“A replay of a lost war”: New book explores 1969 hockey wins over USSR – and ensuing riots

Freedom to Win

Czechoslovakia’s victories over the USSR at the 1969 ice hockey world championships – just a year after Soviet tanks had rolled into the country – represent a famous moment in the country’s modern history. Those games, and the riots they sparked in Prague and elsewhere, are a central theme of Freedom to Win, a gripping, freshly published book by Ethan Scheiner, professor of political science at the University of California, Davis. I spoke to the author on the eve of its release.

What was the initial spark for the book?

Ethan Scheiner | Photo: Steven B Studios

“I have a long history of working on things other than Czechoslovakia and Cold War politics [laughs]; in my earlier life I was a scholar working on Japanese politics and elections around the world.

“I had always been a big sports fan and for some reason I thought I could translate that into a class on politics and sports. But then when I sat down to teach the class, in 2016, I suddenly realised, Oh my gosh, I don’t really know what I’m going to be doing here [laughs].

“As I got a few weeks into the class I got really stressed out trying to figure out content: What am I going to teach my students?

“One night I couldn’t sleep, I was so terrified of the blank page in front of me, and I started googling: What can I find that’s interesting on the Cold War?

Freedom to Win | Photo: Ethan Sheiner

“I came across this book that was about men who had defected from the Eastern Bloc to play hockey in North America. And the book opens with the incredible story of the Soviet Union invading Czechoslovakia in 1968 and these extraordinary hockey matches that follow, where it’s the one chance that the country feels to fight back, and then the hockey riots that ensue. And I think, OK, this is the perfect thing to teach.

“I’m so excited but then I get to page nine and the story is over. That was all the author had talked about. And I sat there thinking, OK, I can find more information to teach my students.

“And it didn’t take me very long to find that there was just very little out there, especially in English, but in general there was not very much on this story.

“At first I thought, I’ll just put this aside – I guess I can’t do anything on it. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was the most extraordinary story of how sports actually played into the politics of the time and inspired a people. So eventually it became an obsession.”

A major line in the book follows the Holík brothers, Jaroslav and Jiří, and their friend Jan Suchý, from Havlíčkův Brod. Why did you concentrate on them?

“I found it extraordinary that an athlete would be so outspoken about a communist system when he was living in the communist system.”

“For a number of reasons. The number one reason was when I first picked up the story I came across the pieces of what in particular Jaroslav was doing, throughout the story.

Book Freedom to Win by Ethan Scheiner

“I mean, the fact that he was very openly anti-communist; I found it extraordinary that an athlete would be so outspoken about a communist system when he was living in the communist system.

“I then read about his reaction when Jan Suchý scores the first goal, where Jaroslav takes his stick and screams right in front of the Soviet goalie ‘you bleeping Commie’ and then rips the net off the ice and throws it.

“And then in particular how Jaroslav taped over the communist star on his jersey with black tape. I thought, What a character this is!

Hockey national team jersey from 1969 | Photo: Czech Ice Hockey

“So I first became fascinated by him. And then I realised, Oh my gosh, he’s got this brother who is also this extraordinary player. And then it turns out that the best player grew up with them – they all grew up in this little, tiny town.

“So all that to begin with was thrilling. It becomes not just the story of a small country but the story of a small town and men from a small town inspiring a nation.

“Then what pushed it over the edge and made it clear these guys were going to be the centre of it all was that I was able to make contact with Jaroslav’s son, Bobby [Holík], who lives in the United States [following a career as an NHL player].

“I went and spent a number of days with Bobby and he was equally interesting – this incredibly fascinating person who had grown up also hating the Communists so much.

“And then he introduced me to his family. I thought these were such incredible figures, but when I had access to them it made so, of course, these would be the centre of the story.”

The culmination of the story in many ways is these two games at the 1969 World Championships in Sweden, where the Czechoslovaks beat the Russians, twice. But prior to that had there been much rivalry between the two countries on the ice?

Book Freedom to Win by Ethan Scheiner

“Yes and no. I hadn’t realised that Czechoslovakia had been perhaps the great European power in the postwar period in ice hockey.

“Also the top Czechoslovak team went and trained the Soviets [when the latter switched to ‘Canadian’ hockey from ‘bandy’] and the Soviets learned a lot about hockey from them. There was a sense of them working together early on.

“But then in 1950 with the Czechoslovak team being imprisoned, and then the Soviets jumping up and becoming the world’s great national team, in a sense there was a rivalry that got established, but not the way you’d usually think.

“The Soviet Union was destroying Czechoslovakia, but people in Czechoslovakia thought that the reason the Soviets were constantly winning was that Czechoslovakia was not permitted to win, that they were being forced to lose on purpose.

“So in a sense there was a rivalry, but it was more muted, because Czechoslovakia didn’t hold a candle to the Soviets on the ice.

“But then in 1967, one of my favourite stories is when the two squads face off in the World Championships, led by Jaroslav Holík, and the championships end with a massive brawl between the two countries, right as things are starting to get a bit more tense between the countries in general.

“So yes, that rivalry really got going in 1967 and got kicked up even more as they fought on the ice in 1968 and then was a whole completely different level by 1969.”

