Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving

I'm thankful for whoever was cool enough to post highlights of a 1959 Dynamo Pardubice-RH Brno match on YouTube.

Happy Thanksgiving, readers of a never-updated blog!

Monday, November 12, 2012

1972

Hockey's world championships are an afterthought in the best years, and 1972 wasn't the best year. On the international tournament slate, it ranks a distant third behind the Olympics two months earlier and the Summit Series five months later. Canada didn't take part, in the midst of a lengthy and probably justified boycott over having to field amateurs while the Eastern bloc teams used their best players. The USA had slipped to Group B. I imagine the tournament didn't make a blip in the Western Hemisphere.

These guys don't seem to care, though. This (click for bigger) is an AP wire photo of the victorious Czechoslovakian team, celebrating their victory over the Soviet Union. I've written about this other times. It was the country's first international ice hockey win since 1949. It was a pretty big deal. (edit: I'm a dummy. This was the penultimate game and more or less clinched the title, but it wasn't actually secured for two more days, when Czechoslovakia beat Finland.)

Only a few of these players can be identified. Second from left, in an embrace, is my man Rudolf Tajcnár. Behind him, facing the camera, is probably a Holík. I'm guessing Jiří Holík but don't put money on it on my say-so. Then we have three guys with names visible, Josef Horešovský, Josef Paleček, and backup goalie Vladimír Dzurilla. Not sure whose face is visible above Dzurilla's head but my guess is Václav Nedomanský. Not sure who Tajcnár is hugging -- my initial thought was chum and frequent defense partner Milan Kužela, but he didn't dress for the game. Looking at relative height and the rounded portion of the number, it's probably Vladimír Martinec or Jan Klapáč. Don't worry, there won't be a test. I just feel compelled to note these things.

It's really only in the last twenty years or so that hockey fans have been able to see the best players of the whole world all at once. Most of these guys were only known to diehard fans of the international game; of this year's Czechoslovakia team, five (Tajcnár, Nedomanský, Richard Farda, Ivan Hlinka, and Jiří Bubla) ever played in North America, and only one (Nedomanský) was still in his prime when he headed over.

* * *

For me, the most noteworthy part of the NHL lockout is how little I'm missing it. I've paid some attention to the Czech league, less attention to the coverage of the lockout (lots of people who aren't qualified to discuss economic issues talking about economic issues, lots of people who aren't qualified to discuss labor relations talking about labor relations), but mostly the NFL and real life have filled the void without an ache. I hope they resolve the situation for all the normal human reasons -- I don't want the world to be without something pleasant and entertaining, I don't want people who love something to be denied that thing -- but as far as day-to-day life goes, I just don't really care.

I'm probably not a good fan any more (though I'm not really inclined to pay much heed to anyone who feels like it's important to measure who's good and who's bad at fandom), but I used to be. There was a long period of my life where my primary description of myself would have been "hockey fan." Now, if they wipe out another season, it won't have much of an impact on me.

Me and the NHL, man. In the words of the Gorilla Biscuits, "we don't hang out but that's okay."

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Plea for Assistance

I've put this out there in a few different places, but once more can't hurt (especially since I've had no luck):

I'm looking for extended/complete game footage from the two 1969 hockey World Championships matches between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. The games were on March 21 and 28 of that year, both played in Stockholm.

There's some clips in this (Swedish?) documentary on YouTube, which suggests that more must exist. But I've contacted collectors in three different countries and experts at the Hockey Hall of Fame and IIHF, all with no luck.

(I'd actually be interested in any Czechoslovakian game footage from that tournament, but those two games are the crucial ones.)

Any help is greatly appreciated. Comment here or e-mail me at one of my million e-mail addresses (such as postpessimist@gmail.com) if you have any leads at all. Thanks.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Interregnum

I'm back from my wedding (which went off spectacularly, thanks for asking) but heading off on the honeymoon (Alaska, thanks for asking) in a couple days. So obviously I'm not really writing anything, but I do have a new Tumblr site going. It's all devoted to photos and logos and uniforms from old Czechoslovakian hockey, so stop by and take a look if that's your sort of thing. Some of the stuff will be familiar to longtime readers of this blog, but rest assured I've got tons of random stuff to put up there.

There will be more long-form writing going up here once I'm back; I'm working on a piece on Jaroslav Jiřík, and there's some stuff in the works beyond that. Keep checking in

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Sparta Praha, 1969-1970

Pretty cool of me to promise great things for this site, then drop off the face of the earth, no? Sorry. I'm (for reals) getting married in about two weeks and other duties have slid sideways, even when they involve Czech hockey.

