to popularize hockey in Europe.

In the fall of 1921, Lester Pearson, Roland Michener and R.H. (Dick) Bonnycastle met at Oxford University. Pearson would go on to become the 14th Prime Minister of Canada; Michener, the Governor-General of Canada and Bonnycastle the first mayor of Greater Winnipeg. The bond between these three men was forged not on debating clubs (although each of their futures would be defined by the elegance of their words), but on the ice with the Oxford Ice Hockey Club.

In the early 1920s, Oxford University was diminished greatly by the losses sustained in World War I. Certainly it tried to maintain its traditions, but the university had paid a high price for King and country. Of the 3,000 students and teachers who had enlisted "to do their bit," 2,700 had been killed. Amongst the dead were eight class leaders, the son of a British Prime Minister and a generation of future British leaders in politics, arts, science and commerce. After the war, another 25 million people worldwide died of influenza. Across the historic grounds of Oxford, plaques to the dead were appearing. Returning service personnel – witness to unimaginable horrors – were seized by a need to enjoy the moment.

Sports took on a new and greater meaning for this generation which had been part of so much sorrow. The landscape and traditions had been altered forever.

From backgrounds shaped by disease and years of war, a team of young men were brought together by the common love of hockey. Under the direction of their captain, K.E. Taylor, Pearson, Michener and Bonnycastle, along with E.B. Pitblado, H. Fleming, F.L. Neylan, F.M. Bacon and C.B. Clark, would go on to become one of the greatest hockey teams ever assembled by Oxford. They would dominate European hockey over the next three years.

An example of the leadership displayed by Taylor is the effort he put into preparing his team for the 1921 edition of the annual game between Cambridge and Oxford known as the Varsity match. (The two collegiate rivals had been playing this contest since 1900, with the game held in Switzerland since 1902. The schools did not play from 1914 to 1919 because of the war). Taylor arranged for Oxford to play a series of games against a Manchester hockey team prior to the 1921 Varsity match. The captain of Cambridge made no such arrangements for his team. Oxford defeated Cambridge 27-0 that year for the most lopsided victory in Varsity history. So strong was the Oxford team that the fans who encircled the outdoor arena were betting heavily on the margin of victory. After just five minutes, one gentleman refused to sell a pool ticket that required Oxford to win by 40 goals, believing it might be a winner. In the end, it was the combination of Taylor, Pitblado and Bonnycastle that had emerged as the great stars of the game.

During their Christmas tour in 1921, Oxford competed against the Swiss National team and won by a margin of 9-0. They went on to post bigger victories over the home clubs in the ski resorts of Davos and St. Moritz. By the end of the tour, the Oxford hockey team had won the international tournament that was the forerunner of the Spengler Cup. Oxford's dominance over the course of its tour can be measured by its goals for and against: Oxford scored 87 times while allowing just two goals. In February of 1922, five members of this Oxford team were invited to join the British National Ice Hockey Team for an international tournament in St. Moritz. It was largely due to the play of E.B. Pitblado, H. Fleming, F.L. Neylan, F.M. Bacon and C.B. Clark that Britain won the tournament. The determination shown by the Oxford players is exemplified by Fleming who was pushed to the ice during the first game and bit his tongue so badly it was nearly severed. Fleming had the injury stitched up and went on to play so impressively throughout the rest of the tournament that some believe England would not have won without him.

An interesting aspect of the early Oxford hockey tours is that the games were watched by the Europeans in much the same way they would view a stage performance or a concert. The ladies and gentlemen who attended these games were largely from the upper classes and would dress in proper evening clothes. In the Berlin Ice Palace, the indoor arena was surrounded by a dining room in which the hockey fans would be served their dinner and wine while the game was going on for their entertainment. The young Oxford players loved the glitter and glamour of the continental urban and ski resort scene. They did not receive any money for playing hockey but were given room and board in many of the finest hotels. Their leisure time was filled with sight-seeing and skiing. After the game, they were much sought-after guests and enjoyed the company of some of the most attractive women in Europe. Lester Pearson always treasured a menu which he had had signed by Gladys Cooper, a glamorous silent movie star of the era, who danced with him at the Grand Hotel and Belvedere in Davos.

During the Christmas tour of 1922-23, captain Taylor once again led the Oxford hockey team to great success – though the Varsity match was a much more even game than the blowout of the year before. Cambridge captain H.G. Joseph had picked his team very carefully, ensuring that almost all the members had played hockey in either Canada or the United States and arranging for his team to have plenty of practice. Taking the lead from Taylor, Joseph also brought in some teams to complete against Cambridge. But despite his best efforts, the score of the Varsity match was 7-1 in favor of Oxford. This marked the first year in which Oxford and Cambridge both sent a second team to Davos. The two teams were well-matched and put on a good game, which the Oxford Cosmopolitans won by a score of 5-2.

