The Falkirk Lions

The 1938 prospectus for the Falkirk Ice Rink Ltd included the lines:

The game of ice hockey has become very popular in this country.  Properly played by expert skaters, it is a fast and spectacular game, and as it can be watched under comfortable conditions and at comparatively small cost, the game undoubtedly has appealed to the general public.” 

This clearly spelled out to the public the intention of establishing its own ice-hockey team and the new manager, RJ Buck was tasked with this undertaking.  In the summer of 1938, long before construction of the rink was completed, Buck contracted ice hockey players for the new team:

  • Olympic star Jerry Davie capped for England to be player-coach
  • The goalkeeper to be Buster Amantea who had played for Glasgow Lions the previous year.
  • George McWilliams late star scorer of the Wembley Lions as a back.
  • Alex Purdie also from the Glasgow Lions, another back.
  • Red Thomson, a Canadian, of Perth Panthers as the third back.
  • Canadian Charlie Stapleford, who had played on the Continent, as a forward,
  • Tom Brown to be trainer. 

The presence of so many former players of the Glasgow Lions was due to that club having just closed and it was agreed to call the new team the Falkirk Ice Hockey Club, nicknamed “The Lions.”  The club colours were white jerseys with red facings and a large red Lion Rampant on the breast, red knickers and red and white stockings.  To foster local support a red wooden lion was sold to the public bearing photographs and autographs of the team.

The team had to train at Kirkcaldy until the Falkirk rink was open and this also meant playing all of the matches away from home.  The Falkirk Lions won their first match against the Fife Flyers at Kirkcaldy – it was not a sign of things to come.  The first home match was played on 30 November immediately after the ice hockey section at Falkirk had been opened by Mrs J Gordon Thomson.  A crowd of 4,000 saw the match between the Falkirk Lions and the Perth Panthers.  The reporter from the Falkirk Herald was enthusiastic, stating that the

Falkirk Lions, although they suffered defeat at the gala opening of the Falkirk Ice Rink on Wednesday night, did not disappoint the large crowd of enthusiastic spectators. Their game was full of punch and potency…” 

Football, it was felt, was a game for the English, Scotland now had a new game for the younger generation.

The Falkirk Ice Rink had a large clock with only one hand which showed the time that had elapsed in the hockey matches.  It stopped whenever interruptions occurred to the matches, allowing each period of 20 minutes playing time to be properly monitored.  A green light was displayed while play was in progress and a red one during a stoppage.  At the end of the game and at the end of each 20 minute period a siren sounded.

Late in 1939 a junior ice hockey club for boys between ages 14 and 17 was formed and appropriately known as “the Falkirk Cubs.”  It was to be several years before they were ready to enter into competition with the other junior clubs in Scotland.

The number of Scottish ice-hockey teams was relatively limited – Perth Panthers, Glasgow Mohawks, Glasgow Kelvingrove, Dundee Tigers, Kirkcaldy Fife Flyers, Ayr Raiders, and the Dunfermline Vikings.  The Scottish Daily Express printed a 32 page pocket-sized guide to ice hockey for the 1938-9 season which contained a full list of the fixtures as well as the rules of the game.  Whilst all of the other teams were given their nicknames the new team was simply called “Falkirk.”

Illus: Part of the wave of publicity surrounding the new Ice-Hockey Team.
Illus: 1938 Ice-Hockey Guide.
OctoberThursday 6Flyers v Falkirk
Saturday 8Panthers v Falkirk
Wednesday 12Tigers v Falkirk
Friday 14Mohawks v Falkirk
Tuesday 25Kelvingrove v Falkirk
Saturday 29Panthers v Falkirk
NovemberWednesday 2Tigers v Falkirk
Tuesday 8Mohawks v Falkirk
Thursday 10Flyers v Falkirk
Thursday 17Flyers v Falkirk
Wednesday 23Tigers v Falkirk
Wednesday 30Falkirk v Panthers
Table: The first Fixtures played by the Falkirk Lions in 1938.

Occasionally exotic outside teams were brought in to break up the monotony.  Early in February 1939 the Falkirk Lions beat the “Bristol Bombers,” a touring all-Canadian team, at Falkirk.  In March it was the turn of the “Trail Smoke Eaters” who were the world champions and had represented Canada in the recent international competitions, against a Scottish All Stars team picked from the Falkirk Lions and other Scottish teams.  Every seat was booked up well in advance, though it came as no surprise when the world champions won.