This, though: I've been helping a fellow in the Czech Rep research HC Sparta Praha's past players, and in the course of that, ex-goalie Jaroslav Jágr (no relation, at least not close) sent me this photo. It's a copy, so the autographs aren't real, sadly.

Rundown: Front row, left to right - Jaroslav Jágr, Rudolf Šindelář, Pavel Wohl, Petr Lindauer, Petr Dohnal, Jan Bartoš

Middle row, left to right - Pavel Svoboda, Jiří Kochta, Jan Eysselt, Zdeněk Ujčík (coach), Přemysl Hainý (coach), Miroslav Beránek, Václav Černý, Petr Brdička

Top row, left to right - Karel Masopust, Václav Honc, Vladimír Müller, Jiří Adamec, Miroslav Kuneš, Jiří Nikl, Petr Kašťák, Pavel Volek

So, yeah, all the other brilliant stuff I have in mind will have to wait.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

1959 Style

Don't know how I missed this until now: 1959 footage of a RH Brno-SONP Kladno game. Stuff like this makes me wonder how much more old stuff is hiding out there.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Rudolf Tajcnar


Forty years ago this spring, Czechoslovakia returned to the top of the hockey world. It was a long time coming. The country had spent more than two decades as an also-ran, the team that won two world championship titles in the late 1940s devastated by the twin disasters of the English Channel air crash and the U Herclíků arrests.

Now, powered by a new generation of stars – international legends like Václav Nedomanský, the Holík brothers, Milan Nový, Ivan Hlinka, Jiří Bubla, Jiří Holeček – they’d finally hit the peak. Two straight silvers in international competition, in the 1971 World Championships and then the Sapporo Olympics, were followed by the country’s first ice hockey gold in 23 years at the 1972 World Championships.

Alongside the legends was an up-and-coming defenseman named Rudolf Tajcnár. The 24-year-old Slovan Bratislava defenseman had gradually increased his presence on the national team. He’d been a seventh defenseman on the 1971 team, but then – benefitting from tragedy, when superstar Jan Suchý was suspended for a fatal drunk driving accident – he became a firm part of the rotation in 1972. He saw regular time during the Winter Olympics, and then in the Worlds he kept up with the Czechoslovak offensive juggernaut, scoring five goals.

His future looked bright. His trajectory was firmly upward. But Tajcnár had played his final game for the national team, and was instead about to embark on a journey that would take him from Bratislava to the U.S. to Switzerland and finally back to Bratislava, and in the process, put him among a small group of pioneers.

* * *

Rudolf Tajcnár was born April 18, 1948, in Bratislava -- two months after the coup that gave the Communists unchallenged power in Czechoslovakia. Not much is known of his youth -- he excelled in tennis along with hockey, and in fact would teach tennis in Switzerland at the end of his career. While still a teenager, he may have played some games for second-division Dukla Trenčín -- then in 1966 he arrived in top-league Košice, where he spent two seasons before moving on to Slovan Bratislava.

In a handful of photos from these early days, Tajcnár looks like a character from a fairy tale, a good and strong woodcutter. Barrel-chested with a wide and honest face. He looks powerful, and by all accounts he was – the common memory from anyone who saw him play was his slapshot, still spoken of with awe decades later. In the spring of 1972, Rudolf Tajcnár looks invincible.

* * *

Something went drastically wrong soon after his high point. In April 1972, Tajcnár was a world champion. When the Czechoslovakian league resumed play in the autumn, he was nowhere to be found. He sat out the 1972-73 season and it’s not clear why. Slovan Bratislava’s records cite “mental health issues.” When he signed with the Philadelphia Flyers down the line, part of the story was that he had beaten up several policemen and spent time in a mental health facility. Gil Stein – the Flyers’ chief operating officer for part of the 1970s – says that was a myth created by Tajcnár’s agent, a “sales pitch” intended to boost the player’s appeal to the team known as the Broad Street Bullies. Articles written after his death don’t mention any fight, just “disagreements” with the regime.

Accessible records from the era are frustratingly incomplete. If he was a free man that year, it’s possible (though unlikely) that he played on a lower-division team. Preseason rosters printed in Czech house organ Rudé právo don’t list him with Slovan Bratislava – but a game recap printed during the season briefly mentions that he’s out long-term, along with injured teammates Nedomanský and Ivan Grandtner, making it sound like he was just on the disabled list. But while both Nedomanský and Grandtner came back that season, Tajcnár never did. When the rest of the team was playing Kladno and Pardubice in the post-season, he wasn’t there.

