Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Incident at U Herclíků

Perhaps it's time to nominate a new name for the title of "toughest player ever." I don't know how many penalty minutes he accumulated in his career. I don't know if he ever threw a check. I don't have any idea how he played. But Augustin Bubník survived events that would have crushed many -- and then he returned to play hockey.

* * *

In early 1950, Gustav Bubník's career must have looked pretty good. He was one of the top Czechoslovakian league's brightest stars at just 21, the middle of three talented brothers. He'd been an integral part of the 1948 Olympic team that took silver, and the 1949 team that won the World Championships. He'd followed that up by leading the league in goals, scoring 26 for ATK Praha in the 1949-50 season.

But there were dark clouds looming over the Czechoslovak team. Defections were a concern for the authorities -- players such as Victor Lonsmín, Zdeněk and Drahomír Jirotka, Oldřich Kučera. and Milan Matouš had already left. Most recently, Bubník's national teammate Zdeněk Marek stayed behind in Stockholm after the 1949 championships, eventually ending up in the United States.

Bubník had his chance to do the same. In 1948, his touring LTC Praha team voted in somewhat shadowy circumstances on whether to stay behind on a trip to Switzerland. They decided no1 2 and returned to Czechoslovakia. A few years later, they probably regretted that decision.

* * *

It's just about impossible, at least with the resources at my fingertips, to determine just what happened on March 13, 1950. Bubník is the only surviving principal. Another hockey player, Vladimír Zábrodský3, wasn't there, but might have insight but if he's spoken on it it's not readily available. All others are dead.

Bubník and his countrymen weren't given the chance to defend their world title in 1950. The flimsy official reason was a that Czechoslovakia was protesting the alleged refusal to grant visas to Czech journalists, an excuse that dissolves under the simplest scrutiny. The authorities may have been weary and wary of defections, they may have been getting in line with the rest of the Eastern Bloc nations.

On March 13, much of the team was gathered at the U Herclíků pub. Zábrodský wasn't among them -- some have hinted that he may have sold out his teammates and been responsible for what subsequently transpired, but he was known as a teetotaler, and given how popular he appeared to be with some teammates, he may just not have been invited. Again, no one knows.

In any case, the visa excuse was broadcast on the radio as the players gathered, and they responded rowdily and angrily -- calls of "Death to Communism" were heard, not something you wanted to shout in 1950 Prague. And at some point, others in the pub revealed themselves as state agents. Punches were thrown, arrests were made, and 12 Czechoslovakian stars were in the brig.

Bubník suffered torture and worked on the Czechoslovakian equivalent of chain gangs even before he was formally sentenced. Once the trials (a formality) were concluded, one of Czechoslovakia's brightest young stars was sentenced to 14 years in prison, the second-longest sentence after star goalie Bohumil Modrý, who got 15 years.

The sentence included work in uranium mines. An aside here: uranium mining is not good for you. It doesn't promote long life -- the New Yorker had an excellent article about it last year, and bear in mind those were people going to it voluntarily. The experience was sufficiently debilitating that it's widely blamed for Modrý's 1963 death.

Bubník made it through, surviving long enough to see Czechoslovakian President Klement Gottwald's death and a subsequent slight loosening under Antonín Zápotocký. An amnesty was declared in 1955 -- Bubník and his teammates were pardoned. And then, after torture and forced uranium mining -- most resumed playing hockey.

* * *

Who knows what Bubník could have done if he hadn't lost five years of his twenties right as he was emerging as a star. As it was -- he slotted right back in with Spartak Brno, then moved on to Motorlet Praha, Slovan Bratislava, and Litvínov before an injury -- apparently to the spine -- ended his career in the early 1960s.

Later that decade, he moved to Finland and began coaching the national team. He helped take Finnish hockey to a new level. In 1967, he led the Finns to their first international victory against a major hockey power -- Czechoslovakia. The next year, the Bubník-led Finns defeated Canada at the Olympics.

Perhaps realizing that it was better to have him on their side, the Czechoslovakian government "rehabilitated" him in 1968. Bubník returned home in 1969, and coached Škoda Plzeň for a couple years, then coached off and on throughout the 1970s.

* * *

Bubník is still alive and by all accounts quite robust at age 82. He's one of the final links to a fascinating chapter in hockey's history, the last survivor of one of the game's darkest moments. He's a member of two halls of fame, in the Czech Republic and Finland. Not a household name, but a fascinating man nonetheless.

* * *

(two excellent links for further reading: a straight forward account of the arrests and trials here, and a lengthy interview with Bubník here. Both were invaluable in writing this.

1 - the vote was either 8 or 9 against staying to 6 for. According to Bubník, Vladimír Zábrodský was the go-between on the discussions and cast a vote against after the Swiss-based organizers of the plan reneged on promises. Zábrodský's brother Oldřich did stay, playing in Switzerland for a few years and eventually ending up in Belgium.

2 - In the Lonsmín article, I suggested that this was the same time when Lonsmín defected. Further research suggests that's not the case although I'm still not sure.

3 - about whom more at another time

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