When Andy Gilpin and Ross King were transferred to the RCAF station in Whitehorse in 1947, the last thing on their minds was the roller-coaster ride upon which they were about to embark. Both were young hockey players with promise. Forward Gilpin had played Junior A in Montreal. Goalie Ross King had been a star with Portage LaPrairie when they won the Memorial Cup.
What King and Gilpin didn’t know when they arrived in Whitehorse in March, 1947, was that the small town was hockey crazy. Both the Army and Airforce teams in the Senior Men’s League were made up of players who knew as much about hockey as they did about their military assignments.
A fine forward named Len Beech was already in Whitehorse and had played for the RCAF Flyers the previous year. He impressed upon the newcomers just how competitive hockey was in this northern outpost.
In the fall of 1947, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association invited the Canadian Airforce to form Canada’s Olympic hockey squad. Beech, King and Gilpin were invited to a tryout camp in Edmonton. Meanwhile, all three played for the local Airforce team during part of the 1947-48 season. The Town Merchants team won the trophy that year.
In January, 1948, all three airmen were selected to be members of the RCAF Flyers, the hockey team that would represent Canada at the 1948 Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
Still, things did not go very well, especially when the Flyers lost their first exhibition game to a University team, the McGill Redmen. Manager Sandy Watson and coach Frank Boucher had to make some changes - fast. They cut Len Beech from the team, but Gilpin and King remained with the improved roster. Others were added.
Still, as they left for Switzerland, the press vilified the Canadian team. There was no way this ragtag bunch could win on the world stage in 1948. Czechoslovakia was the favourite, followed by Sweden and Switzerland. Canada would do well to finish fourth, predicted the press. However when the games ended, Canada had won the Olympic gold medal.
Canada and Czechoslovakia finish with identical 7-0-1 records, with Canada winning the gold medal on total goals scored: 64-62. Neither Gilpin nor King played in the eight-game Olympic tournament since the rules then allowed teams to dress only twelve players.
Still, they had been part of the team that won Canada’s first gold medal in hockey since 1932. Then the RCAF Flyers went on an extensive exhibition tour of Europe, playing in front of as many as twenty thousand people in Paris. King had become the regular goalie and Gilpin played in all 42 exhibition games. The Flyers won thirty-one and became the new heroes of Europe’s fledgling ice hockey craze. When they returned to Canada, there was a ticker-tape parade in Ottawa and, when they arrived home in Whitehorse with their Olympic gold medals around their necks, there was an official civic reception and military parade.
Both Andy Gilpin and Ross King played for the RCAF Flyers in the 48-49 season in the Whitehorse Senior Men’s League. Len Beech was still with the team. Nevertheless, even with these Olympians, the airmen again lost in the final round to the talented Town Merchants.
Whitehorse was, indeed, a hockey town of renown.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.
See also: Hockey in the hangar