Zdenek Marek - 1949 Ice Hockey World Champion who escaped to the West

13-03-2006

Jan's guest in One on One is Zdenek Marek. Born in 1925 in the heart of Moravia, in the town of Prostejov - Zdenek Marek made his fame in the late 1940s playing ice hockey for some of Czechoslovakia's top teams, including Sparta Prague. More importantly, he was a member of the national team that won the 1949 World Championship in Sweden. The event changed his life. The occasion allowed Marek to escape from Czechoslovakia - where the Iron Curtain was descending - to start anew in the West. Jan spoke to Mr Marek - now in his 80s - via phone to New York, and he told him about his escape, as well as how, as a teenager, he first discovered hockey as a sport.

"Let me tell you something about hockey. I didn't realise that hockey was going to be something that would be important in my life. I was very good in school and I was very good in other sports, skating, but I had no intention of playing hockey. However, my brother - who was two years older - had hockey skates and a hockey stick. Then happened something that is the only reason that I am sitting here in the United States: my brother got flat feet. It sounds incredible, but that is absolutely the reason that I later made it to the US!

My brother got flat feet and he couldn't skate anymore. So, he gave me the hockey skates and stick. I was either 13 or 14. The local pond was about a ten minute walk from my house, and there were kids there playing hockey, so I joined them and I started to play. From the first time I put on the hockey skates and tried the stick, I was a hockey player!"

How then did you continue? Going from the town of Prostejov to eventually joining the national team?

"Well, first I played on the junior team in my home town and then, later, when I went to study at university in Prague, and even though I was still a member of my Prostejov team, I practiced with LTC Praha. Then, when I was studying I played for Sparta Praha, third in the league, and by then I was pretty good. Finally, when I was drafted for mandatory service I asked to be transferred to the army's ATK Praha."

As a player did you have any kind of 'signature' moves that players often have today? Gretzky for example was known for the 'wrap-around' - did you have any move like that?

"No, I was strictly an 'old-fashioned hockey player'! I was a centre-forward and in those days there was no fighting in the corners and there was very little fighting in front of the goal. I was a playmaker, not a goal scorer. The wingers were there for the goals, that was my style of play. I was a very good stick-handler but I wasn't the greatest shot. For some reason I thought it wasn't my job to score goals, I had the wings there for that.

By the way, let me tell you something about hockey in Czechoslovakia: people who play hockey now have no idea how much fun it was to play hockey in the 1940s. You know, we never practiced, I mean really practiced! I don't think there was anyone on any team who ever lifted weights or anything like that! We just had fun, it was unbelievable!

I went to play on the B squad for the Czech national team, we went to play in England and Scotland, and at that point in 1948 when we were in Scotland, the Communist Party took over the government. Now, we were out of the country and so we asked ourselves 'Are we going to go back, are we going to stay?' In the end, we decided to go back: how bad could it be?"

As the communists took power, could you feel a mood of oppression setting in?

"After the communists took power they took away our property, you know. We owned a big apartment house in Prostejov and we owned a night-club and a restaurant, so my father had to 'donate' the restaurant to the country. Let me put it this way: you weren't free and you had to be careful about everything you said and this was slightly disturbing."

Another tragedy coincided with this period as well.

"At that point [in 1949] some of our hockey players on the national team were travelling and couldn't get on the plane, so they travelled in a smaller plane across the English Channel and they went down. They disappeared, and they were never found. They needed a substitute for them and that was how I got on the team."

Did you go to the Sweden World Championship knowing that you weren't going to come back?

"I didn't know but I had kind of a feeling that I might not be coming back. My mind was on other things than hockey."

Nevertheless, it was a big gold win for the Czechoslovak team in '49 - the 2nd in the country's history - did you have any feelings about the win itself, considering the monumental personal decision that you faced? Did the gold actually mean anything for you?

"I don't remember now, but probably not. My mind was already somewhere else. I'll tell you about what happened in Sweden: of course they were watching us. When we went to Sweden there were two men whose only job was to watch the team. They didn't know anything about hockey, they were just there to watch the team.

We won the World Championship and we had a gala dinner and I was sitting next to the manager of the team, and the manager told me 'Hey, Marek, go upstairs and bring me back your passport'. Because, I had borrowed it the day before on the pretext that I wanted to change some Swedish money or something, so he had lent it to me. So, I said okay and went upstairs. One of the chambermaids hid my suitcase, and I went down to the lobby.

Now, in the lobby were those two guys whose job it was to watch the team, okay, and they said 'Look, Marek, where are you going? We are going to leave soon.' I said 'I met this nice young lady and I have to say goodbye to her before we leave.' And they said 'Okay, but don't forget to come back.' And I 'forgot' to come back. That's how I stayed in Sweden.

The team went to catch the train - all slightly high from the success - and when they were calling the names - when they called mine, somebody said 'here'. So, they didn't even know that I wasn't there when the team left.

The next day was one of the worst days that you can possibly imagine, one of the worst days of my life. I woke up, I knew that the team had gone home, and that I was alone in a country where I didn't speak the language. It was a dreary day, it was raining. Meanwhile, there were dozens of newspaper reporters looking for me. I was the biggest sensation."

What about Czechoslovakia?

"Well, I know for a fact that my name was erased from all the records, the ice hockey records - pictures and everything. I was just as if I did not exist."

13-03-2006