Czechoslovakia had arguably the best national ice hockey team in the world for years after the Second World War – despite the Communists side-lining a slew of “politically unreliable” star players on the road to building socialism. We look back at the roots of a historic pub brawl and police raid 70 years ago, after frustrated hockey players blew the whistle on official lies.
The Czechoslovak national team won the World Championships in 1947 at home in Prague and – despite the tragic death of six players in a plane crash over the English Channel – captured their second world title in 1949, in Stockholm. But in 1950, instead of defending their title in London, most of the team were drinking at the U Herclíků pub in Prague’s New Town.
The players had gathered at their favourite haunt on Pštrossova Street, on 13 March 1950, opening day of the world championships, to celebrate the birth of a teammate’s son. But mainly to drown their sorrows at having been barred by the Communist authorities from travelling to the West to defend their title.
Unbeknownst to the frustrated and increasingly rowdy players, State Security (StB) agents were also in the pub, waiting for an excuse to intervene. Augustin Bubník, the highest scoring player of the time, recalled the scene for the Memory of the Nation project, of which Czech Radio is a partner.
“We trickled in one by one. When we were all finally there, suddenly we hear on the radio, at about quarter to seven, presenter Edmund Koukal tell the whole nation how the hockey players were so “enlightened” they did not fly to London for the championship.”
In fact, they had been forced to sign a proclamation stating they had forfeited of their own free will, after Britain refused visas for reporters from Czechoslovak Radio – a bogus claim on both counts, repeated on air.
“That really got us angry. Me and Vašek Roziňák, we phoned into the radio right from the pub. We phoned Koukal and told him, Look, Mr. Koukal, if you want to know the truth, meet us on Pštrossova Street.”
The truth was the Communists were afraid players might defect en masse in England, as a handful had done in previous years. Some players suspected that, in fact, the Soviets had wanted them out of completion, and the Stalinist Czechoslovak hardliners sold out their countrymen to please Moscow.
Augustin Bubník again:
“We swore at the regime, at the establishment and at Kopecký [the then Minister of Information], that we wouldn’t let them clip our wings; that we want to be free. And every now and then Vašek or I would run outside onto the square and shout stuff. When the pub was absolutely roaring, suddenly two men got up from their table and grabbed me and Vašek and said, You’re coming with us.”
Outside the pub, a scuffle broke out, the agents pulled out guns, and police waiting in a van on the square swarmed in, arresting nine players on the spot. Eight months later, Augustin Bubník, Vašek Roziňák and nine teammates were tried behind closed doors, on charges ranging from assaulting a state police officer and slandering the republic, to planning to leave the country illegally, sedition and espionage.
Bubník got 14 years in prison, including hard labour in the notorious uranium mines of Jáchymov, Roziňák got 10 years, and goalie Bohumil “Blue” Modrý, 15 years. Eight other players got sentences ranging from eight months to 12 years. It was not until the Prague Spring reform movement of 1968 that the champions of 1949 were finally rehabilitated.
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