Czechoslovakian media of the day tended to focus on the positive. If someone had a black mark by their name, they weren’t mentioned. So there aren’t any of the features we’d see today – no “Rudy Tajcnár’s Fall and Redemption,” no tales of a comeback. For one season, Rudolf Tajcnár was just gone.

But then the next year he was back and  it’s as if nothing happened. Back on the Slovan blueline, back as a solid offensive defenseman. The only tangible sign now that anything had changed is an absence – he was no longer on the national team, either as punishment or because he’d been overtaken by a new generation

Tajcnár continued along for a few more years, sticking quietly with Slovan Bratislava for three more seasons, through 1976-77. A solid player from what can be seen. Then in 1977, something changed again.

* * *

The first Czechoslovakian hockey player to defect and then continue his career was likely Milan Matouš, a forward for I. ČLTK Praha who jumped during a 1948 tennis tournament and later played in Italy and Switzerland. Soon after came Zdeněk Marek, during the 1949 World Championships in Stockholm. Marek ended up playing a season for the University of North Dakota. A handful of others trickled out over the coming years. Most of them ended up playing and coaching in Austria, Switzerland, Italy, West Germany, the Netherlands. After the initial rush, few were prominent – more common were either youth players or fringe players at the end of their careers.

But the 1970s brought a seismic upheaval to this situation, and the change came from the two parties that most unsettled hockey during the decade – the World Hockey Association and Alan Eagleson. When the WHA’s Toronto Toros got Nedomanský and Richard Farda to defect in  1974, ignoring international agreements designed to restrict defectors, the playing field changed. Nedomanský and Farda weren’t fringe players – the former was one of the best players in the world, big and strong and an offensive force; the latter a talented scorer for ZKL Brno. This was impossible to ignore – the whole game had changed. Czechoslovakia undoubtedly tightened controls on its players, but within the decade started letting older players – Bubla, František Černík, Hlinka, Milan Chalupa, Nový – go to the NHL in exchange for a fee. But the younger players – the Šťastný brothers, the Ihnačák brothers, Jiří Crha, Miroslav Fryčer – weren’t willing to wait and kept on heading west regardless of permission.

But between Nedomanský and Farda in 1974 and the flood that began in 1979, there was one more player that made the great leap.

* * *

Tajcnár’s story picks up in Switzerland. It’s not clear how he got there – when we first see him, it’s the summer of 1977 and he’s made the crossing. One story is that he came on a friendly tour with Slovan Bratislava and didn’t leave; it’s not clear whether that’s accurate. All we know of his reasons come from a hokej.cz interview shortly before his death – differences with the Czechoslovak government aside, he just wanted to play hockey abroad.

He signed with Swiss club HC Ambri-Piotta, but they were honoring an IIHF agreement barring defectors from playing for 18 months – Swiss teams played Czechoslovak clubs regularly over the years, and I imagine those exhibitions were lucrative for the Swiss teams. Tajcnár was stuck sitting, but he apparently didn’t want to wait.

Stein writes: “Our General Manager was Keith Allen, who had been having an ongoing dialogue with a Czech player agent regarding the possibility of Peter Stastny’s defecting from Czechoslovakia and signing with the Flyers. I do not remember the name of the agent, but he liked to refer to himself as ‘double-O seven.’ In the course of his talks, the agent said he also represented Tajcnár.”1

The Flyers – persuaded in part by the story about the policemen – were convinced and bought in. They sent assistant coach Mike Nykoluk to Switzerland to meet with Tajcnár and work things out.
“He had to sit out a year before he could play, so he wasn’t doing anything," Nykoluk says. "He was a little bit overweight. He must have been living the good life when he was there.”

The deal ran into several problems – not least that Tajcnár already had the contract with Ambri-Piotta. “We had to sort of sneak him out of Switzerland,” Nykoluk says. Because of that, a Swiss lawyer stopped working with the Flyers party – “he felt like it wasn’t the right thing to do” – and Stein came over to join the negotiations.

“I met with Rudi and his local lawyer, got his signature on a contract, and then flew with him to Philadelphia aboard a jumbo jet," Stein writes. "The flight was interesting, because Rudi spoke only German and Czech, but no English. All I could speak was English. Sitting with him in the upstairs first class section of the plane, I took a writing pad and drew a diagram of a hockey rink, then pointed to each position player and said ‘defenseman, winger, center, goaltender,’ etc. He took the pad from me and wrote the name of each NHL conference (Campbell and Prince of Wales), then each of the NHL divisions (Patrick, Norris, Adams and Smythe), then listed the teams in each division. I was impressed with his knowledge of the NHL.”

