Football series delves into war-torn history of 1942 Grey Cup players

Associated Press

TORONTO - As the longest-serving commissioner of the Canadian Football League, Jake Gaudaur was known as a natural leader and ardent nationalist.

But his daughters say his stoic facade masked a painful past that remained largely secret until now, with a Remembrance Day-themed edition of the TSN/CTV series "Engraved on a Nation" airing this weekend.

The hour-long documentary, titled "The Photograph," follows a quest by Gaudaur's daughters Jackie and Diane to learn the full story behind a tattered black-and-white photograph their late father cherished but would never discuss.

It depicted his old football team, the Toronto Royal Canadian Air Force Hurricanes. Their 1942 Grey Cup win came during the dark days of the Second World War and boosted the morale of a country deeply affected by mounting overseas losses.

"That whole generation was so special for what they lived through, the Depression and war, and we've had it fairly easy in comparison," says Diane Gaudaur.

"They're a special generation — I think they have a lot of character, probably built on their own life experience and I think they have a lot of grace and class."

The Hurricanes were made up of recruits from the RCAF, and among the roughly 130,000 young airmen trained to retake Europe from advancing Nazis.

"These young men stepped forward in a time of our country's need — they left their villages and towns and reserves, fishing communities and within weeks they were flyers with the fate of our country in their young hands," notes Jackie Gaudaur.

"It's extraordinary. They were ordinary young men doing extraordinary things."

Jake Gaudaur arrived for training in January 1942 and became fast friends with a gifted athlete named Ed Poscavage.

They eagerly joined the football team, which was invited to compete for the Grey Cup as a way to help boost national morale. As their wins mounted, their games started attracting crowds not seen in a decade, and the pilots-turned-players emerged as national celebrities.

Despite the triumphs, Diane Gaudaur says her father, who died in 2007, didn't reveal anything about those days.

"My father was a very quiet man so he didn't say too much about anything, period," says Diane Gaudaur.

"If you wanted my father to talk you'd get in the car with him so he could look straight ahead and then he sort of gave himself permission to speak."

After the Grey Cup victory, 15 players were sent overseas to fight while Gaudaur remained in Canada as a flight instructor.

Seven of his teammates never came back. Diane Gaudaur says it wasn't until one Remembrance Day a few years before he died that her father referred to his fallen pals.

"I looked up at him and his eyes were filled with tears and I said, 'How are you feeling Dad?' And he said, 'I'm just remembering all of the friends I lost.' That was the only time he spoke of them collectively."

In the documentary, the sisters track down Poscavage's only living family members — a niece and nephew in Connecticut who were just infants when he died overseas in 1945. Jackie says she wasn't prepared for how emotional that meeting would be.

"I was stunned to see how the pain of loss and especially the loss of a young person can spill over into the next generation," she says.

Diane Gaudaur agrees, lamenting that her father wasn't able to join them.

"For the first time ever I felt my father's presence. It sounds kind of corny but that's how I felt," she says.

"It was a long time ago and it's easy to forget people and I know how thrilled my father would be that the memory of those seven players are being kept alive."

Jackie suspects her father harboured a secret desire to reveal his life stories, noting that several years before he died he presented her with several notebooks collected in a red binder titled: "A Life to Remember."

"I had thumbed through the pages in a half-hearted way, I'm ashamed to say, because he was with us in those days and I'm sorry I didn't pay closer attention so I could have gleaned more from his life experiences," she admits of her father, who won the Grey Cup twice as a player and four times as a manager.

"My father was a very humble man but I think he had a sense that he had lived a remarkable life through remarkable times. He was proud of the growth of the Canadian Football League and his contribution to that growth."

Those notes were largely a matter-of-fact account of his early years, says Jackie, while the documentary adds a powerful emotional dimension.

She says she's grateful to be able to honour the legacy of her father's gridiron brothers.

"It became very much an emotional roller-coaster ride for sure for me," she says, adding that she's thought a lot about the fallen teammates.

"The process offered me an insight beyond attaching names to the faces in that photograph, beyond imagining horrors of their last moments, beyond reflecting on the lives they might have led, to a place where I asked myself, 'Had not their voices been silenced by their early deaths, what would they have wanted to tell us?' I've thought about that a great deal. And my guess is it would be: Do no harm."

"I know that my dad was a man of few words, he never sought the spotlight for any purpose beyond that which would bring positive attention to the CFL and I am convinced that he would have been filled with a deepest sense of gratitude that through him and his children, my sister and I, the stories of his fallen teammates could finally be told."

"The Photograph" airs Friday on TSN, Saturday on CTV Two and Sunday on CTV.

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