Why you should care
Because fighting tyranny can take many forms.
It was, by any measure, an epic celebration, its scope befitting a country that just months earlier had been on the verge of revolution. On March 21 and March 28, 1969, some 500,000 Czechoslovakian citizens poured into the streets to celebrate — and thumb their noses at occupying troops from the Soviet Union, Poland, East Germany and Hungary, which had been stationed across the country since the previous August, when Warsaw Pact allies quashed Czechoslovakia’s revolutionary period of liberalization known as the Prague Spring.
But the monstrous twin rallies weren’t just about defying the Soviet-led invasion or fomenting another revolution. They were about celebrating a pair of wins against the Soviets at the 1969 World Ice Hockey Championships in Sweden.
In the years following the dashed hopes of the Prague Spring, Czechs and Slovaks were one people, especially when they got on the ice.
“I remember, as a kid, we beat the Soviets and everybody just filled the streets,” says Peter Stastny, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, who was 12 at the time. “There were massive demonstrations. In retrospect, the police were fearful. I got hit a couple of times with a police baton because I was wandering in the wrong area. Somebody just whacked me. ‘What are you doing here, kid?’ He didn’t break my back, but …”
Still reeling from the aftermath of the Prague Spring, which saw citizens killed, progressive leader Alexander Dubcek neutralized and the Czechoslovakian political apparatus revert back to centralized communist rule, the people needed reason to cheer. They got it at that historic hockey tournament.
At the time the Soviet national hockey team dominated the sport, winning Olympic gold three times since 1956. And yet on March 21, an upstart Czechoslovakia squad won 2-0 in a match brimming with intensity. In protest against the Soviets, some members of the Czechoslovakian team covered the red star on their jerseys with tape. After his team scored the first goal, Czechoslovakian forward Jaroslav Holik brandished his stick like a rifle, pointed at the Soviet goaltender and called him a “bloody communist.”
Even with a 4-3 win against the Soviets on March 28, Czechoslovakia earned bronze in the tournament, which the Soviets won for the seventh straight year. But it was clear from that point on that the country had found a platform from which it could express its rage against the Soviets and the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia.
With the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring coming next summer, proud citizens across Czechoslovakia cite that historic period as the starting point for what would become a prominent sports dynasty.
“The communists wouldn’t allow us to go on vacations to the West,” recalls Miroslav Frycer, a Czech defector who played eight seasons for four different clubs in the National Hockey League. “They wouldn’t allow us to play where we wanted to play. On the national team, you were allowed to go out. In that sick way, it helped motivate us. To go every day to the practice, to do the things extra. ‘I want to be on the national team, I want to have some good clothes, the possibility to do something else.’ That was a big motivation.
Make no mistake, the Soviet teams of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s remain to this day one of sport’s great dynasties. But Czechoslovakia was the only team that consistently competed with the vaunted Soviets. They won the world championships in 1972, unseating a Soviet team that hadn’t lost the tournament in a decade. Between 1963 and 1986, Czechoslovakia won four world championships, the only tournament titles not captured by the Soviets. The country also groomed and developed some of the world’s best players during the Cold War, including legendary forward Jaromir Jagr, who at age 45 continues to play in the NHL and still honors the Prague Spring by wearing the number 68.
Every Czechoslovakian player trained with a singular goal: to beat the Soviets. “It was a lot of fighting and dirty words,” says Frycer. “You know you cannot beat them, so you at least try to hurt them. If we beat them, we celebrated like we won the championship. Still on our minds was 1968 in every single game. After the games there would be shaking hands, and a lot of us didn’t do it.”
That Czechoslovakian teammates could establish such cohesion was an accomplishment, given the animosity and resentment that festered over generations between the Czechs and the Slovaks. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, each group established its own state. But in the years following the dashed hopes of the Prague Spring, Czechs and Slovaks were one people, especially when they got on the ice.
“I never felt such a unity,” says Stastny. “Usually we didn’t like each other, Czechs and Slovaks. That was the first moment when everybody realized a common enemy unites you more than you can imagine.”