October 17, 2016

Czech Victory in 1969 Surpasses 1972 Dramatics

Jaroslav Holik

Here's a blast from the past from the GHL Archives:

When Canada defeated the United States in the gold medal game in the 2002 Olympics, Canadians from coast to coast to coast and all around the world celebrated. It was the greatest international hockey victory since the 1972 Summit Series.

But to Canadians, there is no more significant victory in hockey than the 1972 Summit Series. Never mind the fact that it should be one of our worse moments - narrowly escaping a series everyone overconfidently predicted we should have won handily - the series became much more than a hockey victory.

The players described it as war. Time has built up the myth that at stake wasn't the unofficial hockey championship of the world, but our free world values vs. the communist regime. But for 28 days in September '72, especially on Sept. 28, 1972, there was an element of truth in that myth, and when we won the nation erupted and celebrated joyously.

The win had such a profound effect on Canadians. More than any other moment in Canadian history, this event overwhelmed a nation with pride and unity. Anyone with any knowledge of Canada knows that is hard to do in a nation that is so diverse. The event transcended it's realm, and changed us forever.

It will be hard to ever duplicate such an effect on ice ever again. It was a time of us-against-them, not just in hockey, but in everything else. That era is gone, hopefully forever.

Every once in a while, the sports world sees an event where the result transcends not only the tangible victory, but the world itself. The result can mean so much to a large audience - often including non-sports fans. Probably the best example would be when African-American track and field star Jesse Owens set world records in the 1936 Olympics. Those Olympics were held in Berlin, Germany. It was supposed to be a display of Aryan greatness as racist leader Adolph Hitler watched from the stands. Owens overcame the political and racial hot-seat to put Hitler in his place. Even the German fans cheered on Owens.

Every country can come up with their own example of a sporting event that had bigger implications than just result of a game. For many nations in the world it is probably a soccer victory, or maybe an Olympic triumph.

Someone once asked me if there are any other hockey events that rival the 1972 series effect on such a large group of people. The answer I came up with was yes, there was a few hockey events that rivalled it, and one that even surpassed it.

In 1969, not only was the effect matched, but it was bettered, perhaps significantly. The Czechoslovakia national team defeated the Soviets in front of 8000 Swedish fans at the World Championships. A year earlier the Soviet Union rolled their tanks and armies into Prague and crushed a reform movement. Czechoslovakia leader Alexander Dubcek, an earlier version of Mikhail Gorbachev, was trying to introduce reforms that would create "socialism with a human face." The Russians put a quick and authoritative end to that.

The meeting on the ice in the 1969 World Championships was much more than just a hockey game. It was politically charged. The Czechoslovakian players were determined to regain Czechoslovakian pride in their own little way.

The Czechoslovakians, who were famous for playing very conservative hockey, came out with an effort that stretched the meaning of the word intensity. The atmosphere was so tense that it was revealed later that Anatoli Tarasov suffered a mild heart attack during the game.

The game started with a shocking act of defiance by the Czechoslovakian players. The Czechoslovakians’ jersey always displayed the Czechoslovakian emblem of a crest with a lion. A red star above the lion pledged allegiance to the USSR. The players covered up the red star with hockey tape despite great fears of repercussions.

The players played with an unmatchable level of desire. There was no denying their victory. Their hatred was real, very real. Their composure was commendable, but the emotion was incredible. The Soviet players were bewildered. They didn't understand why these players hated them so. One Czechoslovakian player, Josef Golonka, displayed his emotion by converting his hockey stick into a pretend rifle.

The game itself was a scoreless affair for the longest time. The great Jan Suchy scored on a two-man powerplay to open the scoring. From that point on goalie Vladimir Dzurilla was the star of the show. He would keep all the Soviet shooters at bay as he recorded the first shutout in World Championship play by any nation against the Russians since 1955. Josef Cerny scored a spectacular goal to put an exclamation point on the 2-0 victory.

But the victory on the ice wasn't important as the victory in the hearts of Czechoslovakians. The Czechoslovakian players cried uncontrollably. The Swedish crowd knew of the political ramifications, and joined in the celebrations by chanting "Dubcek! Dubcek!" Once the news of the game reached Prague, thousands of proud Czechoslovakians spilled out into the streets. They weren't concerned about possible repercussions either.

Russian winger Yevgeny Zimin remembered the game in Lawrence Martin's book The Red Machine:

"We saw this joy. It was so overwhelming. The whole stadium stood up. The applause was incredible. We realized what was going on. But we didn't view the Czechoslovakian players as our enemies. We didn't have any influence on the decisions of the Kremlin. But, in our hearts and our minds, we did not agree with the policy of the occupation of Czechoslovakian and the use of tanks against the people of that country. We didn't have anything against the Czechoslovakian players."

He also added "The integrity of the Czechoslovakian players and their pride was on the line. They decided that, if they couldn't beat us with tanks, then they could beat us on the ice rinks. You must understand that even before that year practically every game between us and the Czechoslovakians was played at a very high emotional level. But what happened in Stockholm, I must say, nobody expected."

While Canadians spilled out into the streets in 1972 and in 2002, nothing could match the emotion of this game.

Just a few short days later, the hysteria was repeated as the Czechoslovakians again met the Soviets in a match. This time the Czechoslovakians won 4-3, thanks in part to weak goaltending by Russian goal keeper Viktor Zinger.

Ultimately the Czechoslovakians exhausted their passion before they could claim the World title. Needing only a tie in the final game to clinch the gold, the Czechoslovakians lost 1-0. The Soviets, Swedes and Czechoslovakians all tied for 1st but the goals for/goals against ratio gave the title to the Soviets.

Very few sporting events could reach the level of Jesse Owens or the Czechoslovakia national team. Compared to those two, the 1972 Summit Series doesn't quite match up.

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