How Slovaks Will Spend The Next Two Weeks

Hokej

May 6, 2011

Allan Stevo

Meet virtually any Slovak, of any socio-economic status from 17 to 81 years old, male or female, face to face in a private conversation and one of the first three questions will always be “Do you like Slovak women?”  Most often, this is the number one question.

The beauty of the Slovak gene pool does not escape Slovaks. In fact, it’s a source of national pride.

But when I had come to Slovakia for the first time, it was August 2002 and another question had supplanted “Do you like Slovak women?” in the top 3: “Do you like Slovak hockey?”

2002 was a Good Year for Slovak Hockey

Just several months prior, Slovakia had won the World Championships in hockey and this was no small issue.  No small issue, indeed, when it supplanted “Do you like Slovak women?” as the number one most asked question.

Little Slovakia, only nine years old, beat the USA and Canada, where all the self-proclaimed wiser/smarter Slovaks had run off to and evaded the horrors of the past.  These countries were the big boys with the king of all hockey leagues – the NHL.  Little Slovakia beat Russia, with whom they’d shared bad blood in the past.  And more importantly, they beat their big brother.

Nine years prior, officially and unofficially, the Czechs became the successor state to Czechoslovakia.  They kept the flag and the currency along with the international standing, while Slovakia had to spend the next nine years proving itself, something that continues to this day.

But on May 11, 2002, in the game of hockey, a game that so many Slovaks love – not quite like Americans and baseball, but akin to Americans and baseball – the Slovak Republic proved themselves the best in the world – “Majstri” as world champions are called in Slovak – “masters.”

The video for the song “Nech Boze Da,” commemorates this victory.

The World Championships

From April 29 to May 15, 2011 – the Slovaks will host the World Hockey Championships – both in Bratislava and Kosice and spring is an apropos time to mention this love of hockey because it marks the anniversary of the 1969 Czechoslovak Hockey Riots.

The riots may not have been so significant in their outcome, but were significant in that they expressed where Czechoslovak sympathies lay.

The Story of the Czechoslovak Hockey Riots of 1969

In Spring 1968 the Czechoslovak communists under the leadership of Alexander Dubcek underwent a liberation that included among other things: opening borders, allowing unrestricted travel, removing censorship in the media and arts, and allowing people to more easily start businesses.

This period would come to be known as the “Prague Spring” and is remembered idealistically by those who were coming of age.  Named for Prague because it was the capital of Czechoslovakia.  Spring was when many of the reforms took place, but spring is also a reference to the metaphor of “freezing” and “thawing” that was used in those times to refer to more oppressive and less oppressive regimes.  It was a thaw compared to the last 20 years of Czechoslovak communism.

In August 1968 the armies of the USSR and 4 other allies of Czechoslovakia (East Germany, Poland, Bulgaria, and Hungary) on behalf of the Czechoslovak people, invaded a sovereign state – Czechoslovakia.  Reformist Czechoslovak political leaders were kidnapped, discredited, and replaced.  The Red Army stayed.  The concerns expressed by the invaders were, among other things, that this trend toward freedom would destabilize the region.

USSR v. Czechoslovakia

In March 1969 in the Ice Hockey World Championships played in Stockholm, the Czechoslovak ice hockey team defeated the USSR not once, but twice March 21 and March 28, 1969 by scores of 2-0 and 4-3 respectively.

A Game Filled with Symbolism

With 70,000 Red Army soldiers in their barracks, still occupying Czechoslovak land, the thought of freedom once so close, and Moscow the prime culprit, some in Czechoslovakia took to the streets.  The political outcome was that the largely discredited Dubcek was further ousted from power after obediently following Moscow’s orders.  They used the riots as an excuse to push him from power.  Within a year, he would secretly be kicked out of the communist party altogether.  Perhaps nothing else took place because of the riots, except for the fact that in a country with their limited freedom of expression, the riots showed where the sympathies of many lay in response to the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.

One observer from the times said to me about those hockey matches with Russia and after: “You know in 1969, it was very political.  They were occupying us.  It was very important.  In the 1970’s when Russia played Canada, we cheered for Canada.”

In this April 11, 1969 Time Magazine article the scene of an evening of riots is described:

Ominous Visitor. Overcome by a vicarious sense of triumph, a huge and excited crowd swarmed into Prague’s Wenceslas Square. One happy hockey fan carried a poster that read BREZHNEV 3, DUBČEK 4. The crowd chanted, “We’ve beaten you this time!” Someone shouted, “The Russian coach will go to Siberia!” Suddenly a brick smashed through the plate-glass display window at the office of Aeroflot, the Soviet airline. A small group dashed through the opening and began heaving furniture and filing cabinets onto a bonfire in the street. To make matters worse, the demonstrations were not confined to Wenceslas Square. Across the country, groups of Czechoslovaks stoned Soviet barracks and set fire to Russian military vehicles.

Hockey became an important metaphor.  Hockey was played on an even playing field, where there were rules and “might makes right” was not the only moral code, and on such a playing field the Czechs and Slovaks would always give the backwards and more powerful Russians a run for their money.

The Upcoming World Championships – Impossible to Miss

Starting at the end of April 2011, the IIHF Workd Ice Hockey Championship will begin, hosted by Slovakia.  Friday, April 28 at 8:00 p.m. local time, Slovakia and Slovenia will play.  From that first night, it will be hard to miss how important these games will be for many Slovaks.  Sure, there will 100,000 or so drunken louts from all over the world ready to make a mess of the capital, but even if the championships were not held in Slovakia, the importance of these games would be nearly impossible to miss.

When I lived in Petrzalka, you knew when hockey was on because the world around you, in the middle of the day, got eerily quiet.  And living in the panelaky for which Petrzalka is known, you knew when someone scored a goal because you suddenly heard an outburst of cheering from the left of you, right of you, above and below, and if you had the windows open, you heard it through the windows as well.