The Christmas break of 1922-23 proved once again that the Oxford Ice Hockey Club dominated European hockey. They played against the German national team in Berlin, and against local club teams in Paris and in Davos, as well as playing the British army team at St. Moritz. Oxford was victorious in every game. The German newspapers, impressed by Lester Pearson's skating style, nicknamed him "Herr Zig Zag."

The 1923-24 school year marked the end of this extraordinarily successful Oxford team, as the squad's key players graduated that spring. Its last season had been no less triumphant than the first two. Despite a 1924 tournament that was plagued by heavy snowfall and bad weather, the Oxford team came out victorious over Cambridge as well as the British Olympic team, although there are no scores available to show the extent of the Oxford victories.

In 1926, Clarence Campbell won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. His main sporting interest was baseball (having played semi-pro ball in Canada prior to coming to England) and once at Oxford he formed the Oxford Baseball Club. Each Sunday, the baseball team traveled to London to play against the London team. Campbell also played for the Oxford Ice Hockey Club between 1927 and 1929. His style of play was rugged and he was certainly one of the better players on the Oxford team. In appreciation for his fine play and his efforts as team captain, Campbell was presented with a miniature of the Anspang Cup (for competition between Davos and the university teams) and the Patton Cup (for the English league championship) after winning the annual Varsity match in 1929. C.T. Wylde, the captain of Cambridge also was presented with a miniature of the Patton Cup. Campbell's connection to hockey certainly did not end at Oxford. He went on to become an NHL referee and then president of the National Hockey League in 1946.

Another Bonnycastle brother arrived at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1929. Larry Bonnycastle had played hockey in his home province of Manitoba and it was natural that he should follow his older brother's lead and join the Oxford Hockey Club. The team of his era would prove to be the equal of his brother's squad of the early 1920s, as Larry Bonnycastle had the golden scoring touch. Goaltender C.H. "Herbie" Little of the Oxford squad was one of the greatest goaltenders in Europe at the time. Some 65 years later, he recalled the team's winning formula: "Larry would put the puck in the net at one end, and I would keep it out at the other."

Bonnycastle's other team mates in his three years at Oxford included John D. Babbitt (a left-handed right winger who had great success with his backhand), G. Stanley, Orvald A. "Snooks" Gratius, A.S. "Si" Leach, Leland A. Watson (the only American on the team), Archie Humble, B.S. Keirstrad, Ronald Martland (who was top of his class at Oxford, received a double law degree and later became a judge on the Supreme Court of Canada) and James E. Coyne. In 1933, Jim Coyne saved his Oxford teammates from financial destitution during their Christmas tour of Europe after a Czech border guard impounded all their money. As the team pondered their options, Coyne magically produced an American Express check that he had hidden in the heel of his shoe. Such financial wizardry would come in handy in later life as Coyne went on to become the governor of the Bank of Canada.

During the Christmas holiday European tour of 1930-31, Oxford won the Anspang Cup for the fourth time. The fourth win of the Anspang entitled Oxford team to keep the trophy, but it was agreed by the players to offer it up for perpetual competition between varsity teams. On February 13, 1931, a combined varsity team made up of the top players from Oxford and Cambridge was put together with W.G. Speechly as captain. The combined club met a touring Toronto team known as the Canadas at Golders Green rink in London and defeated them by a score of 13-0.

Following their Anspang Cup victory, the Oxford team had continued its tour of Europe and met the German national team in Berlin. During the intermission of the hockey game, the fans were entertained not by the scraping of the ice but by the graceful figure skating of Sonja Henie. Hugh Morrison recalls that the Oxford team owed quite a debt of gratitude to Ms. Henie: "We were delayed in Hanover en route to Berlin. By the time we arrived, the crowd had been waiting for close to an hour for us to rush from the station to the Berlin Ice Arena. We got changed and took to the ice. The crowd had been kept entertained by Sonja Henie during this time. It was her skating that kept the fans from leaving."

As captain of the Oxford Ice Hockey Club, it was the honor of Larry Bonnycastle to present Ms. Henie with flowers. Bonnycastle's future wife, Mary Andrews, was watching from the stands as he made his way out with the flowers. She recalls that, after the game, Larry confided to her that his legs had been shaking badly – he had not realized how difficult it was to skate without the aid of a hockey stick.