During the off-season in the summer of 1939 changes were made to the Falkirk Lions. A new goal keeper was chosen – Maurice Gerth – who became the mainstay of the team for many years. Lou Savoie came from Canada and Ed McMillan from the United States. Hugh Williams was the new left winger. The remainder of the team was as before – Gerry Davey, player coach; Gordie Pantalone, Alex Purdie and Jock Taylor, defence; Bobby Beaton and Red Thomson, forwards. That August a Falkirk Lions supporters club was formed and red and white enamel badges were produced with a lion rampant in the centre surrounded by the words “FALKIRK LIONS SUPPORTERS’ CLUB.” Circumstances meant that it was unable to get up and running for some time.

Just as the new season was about to begin war was declared. Early in October the Scottish Ice Hockey Association met in Falkirk in an attempt to chart its way through the murky waters surrounding future matches. The intention was to introduce competition as soon as essential details could be worked out. Meantime Falkirk led the way with a friendly match against the Perth Panthers on the 18th of that month. The resumption of ice hockey at the Falkirk Ice Rink was apparently welcomed by enthusiasts for the game and approximately 3,000 turned out to see the game.

Illus: The Bairns’ Trophy gifted in 1938 by the directors of the Falkirk Ice Rink for annual competition at Falkirk among the clubs affiliated to the Scottish Ice Hockey Association.  Now in Falkirk Museum.

The situation for ice hockey in Scotland looked dire and required prompt and unusual action.  The Scottish Ice Hockey Association introduced a Pool System where players were graded A, B or C, according to their abilities.  They could then be loaned to teams short of players in accordance with the grade of the missing players.  Robert Giddens, the editor of Ice Hockey World, was surprised at the goodwill and communal approach used :

The Ice Rinks’ Pool works smoothly and exemplifies the principle of “one for all, and all for one.”  It does not, as some critics were wont to remark, minimise the competition of their games.  The Pool, I understand, hold weekly meetings and in these sessions iron out and review the misunderstandings, if any, and plot their programme for the future, using the experience of the past weeks to side-step the trouble that might be ahead… The player problem has been even more acute in Scotland than it has in England.  The courage to grade players and pool them in the interests of all, shows how these men have seen the all-important necessity of keeping the teams well balanced in strength.  The public can never walk into their favourite rink to look at their favourite team and be sure the outcome will be, or could be, a foregone conclusion.”

(Ice Hockey World and Skating Review, 3 January 1940, 5). 

However, after several months in operation the cracks began to appear as those teams not faring so well blamed the new system. 

In January 1940 six Canadian players arrived in Scotland and one was allocated to each of the teams to reduce the need for borrowing.  T Allen of Saskatchewan was allocated to Falkirk.  They only stayed a year before returning to Canada.

The game of ice-hockey was relatively new in Scotland and the late 1930s had seen a great expansion in the number of rinks.  Falkirk had been the last of these, opening in December 1939.  Another rink at Paisley was hit by wartime supply problems and its opening was greatly delayed.  The Scottish Ice Hockey Association was also new but soon found itself outlawed in the rest of Britain because they refused to join the British Ice Hockey Association without having either any representation or obvious benefits.  In March 1940 Festus Moffat was chosen to represent Scottish interests at a meeting in London with the British Ice Hockey Association and there managed to amicably settle the differences for which he was roundly applauded (Ice Hockey World and Skating Review 20 March 1940, 4).

From 1941 until 1946 the Scottish National League was disrupted.  Audiences at Falkirk had to make do with exciting matches played by a Scottish All-Stars team against units from the Canadian military forces which were based in Britain, and subsequently by inter-unit matches within those forces.  Here are some of the matches played.

