From March 13 to March 22, 1950, nine hockey teams came to London to participate in the 17th Ice Hockey World Championships and 28th European Championships. One team that meant to compete was prevented from leaving their home nation, (then) Czechoslovakia.
The two years leading up to 1950 had been turbulent for the Czech team. In 1948, they won silver at the Winter Olympics held at St. Moritz while the Communist party took power in Czechoslovakia. In November, a few short months before the 1949 World Championships at Stockholm, the plane carrying six members of the Czech national team disappeared when crossing the English Channel. Despite the tragedy, the team went on to win gold after defeating Canada for the first time ever. Their return home was triumphant and much celebrated with the train station packed with cheering fans and government officials, like Prime Minister Antonin (“Tonda”) Zapotocky. Czech star Gustav Bubník joked, “If Zapotocky had had his accordion with him, he would have had played for us.” However, the Communists soon banned travel abroad requiring special permission to leave.
In March 1950, the Czech hockey team made plans to attend the World Championship in London. At the last minute, as the team awaited its flight on Saturday, March 11, Czechoslovakia withdrew from the tournament. The explanations became muddled, and the international press questioned the official story. Czechoslovakia claimed that the withdrawal stemmed from England’s refusal or delay in providing visas for two journalists who planned to travel with the team. The players were also told that there was an administrative issue and still thought they would leave when that cleared. Czech player Václav Rožiňák told Czech Radio (in 1968), “In London, we wanted to prove that the team was good, that the world title we won in 1949 had not been a coincidence. But, then some people appeared and said that we would not be going because visas for the reporters had not been obtained. Two days later it was clear we would have to stay. Of course, we were annoyed.” Canadian newspapers, like the Victoria Times Colonist, received news from London that the “mix-up concerning British visas for two newspaper men who were to accompany the team” was cleared up late Saturday when the Foreign Office telegraphed Prague. The team had received their visas on Thursday despite having left their applications to the last moment.
The true reason for the withdrawal seemed apparent right from the start. The Communists in power feared the athletes would defect. They had seen many do so already. In 1949, a couple of LTC Praha (LTC Prague) club team players defected at the Spengler Cup in Davos, Switzerland. One of them was Oldrich Zabrodsky, brother of Vladimir Zabrodsky, captain of the national team. Another star of the 1948 and 1949 national team (and a tennis champion), Jaroslav Drobný, also defected that year. A total of eight Czech hockey players had defected in the four months leading up to the World Championships – two went to Switzerland and six to France then England. The government had already prevented a Czech club game from being played in France because “Too many of our finest sportsmen sent out to represent the national flag remain abroad.” This time (as printed in the Ottawa Citizen), the Communist paper Rude Pravo claimed the withdrawal from the World Championship was in order to “conceal from the British people the increasing well-being of Czechoslovakia’s working people and the high level of their new culture.”
When the tournament started on March 13, without the Czech team, J.F. Ahearne, secretary of British Ice Hockey Association and tournament organizer, explained that the loss of one team would not necessitate shifting the schedule. With nine teams, there could be three even groups of three for the preliminary round.
While disappointing for the Czech team, that would have been the end of the story, but instead, national team members were immediately arrested back in Czechoslovakia. Some sources claim that either the majority or the entire team was arrested right at the airport where they waited to fly to London. However, players have told the alternate story that only a few of them were arrested after a bar fight two days later, on March 13.
When the tournament opened and the team realized they would not be allowed to leave, several players met up at U Herclíků in downtown Prague. Gustav Bubník claimed, “We all felt pretty bold. I have to admit we swore a fair bit and every now and again would even run out onto the little square and yell: ‘Death to the Communists’ or ´We will not let you cut off our wings.’” Rožiňák’s story on Czech Radio continued, “The whole thing peaked at a pub when undercover secret police showed up. Somehow a fight broke out and we ended up at the police station. We thought it was all a joke and thought we’d only stay there over night. Even in court, when we were suddenly found guilty of treason and espionage, we laughed and didn’t take the charade seriously. But the fun was over when we ended up in prison with our hair shaved off. We [realized] then they truly were not going to let us go.”
The international press reported that three or four players had been arrested after vocally protesting the trip’s cancellation at the bar. The Montreal Gazette, for example, listed the players as forward Vaclav Rozniak, reserve goalie Zlatko Cerveny, defenseman Jiro Macelis, and Augustin Bubinek. According to the Gazette, “Several others were reported to have fled.” Later, Czechs affiliated with the national team said that at least one player probably reported to the police and/or Communist government. Apparently, the bar incident involved a fight with 30 police, including one that was punched by a player for objecting to toasts “offensive to the people’s democracy.”
The players sat in Pankrac Prison until their three-day trial in October 1950. By that time, 12 team members faced charges of espionage, plotting to defect, assaulting a police officer, and “slandering the republic.” After the “kangaroo court” “show trial,” every single player was convicted and sentenced to serve six months up to 15 years. They made an example of goalie Bohumil Modrý, somehow cast as the leader of the defection plan, by sentencing him to 15 years. Next were Bubník with 14 years, Stanislav Konopásek with 12, and Rožiňák and Vladimír Korbanov with 10 years. Combined, the players faced 77 years and 4 months working in uranium mines.
National team members first mined uranium at Jáchymov (near the German border) before being relocated to Příbram (near Prague). David Luksu (a Czech sports reporter who interviewed surviving members) explained, “The whole team, besides a couple of players, was sent into jail and they spent about five years in the uranium mines. They were in mines in a little town. They dug materials for atomic bombs for the Soviets.” In 1955, after Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and the Czech president died, the new Czech president, Antonin Zapotocky (the former prime minister) granted amnesty to the players. This was shortly before those at Příbram (with its less-harsh conditions) received the equipment to play a hockey game there. Bubník told an interviewer, “On January 23, 1955, we were unfortunately discharged from the prison, so I did not succeed in playing ice hockey as a prisoner.” Although they were released, many, like Modrý, had serious health issues from the radiation. He and six others died young from complications.
Unknowing of what was to come for their fellow hockey players, the 1950 World Championship began on March 13 and continued as scheduled. The home team, for Great Britain, came in at fourth. Switzerland, the location of the contentious defections of 1949, took home the bronze. The North Americans came out on top with the silver for the U.S. and gold for Canada.
- Tal Pinchevsky, Breakaway: From Behind the Iron Curtain to the NHL– The Untold Story of Hockey’s Great Escapes (John Wiley & Sons, 2012).
- Andrew Podnieks, Where Countries Come to Play (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2013), kindle version.
- “Czech Hockey Team Stays Home,” Victoria Times Colonist, 13 March 1950, p. 7.
- “Czech Ice Hockey Team,” Manchester Guardian, 14 March 1950, p. 6.
- “Czech Players Peeved,” Ottawa Citizen, 15 March 1950, p. 1.
- “Czech Hockey Players Placed Under Arrest,” Montreal Gazette, 16 March 1950, p. 18.
- “Six Czech Hockey Stars on Trial,” Victoria Daily Times, 6 Oct. 1950, p. 5.
- “7 Czech Hockey Aces Reported Imprisoned,” Baltimore Evening Sun, 10 Oct. 1950, p. 3.