With the success of the Oxford team and the obvious European interest in the sport, hockey began taking on an increased importance as a display of nation pride. With the success of a team reflecting more and more on its hometown or nation, European teams began to pursue better players for their rosters, and these players were over-whelmingly Canadian. The Oxford Ice Hockey Club already featured a mainly Canadian roster, but the team was given a further boost when the town built a new ice arena that was the same size as the Montreal Forum. The new rink was a tremendous advantage for the Oxford team, as arenas were rare in Britain at the time. Prior to the creation of the arena in Oxford, the team had to travel as far as Manchester to practice. With the new arena, the "dark blues" were able to practice as often as four times per week.

On February 6, 1932, the Varsity match between Oxford and Cambridge was played in the London suburb of Richmond. This marked the first time in 30 years that the two teams would meet in England instead of Switzerland. The results proved one-sided, as the combination of Bonnycastle and Babbitt, backed by Little in goal, was too strong for the rookie-laden Cambridge roster. Oxford won the game 7-0. The headlines of the Oxford Mail the following morning read: "Oxford Great Win at Richmond and a Triumph for Bonnycastle.... in which the speed of the Oxford forwards were opposed to the dour defensive tactics of the [Cambridge] light blues."

The strength of the 1931-32 Oxford team can be measured again by their successful European tour. The team would win yet another Anspang Cup as well as the Spenglar Cup (as the top club team in Europe), in addition to winning the Patton Cup as the league champion of England. Among the highlights of the season was holding the Boston Olympics to a tie. This team of top American amateurs would win the World Championship in 1933 and already had beaten the national teams of England and France when they met the Oxford Canadiens as part of their 1932 European Tour. The Oxford team very nearly beat the American champions, missing on a scoring opportunity late in the game. Reported the press afterwards: "It is hard to find praise high enough for the University team ... Not only did the university hold its side, they often looked more dangerous than the visitors." In appreciation of the team's efforts and successes in Europe this season, the players were presented with gold medals by the mayor of Oxford. As captain of the team, and its top scorer, Larry Bonnycastle made an acceptance speech.

Unlike the rough and tumble games being played by the North American professional teams of the era, European teams, including Oxford and Cambridge, played a much cleaner game. The rules for infractions such as boarding were enforced strictly. Fighting was forbidden absolutely and would mean an automatic game misconduct. Hugh Morrison remembers playing a game in a small town in Europe in which the referee called an offside that was clearly not offside: "I started arguing the call with the ref. A man from the audience came down from his seat and told me that he was a graduate of Oxford and was ashamed of my behaviour. He went on to say that students from Oxford simply did not behave in this manner and that arguing a call with a ref would not be tolerated by students wearing the colors of Oxford."

In the spring of 1932, Larry Bonnycastle graduated from Oxford University, and so came to a close one of the greatest hockey careers of that era. During the following year, the efforts of goalie C.H. Little resulted in the university somewhat reluctantly agreeing to award hockey club members the formal athletic honor known as a "Half Blue" for their sporting achievements. The decision had come too late for Bonnycastle, perhaps the greatest player to wear the Oxford hockey sweater. Despite Little's strongest lobbying, the university refused to award Bonnycastle the color retoactively. Nonetheless, many, including Hugh MacLennan, a distinguished Canadian author who was a Rhodes Scholar in the early 1930s, looked upon Larry Bonnycastle as the one individual who, more than anyone else, sold the game of hockey to the Europeans.

The departure of Bonnycastle greatly diminished the offensive strength of the Oxford Ice Hockey Club. Within a year, the interest of hockey in England lost its momentum along with Oxford's supremacy of the game. The hockey arena that Bonnycastle had helped to fill with chanting and singing fans stood largely empty. Without the European champions, interest in hockey fell. The arena closed and converted to a cinema. It would be another 50 years before Oxford would boast an ice arena again.

C.H. Little hung up his goalie pads after the 1933 season despite an attempt to sign him by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Little wanted to retire a winner and never played competitive hockey again. His interest in hockey at Oxford remained, though the sport there was clearly in decline. Little hoped to sponsor a tournament and donated a silver cup to the college. Two years later, his cup was found abandoned in a coal bin. It was returned to Mr. Little, who was shocked to find the trophy and the sport of hockey treated so shabbily. The "cupper" which he donated is used now as a rose bowl in his Toronto apartment.

The days of glory of Oxford hockey ended with the graduation of Bonnycastle and the subsequent graduations of Little and John D. Babbitt. While interest in the game may have waned in England, it had taken root firmly in Europe. This is the true legacy of a team legacy of a team of amateur academics who for a brief time, ruled supreme in the game they loved.