Wednesday, June 15, 2011

When Minnows Swam With Sharks

Looking at it from decades on, Czechoslovakian hockey post-World War II has something of a Wild West feel. Between 1945 and 1957, the top league had (year-by-year) 12 teams, 11, 12, 8, 8, 8, 18, 21, 18, 16, 15, 14, 12. Divisions ranged from one to three. The two most prominent pre-war teams, LTC Praha and I.ČLTK Praha, were quickly dissolved, merged, and neutered. On paper, it looks like anybody's game.

For the most part, though, the anarchy masked some simple truths: if you weren't from one of the big cities, you weren't going to win. In those years, the champions were all from Prague, Ostrava, Brno, and České Budějovice.1 That state of affairs mostly lasted until army-backed Dukla Jihlava started its spell of dominance in the late 1960s.

One team, though, came close to busting in a decade and a half earlier -- and it may have been the least likely team in Czechoslovakia.

* * *

Chomutov, as far as I can tell, didn't have a team before World War II. I have a book from 1954-55 (most of these images come from it) called "10 Years of Ice Hockey in Chomutov" -- another from 2005 is called "60 Years of Chomutov Hockey." So if there was much going on pre-war, these books are ignoring it. Chomutov's club2 first appeared in 1945-46, on a very low level -- playing exhibitions, as far as I can tell.

I don't know much about Chomutov the city, except that it's fairly small. According to Wikipedia it had about 30,000 people in 1938 -- it has 50,000 now, still smaller than Boulder. What's more, it's not really near any large population centers, so there was no spillover to draw from. Logically, they should have stayed in the lower levels.

Chomutov rose through the ranks, though, as the Czechoslovakian leagues gradually took a new shape. In 1949-50, they were in the equivalent of the second division. And when the top league went from eight to 18 teams in 1951-52, Chomutov were one of the promotees. Most of them could only aspire to be also-rans. Chomutov, though, competed from the start. And it was largely down to one man.

* * *

Miroslav Klůc, center, in action against RH Brno3. Other players, L-R: Bohumil Sláma, Vlastimil Bubník4, Otakar Cimrman, Slavomír Bartoň

There's a commonly-repeated statistic that Miroslav Klůc scored 226 goals in the 1949-50 season. That's true in the most technical sense, but that includes all matches the team played, including exhibitions (which made up most of the schedule at that point). Think if an AHL team played a local beer league team, and that's what Chomutov was doing. The schedule for that year includes a 32-2 win over "Atlantic Praha," a 21-5 win over Roudnice, and a 26-4 win over Jičín. Miroslav's brother, Josef, is listed as scoring 131 goals that season.

Klůc's achievements don't need exaggeration. It's hard to determine these things for certain, but it seems like at least offensively, he and Vladimír Zábrodský were the top players of the early 1950s. Between the 1951-52 season (when Chomutov entered the top flight) and 1956-57, either Klůc or Zábrodský won the scoring championship each year.



Right out of the gate, Chomutov were a force. In 1951-52, with Klůc leading the league in goals5, they finished first in the Czechoslovakian league's Group A, going 9-1 in the regular season. Unfortunately that didn't carry through to the finals, where they went 0-4-1 to finish last of the six teams participating.

The next year, they finished second in Group A, going 10-2. Klůc led the league in scoring with 33 goals. Chomutov tied for the highest-scoring team in the league with 100 goals. They went 2-3 in the final, to finish fourth.

The same season, Klůc got his only invitation to the World Championships team -- he scored two goals. It's a bit confusing as to why he rarely got called to the national team (he'd have one more prominent appearance), and I'm short on theories.

Next year was an off year for both club and Klůc, but in 1954-55, Chomutov finished second in Group B at 9-3-2. Klůc led the league with 25 goals. Chomutov was the highest-scoring team with 89 goals. They went 1-2 in the final, finishing third. And then the next season they seemed to be moving up: 1955-56 saw them finish first in Group B at 12-1-1. Klůc led the league in scoring again, and got his only Olympic appearance, scoring twice in Cortina. Things were looking bright.

Cortina Olympics: Brno's Bartoň, Chomutov's Klůc, Chomutov's Cimrman

* * *

Unfortunately it was the high-water mark.

