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CZECH GIANT KILLERS
Jack Olsen
March 20, 1961
In Switzerland Jack Olsen saw Czechoslovakia's upstart hockey team destroy Russia with psychological warfare and come within a whisper of winning the world championship
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March 20, 1961

Czech Giant Killers

In Switzerland Jack Olsen saw Czechoslovakia's upstart hockey team destroy Russia with psychological warfare and come within a whisper of winning the world championship

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The world being what it is, there were a few perfunctory cries of "Yankee, go home!" or its equivalent at the world hockey championships in Switzerland last week, but they were prompted only by a sense of duty on the far left. No one in his right mind—not even the most rabid Red—could seriously consider the U.S. team a threat of any kind, and in Geneva and Lausanne the group of earnest young hockey players who had been gathered together by American Coach Connie Pleban were notable mostly for being agreeable and graceful losers. They made many friends and few goals, and ended up, bruised and bandaged, close to the bottom rung of the ladder. The only clearly visible threats at the start of the 10-day tournament were the hard-checking Canadians, aiming for their 19th world "amateur" championship, and the Russians, who move out onto the ice as though the future of the Communist world depends on their sticks and blades.

Ranged against these glacial giants, the rest of the ice-borne nations competing in the two Swiss cities looked pretty puny. The whole tournament was so arranged as to bring the big two up against each other in the climactic game on Sunday night. Long before that final game took place, however, a team from Czechoslovakia, rated by the experts as little more than "the best of the also-rans," was making both the giants quake on their skates.

Any Czech who dared to say it publicly probably would be guaranteed a trip in the nose cone of a one-way sputnik, but the fact is that the Czech hockey players in Switzerland wanted to beat their big Red brothers from Moscow more than they wanted to beat any other team from any other nation. This is partially because strong anti-Russian sentiment still exists in the land of Masaryk and Benes, and partially because all satellite peoples find themselves so much in the shadow of the U.S.S.R. that they are hungry for identity. The Russians, on the other hand, came to Switzerland determined to prove that Soviet hockey, like Soviet everything else, is the best in the world.

The entire organization of hockey in the Soviet Union had been revamped during the last year to develop a championship team. From the big leagues in Moscow to the bushers in the remotest boondocks, Russian coaches were ordered to scuttle their old individual star system and develop unified forward lines and defensive units that could be switched around intact from team to team.

As any National Hockey League coach well knows, three good forwards or two defensemen who have learned to play as a unit are far more valuable than three star forwards or two unmatched defenders who have never played together. Teamwork and discipline were the hallmarks of the Russian team that took the ice on Tuesday against the Czechs, and to every bookmaker in the Alps the outcome seemed certain. Russia had already sailed through the U.S., Finland and Sweden with the imperturbable majesty of an icebreaker in the East Siberian Sea and seemed destined to go on plowing ahead.

But the Czechs, who had also beaten the Americans and the Finns, were not to be pushed aside so easily. They turned the grim Russian determination to their own account in a wild war of nerves. At times every Russian player on the ice seemed to be looking over his shoulder for the secret police.

As the Russians, tense with the knowledge that they had to win or else, lined up for the face-off and the referee stood ready to drop the puck, the Czechs would decide to change their line. They did this time and again—always at the very last moment. The Russians would have to stand grinding their teeth while Czech players skated nonchalantly back to the bench and substitutes skated nonchalantly on again. With the puck at last in play, the sly Czechs would start another private game. Often for as long as 30 or 40 seconds they would skate aimlessly back and forth in their own defensive zone, passing the puck to one another with no more purpose than kids playing tiddlywinks at recess time. Sometimes a Czech defenseman would stand stock-still with the puck against his stick for ten seconds or more.

Unable to bear the suspense, the Russians would bang their sticks on the ice in frenzied irritation, demanding action. Finally, past all patience, the furious Russians would bear down on the phlegmatic Czechs, who had been waiting for just this moment. With the Russians well out of position and crowded in the Czech end of the ice, the Czechs would flick a pass down the ice to a forward (generally Jan Starsi) stationed all alone just outside the enemy defense zone. Starsi would then break away for a solo dash and flip the puck past the goalie.

Gallant gesture

Twice in the first period of the Russo-Czech game the Czechs scored by this method, only to have some beautiful team play by the Soviet Maiorov twins even it up again. The Czechs went ahead for two more goals, and the Russians once again tied it up. Then, as they had time and time before in the game, the Russians lost their heads in the face of Czech tiddlywinks, and committed themselves too deeply in Czech territory. Czech Wingman Vlastimil Bubnik broke away to score on a rink-long rush, and the game to all intents and purposes was over.

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