4:3 | Photo: YouTube

I hardly need to say why the ante was upped so much by 1969. Even Alexander Dubček called the Russia games “a replay of a lost war”.

“Isn’t that an extraordinary line? Yes, the fact that he said that really points to these hockey matches meant.”

The first match was on March 21 and Czechoslovakia won 1:0. The second one was a week later Czechoslovakia won 4:3 in that game. Is it the case that there were riots only after the first game, or one of the games?

“After match number two is when things really went wild.”

“There were not riots after the first game. After the first match a number of people took to the streets. There was extraordinary excitement and just general celebration over the success of Czechoslovakia in the first match against the Soviets.

“After match number two is when things really went wild. First it was 500,000 people in the streets, celebrating.

Book Freedom to Win by Ethan Scheiner

“Before long, though, this celebration morphs into something more. In any town in which Soviets were barracksed there became riots: locals were tossing bricks at the barracks, lighting things on fire and throwing them and generally trying to smash all things Soviet.

“The most significant case was the office of Aeroflot, the Soviet airline, in Wenceslas Square, where the office gets destroyed. To this day there is disagreement over whether this was a false flag operation, perhaps led by the secret police or was in fact sincere – I don’t think it has really been decided what was going on there.

“But yes, this became a really serious set of riots.”

There are so many fascinating details in the book. One that really struck me was that the famous Czech actress Jiřina Bohdalová was somehow on the bench in Sweden, at least for the first game. What was that all about?

Book Freedom to Win by Ethan Scheiner

“I’m used to all the exciting parts about the games, the very gripping, moving pieces about the invasion, but there are some really funny pieces as well.

“Yes, she had been good friends with the hockey players and had been sort of the number one fan of the team and had previously traveled with them and sat on the bench.

“In 1969 the captain of the team, Jozef Golonka, snuck her into the arena. In some cases he pretended she was his wife. At another time he pretended she was a nurse.

Aeroflot office riots | Photo: Czech Television

“She sat on the bench. At one point a player, Josef Augusta, had a button fall off his coat and, for good luck, he asked her to hold onto it. But the problem was she was already holding her thumbs together for good luck, so she couldn’t hold the button with her hand.

“So she stuck it in her mouth, for good luck, and then she became worried that the team might score a goal and she would get incredibly excited and swallow the button. And then the problem would be everybody would be too excited and wouldn’t even notice that she was choking on it.

“So yes, she was sitting on the bench, cheering wildly and trying not to swallow a button, during these games.”

Yes,  it is true! | Photo: Czech Television

Where does the title Freedom to Win come from?

“I had planned on the title being You Send Tanks, We Bring Goals.”

“This one was something I had not originally planned on. I had planned on the title being You Send Tanks, We Bring Goals, which was a sign fans had been holding in the stands during these matches in Stockholm.

“But then I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Martina Navrátilová, who had grown up in Czechoslovakia and been a child during these matches.

“She remembered vividly just what the matches meant. She remembered vividly watching the matches with her family on their little tiny black and white television. And I said, Can you tell me what the matches meant to people in general?

“These were matches which something like 93 percent of the population in Czechoslovakia had been watching.”

“And these were matches which something like 93 percent of the population in Czechoslovakia had been watching.

“This was a big deal to everybody, but just to give a sense of how big it was, she said to me, The hockey games went beyond sports, they gave people hope, they let us know that we still had the freedom to win.

“I just thought that was incredible, but it took me a couple of weeks to realise, Oh my gosh, she just gave me my title!”

National team at the 1969 ice hockey world championships | Photo: YouTube

You also report in the book that Martina Navrátilová threw stones at Russian tanks in 1968, as a kid.

“Exactly. I believe she was in Plzeň at the time for what was supposed to be a tennis tournament but I’m pretty sure got cancelled as a result of the invasion.

“But she was walking along and the group around her started throwing rocks so she picked up a rock, and maybe something like an apple or an apple core, and tossed that as well. She was a brave little kid.”

The book goes right up to the Nagano Winter Olympics, when the Czechs won gold, with a 1:0 win in the final over Russia. Did the identity of the opponents contribute to the euphoria over that win? It was several years after the fall of communism.

Book Freedom to Win by Ethan Scheiner

“For the players, it mattered less. I spoke to a number of the players. It certainly mattered – it was in their minds. The fact is that Jaromir Jagr was wearing the number 68 on his jersey, and that continued to be an important thing for him.

“But to a large degree for them it wasn’t about getting revenge any more. The way they put it is, This is the Olympic Games – if you can’t get excited about this, just for it being a sporting match, they you’ve got a problem.

“And there were plenty of people, I think especially younger people, who felt it was less about getting revenge.

“But especially among more middle-aged people there seemed to be really this sense of, Look, we have never forgotten you invading us and occupying us and taking us over.

“I spoke to a number of people who very much considered this the opportunity to get back at the Russians.

“In fact, when I was in Prague doing research in 2017 there was one taxi driver who turned to me when he learned what I was writing about and said to me, Ah yes, 1998 was our bill to the Russians for what they had done to us.”