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Against All Odds is not just the title of the best-selling book about the gold-medal winning Olympic hockey team from the 1948 Games ... it also describes many of the players we'll see in action at the NHL-less men's hockey tournament at the PyeongChang Games this month.
It's also the title of a documentary from a couple of years back, Against All Odds: The RCAF Flyers.
For those unfamiliar with the story, a brief summary: The Olympics return after the Second World War, based in the resort town of St. Moritz, Switzerland for the 1948 Games; after much deliberation, Canada agrees to a team made up primarily of Royal Canadian Air Force personnel; no one knows what to expect from the team, or the hockey competition in general, due to the war (and the Soviet Union had not yet set up shop atop the medal podium); Canada wins gold; the individual stories of the players, how they survived the perils of war, are more compelling than the games themselves.
The man behind both the 2015 documentary and the book, Against All Odds. The Untold Story of Canada's Unlikely Hockey Heroes, which came out in late 2017, is P.J. Naworynski, of Hyperfocal Films (http://www.hyperfocalfilms.com). Naworynski is a Gemini award-winning documentary filmmaker with 20 years of experience under his belt.
Making the film, Against All Odds, was old hat to Naworynski; creating a book was not.
“Making a documentary and writing a book are two very different beasts. Despite the fact that I’d written and directed dozens and dozens of documentaries for international broadcast, I had no idea how much more time consuming the writing process for a book would be,” explained Naworynski. “I assumed writing 80,000 plus words for print would take me a few months of extra research and about four to five months of writing time. But it took me significantly longer for a myriad of reasons.”
He laid out those issues: “Finding the voice, writing each and every day. Just conditioning myself to being more descriptive and colouring the scenes versus TV writing, which is directed toward letting the pictures speak for themselves. Once I got in the groove though, I really enjoyed the experience. With the book I could go into much greater depth and detail. I could expand on tangents of the storyline and the characters that a limited TV run never allows.”
Naworynski quickly dispels any notion that he's a hockey expert or an obsessive over the Olympic Games. “I had no idea about the story when I first was approached to write and direct the documentary. My grandfather was in the RCAF and I knew the boys played hockey and baseball and football and such but I had zero clue about the Flyers and their run for gold in the ’48 Olympics. Truly, I was amazed almost every day.”
There are plenty of astounding stories. Hockey-wise, notables include goaltender Murray Dowey showcasing one of the first trapper gloves and dazzling with an incredible 0.63 goals against average in the eight games, giving up just five goals, and Wally Halder's 21 goals during the tournament. Yet none of the players ever made it to the NHL.
The hockey stories are there in the book, but it's the personal stories that will resonate, and Naworynski said it was “a conscious decision not to overload the book with too much war.” Hubie Brooks could probably have been a movie or book on his own. His plane was shot down, and from April 1942 to May 1943 he was a prisoner of war in a German camp, escaping on his third try. He joined the Polish underground and continued to fight. For his efforts, he was awarded the Military Cross (one of only five RCAF officers), the Polish Silver Cross of Merit with Swords, and the Polish Cross of Valor. He ended up as a substitute at the Games though.
Another gem is Patsy Guzzo's diary/journal. “Patsy’s journal was a great resource for me. It was almost like having the chance to interview him myself,” Naworynski said of the left winger who died in 1993. “His entries are personal and colourful and heartfelt. It was a wonderful, generous contribution to help add to the book. It informed not only Patsy’s journey and story but the greater story of the team and some of the guys.” (For example, it was Guzzo's first train ride.)
The circumstances are remarkable to Naworynski as well. “The physical conditions they played in at the Olympics... the snowballs being pelted at them... riding the bus in full gear... the idea that our Olympic hockey team was eating that rancid food at the Crofton,” were some of the issues that stand out.
The result of all the work is a book that is rich in details. “The personal diaries and interviews with family members were really the key for me,” said Naworynski, continuing. “Primary research, as close to the actual source as possible. If not interviews, then diaries, writings, journals, official military records. From the outset, I knew that sources of information that are off the beaten path weren’t really going to be a big contributor for me. I did turn to the period newspaper articles and weather data and official IOC documents to help flesh areas out. But I felt this book had to be built on primary research. It’s a personal story, that’s how I wanted to tell it.”
As compelling and fascinating as some of the stories were – Roy Forbes is another like Brooks whose war stories are page-turning – Naworynski knew it was a team game, and did his best to reflect that. While those four or five key figures get significant ink, “I also wanted to weave in bits from the other guys as best I could and also play with the larger story of the team, the country and the pulse of our nation.”
For the record, this is actually the second book about the 1948 RCAF Flyers. Pat MacAdam's 2008 effort, Gold Medal 'Misfits' (Manor House Publishing) has interviews with some of the players who are no longer around.
His documentary aided in the sell to HarperCollins, said Naworynski. He knew Brad Wilson at the publishing house and they started talking about the project.
“ I always felt the lives of these guys and what they accomplished in war and in peace could inspire Canadians like me who knew nothing about them. Brad agreed and we talked about the book and what stories I could flesh out and focus on, what additional research I needed to acquire and who would be involved and we were off to the races,” said Naworynski. “They wanted to key in on the title from the documentary and the producer of the doc liked that I’d be using a similar title to the documentary as well since Sportsnet still airs the doc on Remembrance Day.”
In short, with the documentary, two books, and many honours, the RCAF Flyers have not been overlooked any longer.
“I can’t believe they were essentially forgotten after accomplishing what no one thought was possible,” concluded Naworynski. “I was astounded that it took so long for them to be inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame... 60 years! That’s nuts to me.”
MORE CANADIAN OLYMPIC READING
Working on my book, Father Bauer and the Great Experiment, I became a little bit of an expert on the various Canadian Olympic hockey-related books that are out there. By far the one that is the most “fun” is Hometown Heroes: On the Road with Canada's National Hockey Team, written by the late, great Paul Quarrington; it's his adventures with the 1988 Canadian team, and, like Quarrington's novels, it ranges from hilarious to poignant.
Two of the pillars of Canadian sports journalism, Scott Young and Jim Coleman, have done books on international hockey—War On Ice: Canada in International Hockey (1976) and Hockey is our Game: Canada in the World of International Hockey (1967) respectively.
Brian Conacher's two books both touch on his Olympic experiences, with 1970's Hockey in Canada: The Way Is It! rocking the establishment, and 2007's As the Puck Turns: A Personal Journey Through the World of Hockey being much more broad-reaching.
There are lots of photo books and books aimed at younger children too, especially for more recent gold-medal winning Canadian teams, women's and men's teams alike. The story of the 2002 gold-medal winning Canadian team, after a 50-year drought, is best collected in Roy MacGregor's A Loonie for Luck.
Andrew Podnieks figures into a lot of international hockey books, including IIHF Top 100 Hockey Stories of All-time (with Szymon Szemberg, 2008), and Canada's Olympic Hockey History, 1920 – 2010, Canada's Olympic Hockey Teams , 1920 – 1998.
Us hockey-heads will be tuning in at some odd hours to see who claims hockey gold this go-round.
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