The Flyers sent him to their new farm team in Portland, Maine, to get into shape. The Maine Mariners contacted a local library to find a interpreter for Tajcnár – the library contacted Hana Strnad, a teacher and translator for all things Czech.

Strnad remembers Tajcnár as “very nice, a very polite person,” who “had a hard time adjusting to the United States’ way of life. He missed his mother’s cooking. But, he liked a lot of the stuff they had here. He was very interested in cars. He could get clothes that were different than what they had in Czechoslovakia. We went out to buy him checkered pants – then he was sorry.”

Jerome Mrazek, a goalie on that year’s Mariners team, says “I do recall Rudy to have been a gentle, unassuming man. A gentleman. There was a language barrier, but I think he appreciated being included in extra-curricular activities as I suspect he was, naturally, a bit homesick.”

Jim “Turk” Evers, the Mariners’ trainer that season,  says “Rudy was a quiet guy. He was probably the oldest guy on the team. He wasn’t a very sociable guy, but he was a funny guy. He was a really big, stocky guy. He must have weighed about 230 pounds, and that was a lot back then. He had that mustache, he looked like Captain Kangaroo.”

“I think Rudy was kind of a loner. But he handled it really well considering that he was one of the first Europeans to come over,” says Steve Coates, a right wing who came to the Mariners in a midseason trade.

Despite the loneliness and culture shock, Tajcnár became a fan favorite with the Mariners. Diane Bore was the president of the booster club for the new team, a spot she held for two decades. “He was quite a ladies’ man. He was very pleasant and he always had a big smile. We sat in section 3 at the  Civic Center. During warmups, he’d always come over to the blue line and raise his stick to me and smile.”

“He was very popular,” Strnad says. “My students would bring in programs to have him sign.”

A big part of the popularity came from his thundering shot. “When he took a shot, he really took a shot,” Strnad says. “The fans would yell ‘Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!’ when he did.”

“Some of the players admitted later on – his shot was so hard it tended to rise and they were a little scared in front of the net,” says Augie Favazza, who covered the team for the Portland Press-Herald. “One of the players later said ‘it was the first time I heard a puck whistle.’ The team tried to get him to keep it down, but I think he was influenced by the crowd (and they loved it.)”

“He was quiet, but he was also like a father figure. We had a lot of young guys,” Evers says. “You could tell when he was mad – he’d give you that look like your Dad gives you.”

He played himself into shape, and impressed his teammates with his conditioning. Rick St. Croix, a Mariners goalie that season, says “When he first came over he would go through a pre-game off ice warm-up that was much more intense than we were used to.  He would be jumping and stretching and in fact doing what most players do today.  I think he was surprised that we were not doing our warming up the same way.”

“I remember Rudy being a really strong player. There was no question about it,” Coates says. But despite his size and strength, he wasn’t often an aggressive player. He later told a Swiss coach that they tried to make him into a “killer” in North America. “He didn’t like the way they played in the United States, all the fighting,” Strnad says. “He said they did a lot of passing (in Europe) as opposed to the checking here.”

* * *

The Mariners kept winning and Tajcnár was a big part of it. The Flyers were starting to look at bringing him up to Philadelphia when disaster hit.

“He was doing really well. We went to see him play in Hershey,” Nykoluk says. “We were gonna bring him up to the NHL – but His skate got caught in a rut there in Hershey and he twisted his ankle. That was the end of it there.”

Tajcnár’s one shot at the NHL had passed, though he did come back from the injury in time for the Calder Cup playoffs. He scored six points in the postseason as the Mariners completed their inaugural season with a championship.

After the season, the team’s ownership sent the players on a congratulatory trip to Las Vegas – a trip that brought a surprise to some of the other Mariners personnel.

“I remember him wearing a cowboy hat and cowboy boots, with a big cigar and a drink in his hand – and he says ‘this is the life,’” Evers recalls. When those around him reacted with shock, “he just said ‘oh, I can speak English – I just don’t speak English.’” Coates recalls something similar -- “I asked him if he wanted to play golf, and he said no, he was going to play tennis – he spoke English!”

* * *


“He was very instrumental in winning the Calder Cup. He sure had a lot of talent,” Nykoluk says. “It was just too bad. I would’ve liked to see him make it the NHL, but some freaky thing happens.” Philadelphia let Tajcnár go after the season. He was now on the dark side of 30, and the Flyers had determined he wasn’t going to crack the lineup.

