How Czechoslovakia’s ‘moral victory’ on ice triggered the Hockey Riots, onset of ‘Normalisation’

Photo: YouTube

Exactly 50 years ago today, the Czechoslovak national ice hockey team beat the Soviets in the world championships for a second time, setting off a series of celebrations – which soon turned into protests, at times violent, against the ongoing Warsaw Pact occupation. Though a moral victory, in a sense it proved a Pyrrhic one.

“Winner of the game: Czechoslovakia” – with these words and the ceremonial firing of a starter’s pistol, a battered national pride was gloriously, however fleetingly, restored through back to back victories over the Soviets on ice, in this celebrated episode of the Cold War.

The 1969 World Ice Hockey Championships in Sweden took place just seven months after Warsaw Pact tanks rolled in to crush the Prague Spring reform movement. Czechoslovakia beat the Soviet team 2-0 on March 21 and 4-3 on March 28, led by trainer Jaroslav Pitner, dubbed the General on Ice.

Historian Jan Kalous recalls how the players wore their politics on their sleeves, so to speak, in Sweden.

Photo: YouTube
“Some hockey players put black tape over the red star of the Czechoslovak state symbol on their jerseys. In the end, the entire team refused to shake hands with their Soviet opponents. The trainer Pitner, at a press conference, apologised ironically saying normally the losers do congratulate the winners.”

TV programme announcer and host Milena Vostřáková was sacked from Czechoslovak Television and banned from appearing in media after describing the victory not only as an athletic but a ‘moral’ one – a sentiment widely shared that few dared to express so publicly.

Announcer: “Hundreds of thousands of fans have come to Wenceslas Square to celebrate our victory … Wenceslas Square has never seen such a celebration before. Unfortunately, there was also vandalism – and not only in Prague. And such violence, as with all violence, must be condemned.”

The team’s victory set off a wave of spontaneous celebrations across the country. Some half a million people took to the streets on the night of March 28. In Prague and elsewhere, many gatherings quickly turned into anti-Soviet protests. Some protestors dared to confront and even attack Soviet military units. The office of Soviet airline Aeroflot on Wenceslas Square was ransacked.

The Czechoslovak ice hockey team’s victory had come two months after Charles University student Jan Palach martyred himself in a desperate bid to rouse the nation from complacency under Soviet occupation. While the hockey matches lit a brief firestorm, the era of Normalisation would soon take root.

The protests that came to be known as the Czechoslovak Hockey Riots served as a pretext to oust the remaining leaders of the Prague Spring, including first secretary Alexander Dubček, who had sought “Socialism with a human face.”