For the 1956-57 season, the Czech league slimmed down to 14 teams, and eliminated the groups and the round-robin final. False causality, I know, but I don't know what else changed that year: Chomutov finished an uninspired seventh, well out of the running. A bit of a comeback the next year, as they went 13-8-1 to finish fourth, but the 35-year-old Klůc scored only eight goals.

It proved to be his swan song with the team. There were -- according to the 2005 Chomutov book -- problems in Chomutov's management, and disputes with Klůc. One of them was over his coaching -- he served as player-coach for several seasons, and management apparently decided that he should concentrate on one. Whatever the problem (and however it worked - I'm not sure how player transfers operated in Czechoslovakia), in 1958 Klůc left Chomutov. He traveled just 15 miles northeast, joining second-division Jiskra Litvínov. One season as player/coach and he got them up to the top league; then in 1959-60, Litvínov's first season in the top league, Klůc regained some of the old magic and scored 23 goals. He kept playing until 1963, at age 40. He's still revered in Litvínov -- they've never been back down to the second division since that season they earned promotion. When Litvínov retired #14 in honor of their greatest player, Ivan Hlinka, they saw fit to dually honor an earlier holder of the number.


* * *

Chomutov's time in the sun was almost done. Post-Klůc, they limped on in the lower half of the league for a few years, but after a last-place finish in 1963-64, they were relegated. They made it back to the top league in 1967-68, but only lasted that season -- ditto one more promotion in 1973-74. Since that last one, they haven't made it back to the top, even after the post-Communism changes. They're now firmly established as a top second-division club -- they're always at the top of the next flight down, never quite moving up.

Miroslav Klůc is still alive, living in the Prague area. 88 years old as of this writing, one of the best players no one's ever heard of, on a team that caught a little bit of magic for a few years.



* * *

Research for this article came from "10 let ledního hokeje v Chomutově,"6 "60 let Chomutovského hokeje," and historie.hokej.cz.

Most images came from the "10 let" book -- the 1956 Olympic photo was sent to me by Miroslav Klůc, the Litvínov retired numbers photo from Miloš Tarant.

* * *

1 - Kladno finally broke the monopoly in 1958-59, but it's only a few miles from Prague so could almost be considered a suburb.

2 - I like to give the full names of Czech clubs where possible. I also like hanging on to my sanity too, though, and in the years covered here (according to the more recent book) the club was called ČSK Chomutov, Sokol II Chomutov, ZSJ Spojocel Chomutov, TJ Sokol Hutě Chomutov, TJ Baník Chomutov, and VTŽ Chomutov. So simply "Chomutov" it will be. If you want to know more about the naming history, congratulations, we should probably hang out.

3 - forerunners to today's Kometa Brno, whoop whoop!

4 - brother of Augustin, yes

5 - 1950s Czechoslovakian goal leaders are a bit problematic. In years where there was a playoff tournament, that's included in the goal total. So when Chomutov hit those finals, Klůc got an extra three-four games to score in. Nothing we can do about it, all these years later.

6 - this is an interesting book, in part because the author is listed as -- Miroslav Klůc. Perhaps he really was the whole team in the 1950s. It's got a number of odd little cartoons throughout, including the one below.

* * *

This doesn't really fit in anywhere, but I had to share it. The joke is very basically, if I'm translating right:

"Heavens, what is Otakar Cimrman (Chomutov defenseman) doing, hanging a steel ball off his foot?"

"He's so fast that he has to do that to keep from going offsides!"

I have to think that in 1950s Czechoslovakia, a hockey player with a ball cuffed to his leg would bring up less humorous images.

3 comments:

Brushback said...

cool stuff

gsdgsd13 said...

Thanks! Someday I'll compile this into the worst-selling book ever.

Tomáš Kohy Kučera said...

Just a few information: Chomutov played Elite league in Czechoslovakia in 1938 at first, but it was German club with German name of the town - Komotau (Similar case as Opava/Troppau). Czech club was founded after the WWII.
Mr. Kluc (he was renamed someday with "u" in the place of "ů" - he dont know when exactly :) was great player, but he learned hockey on the pond. So he wasnt excellent skater because of bad ice. But his shot was reportedly fantastic - in the league it was enough, in the National team - not so much.
Vlastimil Bubník isnt brother of Augustin/Gustav, no relation there.