He was expected to rejoin HC Ambri-Piotta in Switzerland, but instead stuck around North America. In November he signed a ten-game trial contract with the Edmonton Oilers of the World Hockey Association – just two weeks after the Oilers made a slightly more ballyhooed pickup in Wayne Gretzky. The Oilers were one of the shining lights in the gloom of the WHA’s final season, challenging for the AVCO Cup while starting to assemble the team that would dominate the NHL in the 1980s.

Tajcnár hadn’t played since the Calder Cup finals, so he was sent down to get some seasoning. Tom Hodges was general manager of the Spokane Flyers, the Oilers’ affiliate in the Pacific Hockey League (like the WHA, in its final season). “Glen Sather called me one day and asked me ‘can you use a defenseman for a while? I want to get this fellow in playing shape.’ So he sent Rudy down.”

The new defenseman was well-received in Spokane – the Spokesman-Review newspaper called him a “standout,” and Hodges describes him as “a good defenseman, good with the puck.” But Edmonton wanted to see what they had, and in early December Tajcnár got summoned to the big club while it was on an eastern swing.

Rudy Tajcnár played two games for the Edmonton Oilers, his high point in North American hockey. The stats line isn’t impressive: 2-0-0-0-0 and -4. After a 6-4 loss to Indianapolis, the Edmonton Journal said he was “caught in a revolving door.” A few days later, the Oilers decided they’d seen enough – his 10-game trial was cut off. He was without a team again.

Re-enter Spokane. It wasn’t long before Hodges got a call from Tajcnár’s agent – but there was a hitch: “We had a league salary limit. The agent asked for more money than the whole team was getting.” That brought the talks to an early end, but a few days later, Tajcnár took matters into his own hands.

“Rudy called me. He couldn’t speak very much English – ‘Mr. Hodges, do you want me to play hockey in Spokane?’ I said ‘Sure.’ He said ‘okay’ and he agreed to come play for the salary we could give him.”

Tajcnár’s run in Spokane was brief but productive. He scored at a better than point-per-game pace, with six goals and 24 assists in 24 games. Two of those goals came in a January 14 rout of the Los Angeles Blades, drawing rave reviews from Chuck Stewart in the Spokane Daily Chronicle the next day:

“(the crowd) reserved its biggest cheers for Tajcnár. Every time the big Czech would come on the ice the appreciative crowds would roar approval. And each time he’d touch the puck there’d be a big ‘ooh’ or ‘aah,’ depending upon what he did with it.

“Booming point shots, with all of his 235-pounds behind them would get the ‘oohs,’ especially when the pucks would splat off the end boards. It was a drive from the point that accounted for his first goal, and one from center ice which got No. 2.

“’I like that,’ the friendly giant smiled when asked what he thought of the applause he gets. ‘That’s a very big help for me.’”


For the second straight season, though, he was derailed by injury. In the March 3 game against Phoenix, he ruptured ligaments in his knee. It was a bad night all around for the Flyers – teammate Roy Sommer, now coach of the AHL’s Worcester Sharks, remembers “I went down, I punctured my lung. Don Dirk ripped his shoulder out in a fight, Rudy was skating and he tore up his knee. We were all in the training room, it was like Vietnam. All of us were like the MASH unit. Rudy was just shaking his head.”

The injury ended Tajcnár’s season and his North American career. The Pacific Hockey League was gone the next season, and so was he.

* * *

His time in the United States came to an end in shocking fashion, with one more severe injury coming in an unexpected manner. While visiting New York City, he was attacked by thugs – “just a random act,” according to Hodges –stabbed several times and hospitalized.

However serious his wounds were, he was back playing hockey in the autumn. He understandably gave up on North America at this point, and went back to Switzerland – signing with HC Ambri-Piotta, beginning his career with them two years later than expected. The club was in the Swiss second league, working to win promotion (they finally did in 1982, a year after Tajcnár left, then for good in 1985).

His coach there was Jiří Kren, who as a player had pursued a similar path to Tajcnár. Kren was a young player for Sparta Praha when he defected in Switzerland during the 1963 Spengler Cup. He played briefly for some Canadian lower-league teams, then went on to Germany before returning to Switzerland and playing and coaching there.

Kren says Tajcnár was "very fine technically and very strong physically,” but “rarely used his athletic advantage.”

“Some times for a joke we sent him before the game in underwear to the adversary’s dressing room, just to step in and to say ‘sorry, I made a mistake with the dressing room.’ With his impressive physical (size) … the adversary team was shocked and for some time lost the ‘winning spirit.’”

