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.
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.
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.