In Canada it is referred to simply as "The Game", a national sport, a spectator passion, and a winter pastime. But, Canadians are far from alone in their passion: though they may have invented ice hockey, this sport more than any other, carries similar resonance for the Czechs, whose own hockey tradition reaches back to the turn of the 20th century. It may have taken them forty years to become world champions and ninety to win Olympic gold, but few doubt the Czechs' place in the world of hockey today. They have stars in the NHL and one of the best goaltenders ever to play the game. What's more in 2004 the Czechs even produced an opera in the name of the sport celebrating their 1998 gold finish. Now, not even the Canadians have that!
It has to be said, though, that beginnings for Czech ice hockey were somewhat less auspicious... history tells us that hockey in Bohemia at the beginning of the 20th century was a hugely different sport.
Different from the game we have come to know, even different from the game played in Canada then.
In the Czech lands, still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was known as "bandy hokej", a sport in which skaters struck the ball with a golf-like swing, sending it bouncing down the ice. Golf-like swing?! Ball?! Carrying the puck as if were glued to the stick and firing only on approaching the net, which was something Czech fans learned from a visiting Canadian violinist by the name of Andserson. Slowly but surely the new game caught on. Still, other surprises remained.
In 1909, after the first clubs were founded here, the Czechs were invited to Chamonix, France, to play in international competition for the very first time. One of the original players, Jan Palous, recalled the experience for Czech Radio in 1956, in what today is an historic broadcast:
"Forty-seven years ago we left for Chamonix to take part in our first international ice hockey tournament but we had no clue about the sport at the time. It was not until we reached Chamonix that we saw, for the first time ever, a few other players - from Canada - with sticks, proper skates and a puck. We didn't even know the rules of the game. We were even extremely surprised when we saw that the goal posts were not mounted right at the edges of the rink, but with playing space behind."
Perhaps it's not surprising that the Czechs lost every single match. But that didn't stop them from trying even harder next time. They trained diligently and - in 1911 - clinched their first European title; the matches were held in Berlin. Success still had its drawbacks of course, especially when you consider that the Czech players had to cover the cost of travel on their own; hockey was still a hobby - not a professional sport. The 1911 team even went as far as taking a night train so that they could go directly to the stadium in the morning and avoid the cost of lodgings. Since then, clearly, a great measure of innocence has been lost.
In 1920 the first world championship was held and for the first time European teams were able to measure their strength against Canada. They all lost. The Czech team, representing newly-emerged Czechoslovakia, was defeated 15:0. The next year, however, they did well at the European Championships hosted by Sweden. It was hard not to: all the other teams pulled out. Only two teams - the Czechs and the Swedes - played a single match for silver and gold. The Czechs lost 4:6 but went home satisfied with the knowledge that for the first half of the match they had played the better game.
1931 was another milestone for the Czechs as Czech Radio broadcast from a game for the very first time. Famous reporter Josef Laufer called that first game at the opening of the new Stvanice stadium. For the first time Czech hockey was freed from the shackles of changing weather. Modern times had arrived. World championships were held at the stadium four times: in 1933, '38, '47, and '59. It was in '47 the Czechs won.
They were champions of the world. But, all too soon the victory laurels would be overshadowed by two unexpected events. In 1949, when the Czech team was scheduled to play in London, six players were killed when their plane crashed. Then, March 13th, 1950, the team was meant to go to London once again to take part in the world championship. But, at the airport players found out there would be no take-off. Player Vaclav Rozinak told Czech Radio in 1968 the details of what had transpired.
"In London, we wanted to prove that the team was good, that the world title we won in 1949 had not been a coincidence. But, then some people appeared and said that we would not be going because visas for the reporters had not been obtained. Two days later it was clear we would have to stay. Of course, we were annoyed. The whole thing peaked at a pub when undercover secret police showed up. Somehow a fight broke out and we ended up at the police station. We thought it was all a joke and thought we'd only stay there over night. Even in court, when we were suddenly found guilty of treason and espionage, we laughed and didn't take the charade seriously. But the fun was over when we ended up in prison with our hair shaved off. We released then they truly were not going to let us go."
Vaclav Rozinak got ten years in prison, while ten others got sentences ranging from one to fifteen years, in a show trial orchestrated for fear by the communists the whole team might have emigrated to England, pleading asylum. In 1955 the players were released under amnesty, and were officially rehabilitated in 1968. But seven players died later from forced labor suffered in uranium mines. There was no real going back.
Meanwhile, in the mid-1950s the Soviet Union won for the first time at Stockholm a precursor of the domination it would come to hold over the next thirty odd years. In later years - especially the 60s and 70s, a win over the Soviet Union carried great symbolic and political significance: four years after the brutal crushing of the Prague Spring Czechoslovakia defeated the Soviets in the finals at the World Championships and did so again in '76. Both wins must have made favored apparatchiks cringe, but the Czechoslovak nation secretly celebrated - at the time this was one of the few real means of exacting any kind of symbolic revenge.
Today, the Czechs are enjoying a golden period, unrivalled in the country's hockey history. It began after the break-up of Czechoslovakia, with the Czechs winning the world championship in Vienna in 1996. In the years 1999 - 2001 they won three times in a row, beating Slovakia and Finland twice. But the greatest, unrivalled success to date were the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, where a Czech dream team with the likes of forward Jaromir Jagr and goalie Dominik Hasek, first eliminated Canada in the semi-finals...
...then dispatched Russia in the final game. That golden run proved that in ice hockey the Czechs were truly the best in the world. Heady days few Czech hockey fans here will ever forget.
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