Tajcnár scored 23 goals over two seasons with HC Ambri-Piotta, then moved on to Swiss third-league side HC Ascona. No statistics exist from his time there – though he did play the 1982-83 season along fellow defector Richard Farda, once his teammate on the Czechoslovakia national team, now similarly winding down his career.

* * *

One obscure tale marked a strange and sad coda to Tajcnár’s hockey career. In 1987, he defected back to Czechoslovakia – crossing the border under an assumed name, and turning himself in.  In an interview before his death, he said he was simply homesick -- but it didn’t sound like life back in Bratislava was much happier. In that interview, and one with Tajcnár’s friend Milan Kužela in 2011, it sounds like his final years were lonely – forgotten by the hockey establishment, ravaged by drinking problems and depression.

Rudolf Tajcnár died in Bratislava in the summer of 2005. He was 57.

* * *

1the agent was Louie Katona, a restaurateur in Toronto. I was unable to reach him for an interview.

* * *

A handful of acknowledgements. The top photo comes from the Maine Mariners' 1977-78 team photo; the middle photo comes from a Mariners program from that season.

Two articles by Václav Jáchim were invaluable in getting information on Tajcnár’s life in Czechoslovakia -- this memorial piece including an interview with Tajcnár, and this interview with Tajcnár’s friend and Slovan defense partner, Milan Kužela.

Members of the Society for International Hockey Research e-list provided some details for this piece, including the breakdown of Tajcnár's brief time in Edmonton. The Spokane Daily Chronicle article that's quoted extensively can be found here.

If anyone has more to contribute about Rudolf Tajcnár, I can be reached at postpessimist at gmail dot com.

For those concerned about sourcing, all interviews were conducted via phone except for Gil Stein (letter), and Jerome Mrazek, Rick St. Croix, and Jiří Kren (e-mail). Thanks to everyone who took the time to help me out.

And thank you, for reading this far!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

#21 -- "The Loom of Ruin" by Sam McPheeters

Okay, the book diary is comatose, at least for now. Too many books that I enjoy but I can't wring a paragraph of thought from. If you're dying to see what I'm reading, look me up on Goodreads -- I'm gsdgsd there. Here, I'll write something if I really have something to say.

Not hard to guess that I picked up "The Loom of Ruin" because of the writer's previous associations. McPheeters is a smart and funny guy, and I've enjoyed his bands and writing since college. Still, I approached it with some trepidation -- it's an iffy business, basing purchases on things you liked 20 years ago (see also: tipsy 2 am iTunes purchases of the Revelation Records back catalog). And there's a risk, seeing someone you've admired try something new -- what if it sucks?

Thankfully, "The Loom of Ruin" is fantastic. Darkly hilarious, the funniest book I've read in a long while -- I laughed out loud on nearly every page, and I don't LOL easy, friends. I caught McPheeters on his recent book tour, and he was great in person -- I'm happy to say the book lives up to that.

* * *

This blog is, believe it or not, getting some purpose again. Tomorrow (yes, really, even though I'm notoriously bad at deadlines) I'll post a piece I've been working on for months, on the little-known Czechoslovakian hockey player Rudolf Tajcnar. This is a bit more strenuous than my normal Czechoslovak hockey writing -- I did loads of interviews with teammates and management, and I'm pretty happy with how it's coming out.

This isn't a one-time deal: I've got a bunch in mind (and it won't go the way of other half-started projects -- I've done several interviews for the second piece already). These will be occasional, but I hope they'll shed some light on some interesting stories and lesser-known players. So tune in tomorrow (at some point -- as long as it's in by 11:59 eastern, I haven't blown the self-imposed deadline). Thanks.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Rising Up

I'd be remiss if I didn't break the silence to note that Pirati Chomutov -- the current incarnation of Czech club KLH Chomutov, previously written about here -- won promotion to the Czech Extraliga a bit back. This is the first time since 1974 that they've been in the top flight, so they've been in the 2nd division almost as long as I've been alive. Kind of a big deal and good for them. Apparently they're going to play their first Extraliga match against Kometa Brno, so I'll have to cheer against them there, but otherwise I'm glad to see them (and their '90s-skaterish skull-with-doo rag logo) making the jump and I hope they can stay.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Haunted

I've only seen a few photos of Robert Robětín, but he looks like someone life smiled upon. He looks like Cary Grant -- some pictures are so close that he could be a stand-in. In one photo of him and his Dynamo Karlovy Vary teammates, he doesn't look like an athlete but an actor playing an athlete -- more Gary Cooper than Lou Gehrig. Too perfect for sports. He's grinning a bit sheepishly, like he knows he's just too good-looking. But Robětín was indeed an athlete, by all accounts quite a good one. And his life, through no fault of his own, was far from perfect.

