Royal Canadian Navy Signet Ring of Mr. Crncich, 1944.John Crncich
John Crncich, 1944.John Crncich
Canadian Football League Ring belonging to John Crncich.John Crncich
Contemporary Photo of Mr. John Crncich.John Crncich
Football Team of the HMCS, 1944. Mr. Crncich is 3rd from left in the 2nd row.John Crncich
"We were the last amateur team that won the Grey Cup and I don’t think it’ll ever be repeated again in history"
I was in the [Royal Canadian] Navy, joined up in 1944, completely on my own. The navy as you know is not a draft thing, you volunteer to go in the navy. In total, there were I think in the order of 95,000 sailors who volunteered during the war. I was in the 90,000 bracket, so I was one of the later ones. So naturally, I haven’t got any of the experience that you’ve probably heard about, about the guys who were in the various battles in the Atlantic or the Murmansk Run to Russia or any of those. The experience that I would like to relate is more or less onshore but it’s so unique and there are only a handful of sailors left that were involved in it and it was also very unique in Canadian history, let alone in military history. And there’s a military negative to it as well.
And that was that in 1944, somebody decided to take the gifted athletes from two [shore] bases, one being the Montreal ship, HMCS Donnacona, the other one in Saint Hyacinthe [Quebec], which was a signal school, where they were teaching radar and sonar and various things like that. And between us, they formed a team of football, got into a league that might and eventually did vie for the Grey Cup. And as it turned out, the team, to everybody’s surprise we went on and we did win the  Grey Cup [the 32nd competition, 7-6 over the Hamilton Wildcats], against all odds in the world. And against the wishes of high command as well.
But the interesting thing about that is we were so different in the composition of the team. The team consisted of taking me at the bottom end as one of the raw new entry recruits who was marching and drilling in the square all day and to the veterans who came back from having served well in terms of numbers of invasions. They were the people who were running those landing [barges] carrying troops and landing them on the beaches. They were under constant fire. And I know at least two of them who were in the landings at Normandy, landings at Dieppe, landings in the Italian Campaign, taking the American Army to the [North] African Campaign...and maybe there was one more, I think Dunkirk might have been in there, too.
There was another individual who came back, a high ranking individual, who was an expert in his particular field and he was on loan to the British [Royal] Navy at the time, and he was on one of the major ships [HMS Sheffield] that was involved in the sinking of the Bismarck, which in wartime lore, I think the greatest naval accomplishment worldwide as far as the Allies are concerned. The British sank the Bismarck somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, he was one of the members.
And also in the composition of the team, mind you, because of their brute size and their strength, were the shore patrolmen. Some of them were in from Saint-Hyacinthe, a number of them were in Montreal. You got to meet those guys off the football field when you were in the dance halls or somewhere on a Friday night and a fight broke out, they would be charging in there with their clubs over your head. The next day, you were on the field with them.
We respected one another, we all had our different jobs to do and we did them all, but we weren’t a team to go out and have drinks together. We were way different in ranks, way different in ages and way different in interests as well. So that made up the team.
Oh, and the ranking of the team meant everything, when you stepped out of the dressing room and you were in your uniform, showered and dressed up. You walked out, you saluted the guy who played next to you.Ten minutes before, you might have whacked him across the nose because of what he did. And he couldn’t hold that against you and you respected that.
There wasn’t one common thread except the fact that we all wore a Canadian uniform, a navy uniform. Beyond that, we didn’t associate with one another, in our weekends or leaves...only when we were playing the game that we were together and when we practiced, which was a nightly event. But, I could say as a player who then went on and played in the CFL [Canadian Football League] – and even had a crack at the American college ( was invited down there ). Of all the teams that I played for, I would say this team in terms of abilities wouldn’t compare to those other teams individually. The others were much better but they were not better in the locker room. We were a team. Once we put on our [football] uniforms, and I credit that to the naval training. There was no question about it that the guy next to you, if you did your job and you were free to help him, you just went over and helped him. And this was all the way through every game, every practice and everybody knew it. We were glued together as a team.
I always tell people that I’ve never seen a team that, when an opposing ball carrier would come along and somebody would hit him, knock him down....if the referee didn’t have a whistle in his mouth, there would be 12 men on top of that guy. Everybody was out to help everybody else and make it a unified effort. And nobody took credit for it, there were no stars.
We were sent by train to, the [1944 Grey Cup] game which was played in Hamilton [Ontario] against some of the best players in the CFL who were excused from being in the war by virtue of working for [steel] plants like Stelco, Dofasco and there were munitions plant and that, but they were still an excellent group of players. They had won or had got passed the Winnipeg team that year, so they represented the west and we represented the east. We got there on a Friday night....and I know Hamilton well but I don’t know where this barracks was. It was an isolated, desolate barracks that had been abandoned. We were put there for the night. And we came in and reported to the quartermaster and it was drizzly and rainy. The quartermaster handed us each a dirty old small mattress and told us, go over there, building number three. We went there and found rusty old beds that hadn’t been used....and that was our night before the game.
The plays we used, they were very unique. We’d catch the opposition before they even got ready in their stance. And so we were able to win. The team as I said, were all very willing, hardworking and would sacrifice their life to sort of, to help you. And I was one of the ones who needed help because I was undersized for my position [“Snap,” as Centres were called at the time]. But I had to play because of a technicality. Sometimes I would get up and find a teammate swinging at an opponent because the guy had pulled his fists on me to give me an upper cut that I didn’t even know happened, because I was on my back.
After we won the game, and during the whole season in Montreal, we had a reporter from the Montreal Star who gave us tremendous coverage. My picture was in there every second day it seemed....I don’t know what I did but there would be my picture. Soon after we won the cup, I was transferred to the East Coast for advanced training and assignment to a ship. And I was happy with that but I didn’t know one story until after, years later.
One of the officers in one of our units told me that the high ranking Ottawa admirals decided, "no, we should not win that Cup, give that Cup back".... Why? Because we played a civilian team to win it. And we were not supposed to. It will give the general public the impression that they took on guys like me [“ringers”] to sort of play to win them a Cup, which was far, far from the truth. Because there were no privileges whatsoever. And they did send the Cup back. To their credit, the CFL, CRU [Canadian Rugby Union] at the time, administration management sent it right back and said, "No, they won it fair and square, you keep it". And they went back and forth two or three times like that and finally we got to keep it. The paper, they suppressed any sort of publicity of that because they didn’t want our fellow sailors to think that we were granted special privileges.
Today they have these retro days and the fans come out and they say, "wow, that’s the way they were 20 years ago". I look at it and I say, what in the hell are you talking about? They changed the colours of their sweater, that’s all they did. Take the face mask off if they want to go retro and wear the heavy woolen sweaters that we did in the rain. And you know, if you ever did laundry, you’d pick up a wet 25 pound sweater and canvas pants with mud, because nylon wasn’t invented until the war, so they didn’t use them. I was playing for McGill [University] when we started wearing those. And the first time I ran out on the field, when we were given these new uniforms (we were given them on game day). The first thing I did was look down and I thought I was wearing nothing...It was so light.
We were the last amateur team that won the Grey Cup and I don’t think it’ll ever be repeated again in history.