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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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David had clobbered Goliath, and the 11,000 polyglot fans crammed into Geneva's Patinoire des Vernets threw hats, canes and even wineglasses into the air. Poor Bubnik himself was inundated in a collective embrace as the entire Czech bench streamed out onto the ice.

Russian morale was so shattered by all this that in the last few seconds of the game the Russian goalie, Vladimir Chinov, who had been benched to give the Soviets a chance at one more power play, leaped over the rail to stop a stray puck without a by-your-leave from coach or referee. This gallant but illegal gesture cost the Russians an additional penalty and an additional goal. At the end of the game the score was Czechoslovakia 6, Russia 4.

Whetted by this astounding upset, 13,000 people crammed into Lausanne's Patinoire de Montchoisi two days later to see what the doughty little Czechs would do to Canada. Standing room sold for $5, and reserved seats were bringing $20 each on the black market. Big blocks of Canadian rooters shouted "Come on, you Smokies," at the team from Trail, B.C., which, in fact, is not even the best in Canada. A Czech rooter waving a large flag stood up in the midst of a crowd of his countrymen and shouted the Slovak equivalent of "Shut-up!" at the Canadians. "It'll take a bigger man than you to make me, and I come from a free country," shouted one Canadian right back. It was just like a night in the Forum at Montreal when the Rangers are in town. The pregame tension was such that the two Swiss referees took a two-mile walk together to calm their nerves.

The Czechs had already begun to psych the Canadians on their way to the stadium. Nattily dressed in blue blazers decorated with decidedly un-Communist-looking coats of arms, they laughed and joked and signed autographs as though nothing more important than an afternoon of croquet were ahead. The Canadians tried to counter this nonchalance by skating out on the ice in a burst of laughter and slapping each other's backs in easy-come easy-go style. But nobody was fooling anybody. Both teams were deadly determined and frightened underneath, for a Czech victory could put a lock on the tournament.

Normally the Canadians, who are far more an aggregation of stars than a closely disciplined team, start slowly and build up to a crescendo in the last period. This time they came on like gangbusters. Czech Goalie Joseph Mikolas, 23, who mines coal when he's not tending goal, saved the game during that first period, making stop after stop while the Czech defensemen got themselves loosened up. Finally, with 15 seconds left, the Czechs got their standard nerve-racking game of click-click-click going, pulled the Canadians out of position just as they had the Russians and scored on the old familiar shoestring play.

In the second period Canada's Defenseman Darryl Sly broke up countless Czech attacks, sweep-checking the puck away from oncoming Czech lines until Wingmen jack McLeod and Hugh McIntyre were able to mount a successful attack that left the score tied one-all. As the third period began, the Canadians looked blue and dejected in their red-and-white uniforms. The blue-clad Czechs on the other hand looked cheerful as cherubs. The Czechs apparently were encouraged by the knowledge that even a tie would put them, unexpectedly, in line to win the tournament. The Canadians, knowing that a tie would be just as good as a win for them, too, seemed to be more concerned with the knowledge that a loss would mean curtains for all their hopes. Each team, hoping the other would somehow lose its head, was therefore playing cautiously—and, just as both hoped, the game ended at 1-1. The tie left Czechoslovakia and Canada tied for first place in the tournament with four wins, a tie and no losses for each. Russia was a half game behind them with four wins and one loss; and Sweden was a poor fourth.

Out of the game

By the last night of the tournament, when Russia finally came face to face with Canada, the game that was supposed to be the high point of the tournament had become only an anticlimax whose excitement was lodged largely in mathematics. Despite a whopping 12-1 victory over West Germany the day before, the mighty Russians were already out of the running. On their success or failure against the Canadians hinged the fate not of the Soviet Union but only of brave little Czechoslovakia. Without being able to do a thing about it themselves, the Czechs had to sit in the stands cheering their old adversaries, knowing that only in the case of a tie or a Russian victory would they themselves emerge as champions of the world.

Unfortunately it worked out differently. The Canadian skaters, displaying the form that has won their nation so many world championships, put the defeated and by now deflated Russians to rout by a score of 5-1, leaving the Czechs the consolation of being officially named the champions of Europe.

And, oh yes, in a little-noticed game on the last day of the tournament, the U.S. beat Finland 5-2, winding up in sixth place with one win, one tie and five defeats.

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