As a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Sgt. Andy Gilpin had signed up to serve and protect his country. He couldn’t have known that in 1948 that would mean defending Canada’s hockey honour at the Olympic Winter Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
Initially Canada wasn’t going to send a team to the Games. However, Sandy Watson, then a squadron leader at RCAF Headquarters in Ottawa, volunteered to build a team with players from bases across the country. They would be the RCAF Flyers.
In 1947, Gilpin, now 93, was stationed in Whitehorse, Yukon. He had played hockey growing up in Montreal and in 1940 was a member of the Westmount Junior A team. Andy had brought his skates and stick with him to Whitehorse, and when the pond froze over he played shinny. Then one day a message came from the Ottawa base: they were looking for hockey players. “Before I got [to Whitehorse], there was another player that was their top player” says Gilpin. “The commanding officer called him and said we’re going to put your name in, and he said you better put Andy Gilpin’s name in. He had the puck all the time.”
Gilpin and two other players went to Edmonton for a tryout. From there, they were sent to Ottawa: they had made the team.
After the Flyers split a pair of exhibition games, some players were dropped and new recruits, including two civilians, were brought in. The press said Canada would be lucky to finish fourth at the Games.
Canada set sail for Europe from New York aboard the Queen Elizabeth. The team was joined by its American counterparts, who started trash-talking somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. “They were going around bragging, saying [we] haven’t got a chance against [them],” says Gilpin. “We only beat them 12-3. So they had to pull their horns in a little bit.”
Olympic rules at the time dictated that only 12 players – two of them goalies – could dress. This meant Gilpin and four others wouldn’t be playing.
Canada won its first five games of the eight-team round-robin tournament. In its sixth game, it played Czechoslovakia – which had also yet to lose a game – to a 0-0 draw, still the only scoreless game in Canada’s Olympic history. Canada wrapped up the preliminary round against the host Swiss, and on the outdoor rink the home crowd showered the Canadians with a barrage of snowballs.
“You look up and all you can see are these white balls coming down,” laughs Gilpin. “We got hit with a couple of them.” Canada won the game 3-0. The Flyers finished with a 7-0-1 record, the same as the Czechs. But thanks to a greater goal differential, the Canadians would get the gold.
Medals weren’t the only thing the players took home. The father of one of the player’s owned a liquor store in Toronto and gave each team member a congratulatory bottle. Watson had prohibited drinking, but at least one player ignored the rule that night. “He had gotten into his bottle and was out like a light,” laughs Gilpin. “He didn’t get into the final picture that was taken of the team.”
Gilpin continued to play hockey into his 60s. He and his wife, Ellen, had moved to London in 1984 and one day he came across an ad from the Huff ’n’ Puffs, an organization for retired people looking to stay active. After getting equipment from one of his sons-in-law, Gilpin headed to the rink. “I opened the door and said, ‘Are you looking for hockey players?’ ” It only took a few scrimmages for organizers to notice his skills. “The chap that was running the place said, ‘Come over, you’re on my team.’” Andy played with the league until just after he turned 70.
The Gilpins moved to Grand Bend, Ont., for 10 years, and with no rink in the town Gilpin put his skates away. In 2000, they moved back to the London area. The following year, Ellen passed away. “I didn’t know what to do,” he says. “Three years after I looked at my skates and said, ‘There – that’s what I’m going to do.”
Like kids from three to, well, 93, it’s the social community that keeps bringing Gilpin back to the rink. Every Monday he spends part of his afternoon skating at Nichols Recreation Centre.
“I think he’s as passionate about skating, hockey and sports at this age as he was at eight, nine years old,” says Dave Smith, one of the dozens of friends Gilpin has made at his weekly skate. “He’s an icon in the dressing room. This is a seniors group and most of us are in our 60s or 70s, and here’s Andy, 93. We look at him as someone to admire.”
Chris Payne met Gilpin three years ago, and the Canadiens fan became fast friends with the Montreal native. Chris now helps the Olympic gold medallist around the ice. “It’s easy to skate with Andy because he’s got a great stride and excellent rhythm. He told me he was a very fast skater, and I believe him because he’s got good technique.”
“Nobody ever realized his age because he just walks in [and starts skating],” says Carroll Grenier, who says Gilpin is the first person newcomers are introduced to. “I think he was probably just a phenomenal player in terms of tenacity. He just loves the game – any kind of hockey. You can just feel it any time you talk to him.”
As the 2014 Games kicked off on Feb. 7, Gilpin was honoured by the 427 (London) Wing of the Air Force Association of Canada for his military and athletic achievements. The RCAF Flyers captured its gold medal on Feb. 8, 1948, and Andy likes this year’s team’s chances as much as he liked his own team’s 66 years ago. “As long as we got Crosby on our team, we got the best player in the world.”