Prague, Czech Republic – Ice hockey, traditionally thought of as born in Canada, has universal appeal. Canadians are far from alone in their passion. It’s also a sport that has gained incredible popularity in the Czech Republic since it came to the country at the turn of the 20th century and is considered one of the Czechs’ favourite sports to date.
It may have taken the Czechs 40 years to become world champions and over 90 to win Olympic gold, but few fans doubt the Czechs’ place in the world of ice hockey today. The country has produced star players, like Jaromír Jágr, many of whom have gone across the pond to become exceptional NHL players.
The story of ice hockey in the Czech Republic started in 1909, and here’s a potted history of one of the greatest games played by one of its greatest nations.
Ice hockey in the Czech Republic: It’s an amateur game
Ice hockey is a sport that has been continuously evolving over time. This means that the game played at the turn of the century looks very different from any form of hockey we know today. The game was less like a skater with a putt and more like a golf club and a flat ball hurtled down the ice at speed, firing only on approaching the net.
History has it that a Canadian violinist, named W.H Anderson, introduced a kind of hockey-styled game to the Czech Republic in early 1900. It’s not clear if this is true, but it makes for a great story.
Men played in the clothes that they wore to work with basic ice skates and no pads or protection from the puck, and this carried on right up to the late 1940s.
In 1909 the Czechs were invited to Chamonix, France, to play in their first international competition, with no real idea of how to play the game. It won’t come as a surprise that they lost every match.
But Czechs, being resilient people, did not let the fact they lost in 1909 stop them, and in 1911 they won their first European title held in Berlin. Nine years later, in 1920, the first world championship game was born. For the first time, European teams were able to measure their skills against Canada.
Not surprisingly, the Czechoslovak team lost all their matches. The following year, 1921, the games were hosted by Sweden, but all the other teams pulled out, leaving only the Czechs and Swedes to play each other. The Czech squad lost 4:6 to the Swedes but as there were only two teams, they still went home with a silver medal.
Czechs win gold in 1947
Roll forward to 1931 to the Stvanice Stadium. For the first time, ice hockey was free from the shackles of changing weather. The World Championships were held at the Stvanice Stadium in 1933, 1938, 1947 and 1959, and it was in 1947 that Czechoslovakia won gold.
However, it was not all plain sailing. In 1949 the Czech team was scheduled to play in London and six players tragically died when their plane crashed on the way to the game.
The plane crash
In preparation for the upcoming 1949 World Hockey Championships, the team scheduled a couple of exhibition games against the UK. The Czech squad would fly from Paris, where they stayed, to London to attend the games.
Eight of the players flew out the day before the game and spent the night in a hotel. The remaining six players, Miroslav Pokorny, Zdenek Jarkovsky, Zdenek Svarc, Karel Stibor, Vilibard Stovik, and Ladislav Trojak, stayed in Paris for an extra night and left the morning of the game. The plane went down, and most of the team was lost. The aircraft was never recovered either.
Czechoslovakia would win another gold medal in 1949 without these players, but this sad tale is a stain on hockey history.
The entire team gets arrested
In 1950, the team found themselves stranded in London after their plane back to Paris could not leave due to adverse weather conditions.
The team took to the pub and spent many hours drinking, but what they didn’t know was the pub was full of undercover police officers. A fight broke out, and in an era of fear, these players were considered to be a threat and arrested on the spot.
When the players returned to Czechoslovakia, they were subjected to a show trial organised by the communists. Vaclav Rozinak got ten years in prison, while ten others got sentences ranging from one to fifteen years. These sentences are said to have been given out of fear that the whole team might have emigrated to England, pleading asylum. In 1955 the players were released under an amnesty and were officially rehabilitated in 1968. But seven players died later in forced labour camps.
In the mid-1950s, the Russian squad won gold for the first time in Stockholm, a precursor of their domination for the next thirty years. Today, Czechs are enjoying a golden period unrivaled in the country’s history.
A golden era
It began after the break-up of Czechoslovakia and with the Czechs winning the world championship in Vienna in 1996, 1999 and 2000.
But the tremendous success to date was the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, where a Czech dream team represented by Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek beat Canada in the semi-finals and then obliterated Russia, their arch-enemy, in the final game.
That three-year golden run proved that the Czechs were indeed one of the best ice hockey-playing nations in the world.