It's another photo of Robětín that sticks with me -- with Karlovy Vary again, this time looking haunted, scared. It's projection again, but hard not to read that into the picture when you've read about Robert Robětín's life.

(from "Lední hokej ve městě horkých pramenů," the official history of HC Karlovy Vary. Most of the information in this post also came from there.)

Robert Robětín was born at the tail end of the first World War, in 1918 -- no date, so we don't know if his birthplace was the dying embers of Austria-Hungary or the first sparks of Czechoslovakia. He was born into a well-off family -- the Fuchs-Robětíns had a big stake in the Bohemian paper industry. Before he was 20, both he and his brother, Karel, were regulars on one of the biggest pre-war hockey teams, I. ČLTK Praha.

I imagine a pretty idyllic life for him at that point. Young, good-looking, athletic, well-off. I think of interwar Czechoslovakia the same way, perhaps wrongly -- a young, idealistic country, full of hope.

But the 1940s proved to be a decadem horribilis for both Robětín and the battered little country. After the German takeover, hockey limped along in truncated form, with the Czech league declining first to a league just encompassing what was left of the country after the Sudeten and Slovakia were taken away, then to a series of local leagues when travel became too difficult. Initially, the Robětíns kept playing with I. ČLTK. But then, in 1942, they vanish from the rosters.

The Karlovy Vary team history -- the prime source for information about Robětín -- deals with it very briefly. Those family members that remained in Czechoslovakia were interned -- apparently in Terezín.1 Robert came out alive. Karel did not.

* * *

After the war, Robětín resumed playing with I. ČLTK Praha. He played for three seasons, the team's last glory years (they were out of the top league by 1950, briefly coming back as Šverma Jinonice and then Motorlet Praha, before vanishing or being absorbed by other teams). In 1948, there was another blow: the Communist takeover of the country and the nationalization of the family business. Much of the family chose to flee at this point. His parents went to England; other family members ended up in the U.S. or Austria. Robert -- apparently of his own free will -- stayed.

But his time in Prague was done. He was sent2 to work in the mines around the industrial city of Kladno, northwest of the capital.

That might have been the end of his hockey career -- he was now in his 30s and was obviously not in anyone's good graces -- but an old friend came through. Jiří Tožička, another old teammate, was now coaching the second-division team in Kladno. Tožička got Robětín a spot at TJ Sokol SONP Kladno, first coaching kids, then playing.

He stuck with Kladno for two years, seeing them to their first promotion to the top flight, then moved on. Another former teammate -- ex-goalie Jan Tesař -- was involved with the new club in the spa town of Karlovy Vary. It wasn't just hockey that drew him -- Robětín was also a passionate golfer, and Karlovy Vary was the St. Andrews of Czech golf.

There, it appears, he found some peace. Robětín stayed with first Slavia and then Dynamo Karlovy Vary until he was 40, in 1958. The club had been relegated to the second division by then (where they'd stay until the 1990s) but Robětín had a home. After his retirement, he coached youth teams both in Karlovy Vary and nearby Sokolov. He also restored golf courses -- later in life, he'd be better known for this than hockey.

Robert Robětín died in 2002, at either 83 or 84 years old. He outlived both of the political systems that caused him so much trouble. It's hard to know how much things weigh upon another man's emotional scales, but I hope that in the end, it was a happy life.

* * *

1At least one more of Robětín's I.ČLTK teammates, Miroslav Slama, was sent to Terezín. He survived, represented Czechoslovakia in the 1948 Olympics, then fled the country, eventually arriving in the U.S. He died in 2008 at age 91.

2It's not clear whether this was a forced labor camp or, less ominously, just some sort of mandatory assignment.

* * *

Sources:

"Lední hokej ve městě horkých pramenů" by Karel Prošek

"Kladno hokejove" by Josef Jágr and Miroslav Oliverius

historie.hokej.cz

#15: "The Struggle For Mastery In Europe" by A.J.P. Taylor

First read this years ago -- now, reading for pleasure rather than school, it's a delight. A calm, reasoned history of European diplomacy between the 1848 uprisings and the end of World War I, it's justly noted as an all-time classic. Not much I can really add about it, if 600 pages on 19th century maneuvering sounds good to you, you'll love it (and have probably already read it). I've got a few more Taylor books stacked up already.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

#14: "The Man Who Went Up In Smoke" by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

