The year 2019 brought two great anniversaries to my mind. 50 years since Czechoslovakia defeated Soviet Union twice in the same hockey world championship only few months after the Soviet reoccupation. 30 year anniversary of the so called “Iron Curtain” coming down partially due to the events in 1968 that led to the invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia.
The initial idea was to write and reflect on the bird season I have had this fall but while visiting friends in Florida for Thanksgiving my inspiration for the blog changed. Thanksgiving 2019 was full of admiration, appreciation and recognition of the real life heroes who sacrificed for us young people and young hockey player so much. Twenty years after their heroics in 1969 the world changed for most of communist Eastern Europe and us forever.
Soviet Union and its Red Army liberated most of eastern and Central Europe from Nazi Germany, costing them tens of millions of lives. Red Army continued strong military presence in all the liberated territories and that helped establish their own puppet governments in those countries. This came at tremendous loss of freedom of speech, civil rights, economic policies leading to huge disparities between the ruling class and the rest of the population. We can go on and on about the disaster communism is. It has hundred years record of failure. Knowing what we know about it now we all should call communism a crime against humanity. But we still find many people especially intellectuals(educated maybe, intellectual absolutely not if you still believe communism can work) in the western world.
Less than ten years later in Hungary violent uprising against communism was defeated with the help of Soviet tanks in Hungary. The communist regime did not have long life expectancy in that part of the world unless it was ruthlessly enforced.
Fast forward to middle to late 1960’s Czechoslovakia. Alexander Dubcek was the leader of the reform minded government there. Michail Gorbachev attempted these same reforms and openness in mid to late 1980’s in Soviet Union with, in Gorbachev’s mind, unintended consequences the break up of Soviet empire.
Dubcek was twenty years ahead of Gorbachev in thinking the political and economic reforms were necessary to improve the chances of survival of communism in Eastern Europe.
The 1960’s attempt for reforms ended up with Soviet Union(along with other Warsaw Pact countries) sending tanks to crush the peaceful democratic process that was taking place in Czechoslovakia. Dubcek and his colleagues were arrested, hardliners reinstated and the country returned to twenty more years of “dark times of communism”.
There was no chance of fighting back for small country like Czechoslovakia except on a hockey rink.
1969 World Hockey Championship was supposed to be held in Prague but the timing was bad. It was only few months after the crushing defeat of the democratic movement so the hockey federations agreed to move the championship to Sweden.
The tournament’s schedule put Czechoslovakia against the Soviet team twice and beat them both times. This would be incredible hockey story any other time because the Soviets were so dominant in international hockey. These two games became much much more. The Czechoslovakian hockey team made a historical stand and gave the whole nation a hope. We might be occupied and controlled by much bigger, more powerful empire but it does not mean more tanks, more troops, more secret police results in total submission. Actually the other way around. You as a nation find different ways to make a stand and come through all that oppression. Czechs and Slovaks in 1969, and many different times as well, did it through hockey. I must admit I get chills down my spine when I write about that era of Czechoslovakian hockey. Most of the players from that team ended up giving back to the game that gave them so much. I grew up surrounded by some of these legends. My dad and uncle were leaders on that team, other players from the team eventually coached me when I was six, twelve or on my first professional team at sixteen. Watching the old game tapes I can not express enough gratitude and appreciation for what these men did for the game of hockey and for the country itself. They, with their unbreakable bodies and spirit show the world what it means to be a hockey player from Czechoslovakia.
My life or my career would not be the same without these heroes doing what they did not only in 1969 but for decades during the Soviet Union controlling all of Eastern Europe.
I learned two great lessons for life from this generation of players about family and education. No matter how good or great you are in sports, the records, championships, fame and everything else that comes with great success come nowhere near the importance of having great solid family life and good education.
Great family life at home and peace of mind knowing their wifes fully support them while creating environment where the children can thrive allowed them to stay focus on their respective careers.
Most of the players from the 1969 World Championship team also got their university degrees either during their playing days or shortly after they retired.
The idea of world class athletes having to sacrifice family life or education was very strange to them. Some might say that was then its different now. All have the right to say that but I fully agree with the “old guard”.
Finally I will repeat myself her again but I can not express enough gratitude towards that generation of players. Them being the only “threat” to Soviet hockey domination during the 1960’s and 1970’s or passing on their wisdom and experience to other generations of players in the 1980’s and 1990’s is something I will never forget and will always tell to whoever wants to listen.