When Hockey is on, Slovakia Shuts Down.

Don’t plan an event, don’t try to make a person work, don’t make a business calls, don’t call family to see how they are doing, don’t expect the corner store to be open, don’t expect anything to run the way it usually does.  If that hockey game is on, it becomes a priority even for those who don’t like the sport.  This is true almost without fail.

Hockey’s a political expression for Slovaks, an expression of victory in a world where Slovak national achievement can appear so miniscule.  It’s a sport with much proof of accomplishment by Slovaks.

Hockey is unquestionably the most important sport in Slovak culture.  A few years back an American bishop was in Slovakia around the time of the World Championships and I asked her if she was watching hockey.  Her response told me she was probably a good talker, but a bad listener.  It was sort of a shock to me that she was passing up the opportunity to experience part of a culture that she was so fond of.  Later, I rationalized that she probably didn’t like hockey, so why would she pay attention when people started talking about hockey.  The enthusiasm Slovaks have for hockey is near impossible to miss at this time of the year, especially if you are good at listening to what’s on the mind of the people around you.  The enthusiasm that’s felt offers many observers of Slovak culture a little extra, unexpected peek into the Slovak psyche every spring.

If you are in Bratislava or anywhere in Slovakia during the World Ice Hockey Championships (in 2011 or ever), do yourself a favor and make it a point to be among Slovaks, in a Slovak bar where the games are being shown on TV.  Even if you hate hockey, you will find even the slightest appreciation for the Slovak nation come out and you will find yourself cheering.

Sometimes you might even find yourself cheering for the Slovaks against your own national team, because maybe, like me, you come from a culture that loves the underdog and you know your nation wins at everything.  So maybe, just for a moment, when that puck lands in the net, you find yourself standing and cheering even if a Slovak got that puck past your own country’s goalie.

12 year old boy, 30 year old woman, 65 year old man, 85 year old woman – if they are Slovak, they will all be gathering around their TVs this spring to watch hockey.

This is Slovakia.  Slovaks love hockey.

Allan Stevo is an author living in Bratislava, Slovakia.  You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com.  If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email.  You can sign up for emails on Slovak Culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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Comments

  • I remember when the Czechs beat the US in 1997 (I think) the US team was so ticked off that they destroyed the whole hotel where they were staying 😉

  • Tanja,
    Wow. That’s quite a memory and a good testament to how high the tension seems to get with hockey. There’s just something about such a low scoring game that makes it tense from beginning to end – you never know when the other team is going to stage a comeback by simply scoring two goals. Thank you for sharing this tale from the ’97 World Championships.
    Allan

  • Well, it´s pretty much over now and these are some tough times for Slovak hockey, but I believe that when onde door closes another one opens and am already looking forward to seeing a new young(er) Slovakia squad at next year´s WC in Sweden/Finland…..But maybe you might consider adding this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uwxi440vMjI&feature=player_embedded http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvt9u15JCsA&feature=player_embedded because I think it is a nice demonstration of how much the Slovaks love hockey and the WC….:)

  • Dear Mememe,
    Thank you for the note and the great videos!

    For those who might be interested:

    The first video shows Slovak fans chanting a bunch of different stuff including hockey player “Pavol Demitra’s” name and “Dakujeme” (we thank you). It is chronologically after the second video, a continuation of the second video.

    The second video shows the end of the final Slovak game in this year’s championships – against Denmark. In the video, Marian Hossa received the MVP from a Czech gent. After 3:30 the Slovak National Anthem is played along with the raising of the Slovak Flag. It was Slovak hockey great Pavol Demitra’s last game for the Slovak National Team. He plans to play one more year of pro hockey in Russia and will then retire. Not many dry eyes in the house as Demitra is skating off the ice. The language, in case anyone is confused, is Czech – very similar to Slovak, but with a slightly different accent.

    Thank you, Michaela for posting these.

    Allan

  • True story:) I can only confirm what the article says. The hockey championship is like a great festival for us. And especially this one, that occurs here. Too bad that Slovak hockey team finished that early :-/
    Daniel Sukup, Assistant Editor, http://www.BratislavaGuide.com

  • Dano,
    Thank you for the note. Too bad indeed that the Slovak Hockey team finished so early. Perhaps as Mememe writes, next year will be a better year with a younger squad.
    Allan

  • Very nice and true article :)
    I can remember the day of final match in WC 2002 against Russia, I was talking with friends in front of our “panelak” and wanted to go home every minute to watch the match, but someone said “No worry, nobody will score an early goal”, so we stayed little longer, but after half a minute of 1st period, we knew he was so wrong, beacuse we live in Petrzalka, so everybody went home immediately :)

    .. and I can watch “Nech Boze da” forever. Everytime I watch it, i have goosebumps. And my eyes also didn’t stay dry after watching Demitra’s video, too bad he has to end, I always loved his celebration after he scored a goal, it was so nice to watch him play and score.

    I am happy I have been on at least one match (Russia – Germany), beacuse I couldn’t afford to buy tickets on Slovakia’s match for 250+ € from people who wanted to make a big profit and I didn’t want to buy whole package of tickets.

    Looking forward to the next WC, but I’m worried about young players, coach should have give at least few of them a chance this year (Zaborsky, Panik, Tatar…) to gain some experience and bring young blood to over-aged team (some of them may have scored something like Granlund for Finnish team :)

    .. okay, one more “Nech Boze da” and I’m done :)

    Boris

  • Thanks again for the article.Really looking forward to read more.

  • […] seeing someone wearing the colors of a visiting hockey team, or wearing Slovak hockey jerseys. Lots of Slovaks love hockey, as I’ve pointed out in other articles on this […]

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