“Things really went wild”: The 1969 Czechoslovak ice hockey riots


Thursday is the 55th anniversary of a famous moment in the country’s modern history. On March 28, 1969 a Czechoslovak ice hockey win over the USSR – less than a year after the Soviet invasion – sparked celebrations that turned into riots in Prague and other parts of the country.

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

On March 28, 1969 Czechoslovakia beat the USSR 4:3 at the World Ice Hockey Championships in Sweden. It followed another (2:0) victory over the Soviets a week earlier.

While the first win saw some celebrating on the streets, tens of thousands took to Prague’s Wenceslas Square, many waving Czechoslovak flags, on Friday March 28.

However, as announcement on the Communist-run radio the following day put it, after the second game spontaneous gatherings in various parts of Czechoslovakia “spilled over into actions that were in breach of the law and at odds with citizens’ dignity.”

Ethan Scheiner | Photo: Steven B Studios

Ethan Scheiner, author of the book Freedom to Win, describes exactly what happened.

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

Jaroslav Holík  (left) with his brother Jiří | Photo: Post Bellum

Scheiner, who has researched the subject thoroughly, says it is still uncertain whether the attack on the Aeroflot office was in fact spontaneous or rather a secret police false flag operation.

What is clear is that the two victories over the Soviets at the World Championships meant a lot to the nation. Player Jiří Holík was a member of the Czechoslovak team for the best part of a decade.

“People were looking for some way that we could show the Russians that we had not been so crushed. And the hockey and those victories provided a bit of that. Of course the Ruskies were always fantastic players. So it was hugely important for us.”

Michal Stehlík | Photo: Karolína Němcová,  Český rozhlas

Historian Michal Stehlík told Czech Radio that the timing was significant, as Czechoslovak society was still dealing with the shock of the Soviet occupation and the definitive defeat of the Prague Spring reform movement.

“The idea that we could defeat the mighty occupiers in something gave people a shot in the arm. Remember also, this was March 1969 and Czechoslovakia had been through Jan Palach, as well as the very last demonstrations and strikes, and was falling into major lethargy. So this sporting success offered at least some positive in the trying situation of the defeat of the Prague Spring and the start of normalisation.”

Alexander Dubček | Photo: ČT24

The soon to be former head of the Communist Party Alexander Dubček referred to the hockey games against the USSR as a replay of a lost war.

However, the riots ultimately left the regime even stronger and it made clear there would be no “debate with the streets”.

During three subsequent World Hockey Championships in communist Czechoslovakia itself security measures were invariably stepped up.

Author: Ian Willoughby
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