December 1941Royal Montreal Regt (Canadian Army Team) v Scottish All-Stars
January 1942Third Unit (Canadian Army) v Scottish All-Stars
February 1942North Nova Scotia Highlanders (Canadian Army) v Scottish All-Stars
March 1942Winchester Regt  (Canadian Army) v Scottish All-Stars
March 1942Royal Canadian Engineers v Scottish All-stars *
April 1942Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders (Canadian Army) v Scottish All-Stars
October 1942Royal Canadian Horse Artillery v Royal Canadian Artillery
November 1942Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders (Canadian Army) v North Shore Regt (Canadian Army)
December 1942Royal Canadian Navy v Royal Canadian Army
January 1943Fort Garry House v Scottish All-Stars
February 1943Canadian Army Headquarters v Scottish All-Stars
April 1943Canadian Navy v Scottish All-Stars *
March 1945Canadian Navy Atlantic Patrol v Royal Canadian Air Force
April 1945Canadian Army v Royal Canadian Air Force (Skipton)
October 1945Royal Canadian Navy Atlantic Unit v Pacific Unit
October 1945London All-Stars v Scottish Select
December 1945Wembley Dukes v Scottish Canadians
January 1946Canadian Army Champions v Canadian Army Runners-up

Some matches were played on full ice which allowed for public skating afterwards but most were on three-quarters which also allowed for dancing.  Collections were made and significant contributions made to wartime charities such as the Prisoners of War Fund.  Seats were reserved so that servicemen normally resident in Falkirk district and on leave from overseas could have them free of charge.  After VJ Day this was no longer continued.

At the end of the 1945/6 season, in March 1946, one of the first friendly inter-city matches was played when the Falkirk Lions met the Dundee Tigers.  Andy McNair, Chuck McNair and Jack Thompson all scored for the Lions but they still lost the game.  The following August it was announced that the Scottish Ice Hockey League would resume in October.  The Directors of the Falkirk Ice Rink immediately issued season tickets on a basis of a 30-game series – things were slowly returning to a form of normality.  That November the supporters’ club was reformed at the Falkirk Ice Rink with the object of organising support of the Falkirk Lions Ice Hockey team.  This was in part an attempt to stem the haemorrhage of spectators.  The team immediately won the Airlie Trophy and support returned.

Illus: The Falkirk Lions team, probably 1950.

The Lions did not get everything their own way.  The rink at Paisley was now up and running and in March 1947 the Paisley Pirates trounced the Falkirk team in the Canada Cup.  They had less trouble with the new team at Glasgow – the Glasgow Bruins.  Vengeance came in May 1949 when a Lions’ victory over the Pirates gave them their fourth trophy of that season to go with the Scottish Cup and the Jubilee Cup.

Odd games were still played at Falkirk against foreign teams such as the Racing Club de Paris in February 1948, or the Canadian Tourists in April 1948.  Festus Moffat was now secretary of the Scottish Ice Hockey Association.  In this role he accompanied George McNeil, the manager of the Falkirk Ice Rink, onboard the Empress of Canada to welcome the players of the Edmonton Mercuries on their arrival in January 1950.

Illus: Jordie Pantalone, ice hockey player, with the Doorkeeper and Page at Falkirk ice Rink.

The playing life of those in the game was relatively short and many became skating instructors.  The Lions’ first goal keeper, Buster Amantea acted as a chef in Ayr from 1940.  Canadian born Nelson Norton McCuaig, arrived in Britain in 1937 with only £15.  He was employed with the Wembley Lions Ice Hockey Club and then went to Glasgow in January 1938 where he became a player with the Glasgow Lions receiving a wage of £3 a week.  He went to Falkirk in September 1938 and was first employed in erecting machinery at Falkirk Ice Rink at a wage of from £4 to £4 5s per week.  In October he was also employed in the Skate Shop there.  He received the wage of £3 10s for playing ice hockey and £3 10s for working in the shop.  In June 1939 he went to Kirkcaldy but soon returned to Falkirk and in 1941 started as an employee with George McWilliams who ran a restaurant at 5 High Street.  Around 1944 he entered into partnership with him and then in 1946 paid McWilliams £84 to take over complete control.  Unfortunately his extravagant expenditure and neglect led to bankruptcy in 1951.

The Lions never won the regular season in the Scottish League but claimed the Anderson Trophy as playoff champions four times; in 1949, 1950, 1952, and 1954.  The club also won the Scottish Cup in 1949 and 1952 and finished as runners-up in the Scottish Autumn Cup in 1947, 1948, and 1951. They also finished second in the British Autumn Cup in 1954.  They joined the British National League when it debuted for the 1954-55 season, finishing in fourth place.  The Lions subsequently dropped out of the league and played for one season in the Scottish Amateur League, but the writing was on the wall for the team and in 1957 it was being slowly wound down.  It returned briefly in October 1964 when a rejuvenated Falkirk Lions team played the Paisley Mohawks.

G.B. Bailey, 2022