Remembering the first Canadian football game played overseas and the players who never made it home

Photo courtesy: Canada Sports Hall of Fame/Royal Hamilton Light Infantry Museum

On Sunday, the National Football League will host its first regular season game in Munich, Germany, taking the next step in its journey toward international expansion. Contests in London and Mexico City have become the norm over the last decade and the global market is ready for more, a reality the CFL is also trying to exploit in its own ugly step-child type of way.

Any sort of fantasy regarding a CFL international series is a long way from coming to fruition and there is no telling if it would ever be successful. However, on November 11, I often find myself thinking about a very different type of global game.

Almost eighty years before international broadcast revenue was even a discussion, the Canadian brand of football made its debut on English soil in front of 32,000 confused spectators. For a number of the players on the field, it would be the final game of their young lives.

Major Denis Whitaker of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry had already earned something of a military reputation when he walked into a London pub in the winter of 1944. He was the only one of a hundred officers to have landed in the disastrous raid on Dieppe in 1942 and escape unwounded after fighting his way into the town. However, Whitaker was also a noted sportsman and had quarterbacked the Hamilton Tigers of the Ontario Rugby Football Union prior to the war. Striking up a conversation with an American lieutenant, he was excited to learn that the US Army has just imported equipment for six football teams and a challenge was issued.

With the permission of avid football fan Lieutenant-General Kenneth Stuart, Whitaker began assembling a crack squad of Canadian servicemen to take on the Americans in an international friendly. Participants were pulled off active duty and began six weeks of football training, gearing up for a contest that would be dubbed the Tea Bowl.

The Canadian Army Mustangs included a number of players who were household names in the early days of Canadian football, still more than a decade away from becoming the professional CFL we know today.

Jeff Nicklin was the star of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ first Grey Cup team in 1939, beating his Canadian Army teammate Orville Burke of the Ottawa Rough Riders, who won the title the next year. Running back Huck Welch was the IRFU’s top player in 1933 and would later be inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, as would fullback Paul Rowe after an illustrious career with the Calgary Broncs. Centre Andy Bieber, halfback Nick Paithouski, guard Don “Shanty” McKenzie, and future Canadian cabinet minister George Hees were among the others with notable pre and post-war football careers.

The Mustangs faced off with the American Central Base Section Pirates on February 13, 1944 at White City Stadium in London. Fans were provided with a cliff-notes version of the rules in their gameday program and Captain Ted Leather, future governor of Bermuda and Canada’s team manager, announced the game. A squad of Spitfires was held at the ready just in case — this was amidst the London blitz and large gatherings were typically not allowed.

The two sides battled to a scoreless draw at the half playing under American rules but momentum flipped in the second half when the officials changed to the Canadian rulebook. Toronto Argonauts end Ken Turnbull scored the game’s first touchdown before the Americans tied things up, but Burke later found Whitaker for a touchdown strike to go up one score. Things would not be sealed until the final play, when Burke went to the air again and found Nicklin for a game-clinching touchdown. The Mustangs won 16-6 to the delight of many Canadian service members, who won more than their army salary by betting heavily on their underdog countrymen.

The popularity of the game and the desire for revenge by the Americans led to a rematch, dubbed the Coffee Bowl, just over a month later which drew a crowd of 50,000. The Canadians fell 18-0 to a revamped American team flush with players from the University of Iowa and led by NFL Pro Bowl quarterback Tommy Thompson, who later played and coached in the CFL. This was no longer the Mustangs, with most of their stars and team captain Whitaker returned to active duty and unable to play.

For those players, the Tea Bowl was the real game and a cherished wartime memory held above all the rest. A moment of levity, unifying national pride, and brotherhood that took place a little more than four months before the D-Day invasion. A game played before the horrors of war, a final moment shared with friends who they would never see again.

Well on his way to becoming one of the Bombers’ all-time greats, that clinching touchdown catch in the dying moments of the game was the final play that Jeff Nicklin would ever make. After fighting his way through the liberation of France, he was killed in action while crossing the Rhine valley and parachuting into Germany. He was just 30 years old.

Every year, the West Division’s Most Outstanding Player receives the Jeff Nicklin Trophy, named in his honour. You’d have to think he’d be pleased by its most recent recipient. However, there aren’t enough trophies to remember all the players lost.

More and more each Remembrance Day, I find myself thinking of the Tea Bowl and of players like Nicklin. Maybe it’s because I’m close in age to those who fought or maybe its because I spend many of my days surrounded by young men who also find passion and purpose in the sport of football, but imagining that moment of victory always brings a tear to my eye knowing what came next.

Remembering the sacrifices made by those in wartime can often be a difficult balance, rife with opportunities for over-glorification or over-simplification. The delicate conversation around the horrors of armed conflict, its occasional necessity, and its frequent abuse by people in the halls of power is one that needs to be had, but let us never lose sight of those who have borne the cost of those realities.

The Canadian Army Mustangs were no different than the roster of any CFL team today. If you looked at their faces, you might see the smiling grins of any university or high school team looking back at you.

They were young and full of hopes and dreams, with grandiose visions of their own invincibility. They had no choice in the geopolitical churn that put them on that field in England and no real concept of the seismic historical endeavours on which they were about to embark. They just wanted to be a part of something larger and do it while standing beside their buddies, possibly while sneaking a few beers along the way. At the end of the day, they were boys who should have been playing a game.

This November 11, take a moment for all the ones who never got another snap. Lest we forget.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.