I read the first book in this series earlier this year and was sorta intrigued -- this one grabbed me thoroughly and I'm not sure how. There's not a lot of action -- one scene, and main character Martin Beck acknowledges that the action takes 3 1/2 minutes of book-time. But I read the whole thing almost straight through, which I rarely do any more. The plot falls neatly into place. I didn't see the wrap-up coming but it was a pleasure to watch it unfold. I'm starting to see why so many people speak highly of the series and I'll get the third volume as soon as I can justify it.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Hop On Board the Brno Bandwagon

So if you're like me (and who isn't) you're a bit adrift as we enter these NHL playoffs. The Avalanche fell just short, the Thrashers apparently got lost in a snowstorm or something because I can't find them in the standings. I've latched on to a couple teams (the Blues -- my team as a youth -- and the Predators, because go Southern hockey plus they have a bunch of Slavs) but that's more along the lines of "it'd be cool if they won" as opposed to rabid frothing support.

Fortunately, friends, there's another option. The Czech Extraliga hockey final begins tomorrow, and it pits the PPA-supported HC Kometa Brno against Pardubice. Kometa -- for those who have forgotten -- are just a few years back in the top league (after, um, buying their way back in). The top club in the league in the 1950s and 1960s, they won their last title in 1966, fell on hard times in the 1980s and slipped into the lower leagues for quite a while. Imagine if, in addition to all their other problems, the Toronto Maple Leafs had to go down to the AHL for a few years. (Actually, don't imagine that, because it's hilarious and subtracts from the gravity here.)

Kometa's a good club for Avalanche fans to get behind, based on me supporting them. (And if you ignore that Pardubice is Milan Hejduk's old club.) So starting tomorrow, forget the Stanley Cup playoffs -- turn your attentions to the Czech Republic's second city!


* * *

I've been remiss in Tomáš Klouček updates this season. I've been following, though. He signed on to the KHL's new Slovakian entry, HC Lev Poprad, at the start of the year. But he found himself a healthy scratch pretty often (the team ended up toward the bottom of the KHL, which shows what happens when you don't use Klouček right) and he was cut loose in a more general bloodletting at the end of 2011. Fortunately, Czech team HC Třinec recognized an opportunity and scooped him up -- he rewarded them with a goal in his first game (and down the line, 35 penalty minutes in a five-game playoff series). He ended up with five points for the season (all with Třinec) and will become a free agent again this summer. Meanwhile, I'm expecting at least some reshuffling on the Avalanche's blueline. I see a convergence of my interests coming.

Friday, April 06, 2012

#13: "Low Life" by Luc Sante

I first read this some years back and was really disappointed. I'm not sure why in retrospect -- I guess I wanted my old-timey New York to be romantic and dashing, and Sante's determined to point out that the city's criminals were ill-educated and often motivated by poverty and racism. Reading it now, even the non-romantic version is very fascinating (and with plenty of great tales, so I'm not sure what 2002-era Greg was complaining about). The biggest complaint is that Sante doesn't hit the gas enough -- parts of the book just read like a ledger of misdeeds, but as he shows toward the end, when he just lets loose and writes like crazy, he's FAN-TAS-TIC. It may be time for me to give "The Factory of Facts" another try, though I tried to start that about 16 times and never got into it -- it's the Nikolai Zherdev of books.

* * *

Firewater's first two albums, full of sordid tales of NYC's crooked and screwed, provide an effective soundtrack to "Low Life." "Get Off the Cross" came out when I was in my earlier life as a music critic, and I remember getting the initial press release for the album -- Cop Shoot Cop frontman does klezmer! That sounded like the worst idea on earth, but man, "Get Off the Cross" was one of the landmark albums in my life. I moved recently (hence the radio silence) and dug that and "The Ponzi Scheme" out for play up and down the Atlanta highways, and they still sound just perfect today. Sad tales of doomed junkies may seem a bit odd for a move out to the suburbs, but somehow it worked. I was a little less enamored of their output after that -- "Psychopharmacology" had some great moments but left me a bit cold, "Man on the Burning Tightrope" has never made much of an impression on me, "Songs We Should Have Written" was a cute idea extended too far -- so I was really happy to see their last album, "The Golden Hour," just plain blaze. I'm even happier that they've got something new coming out this year. For someone who doesn't get a lot of new music, 2012 is turning out to be a banner year -- new Unsane and High on Fire already, new Firewater coming, Kiss it Goodbye gets back together (even sans Huckins, that's great news). It's like the '90s never ended!

Monday, March 12, 2012

I've Got No Fixed Address Now

After spending nearly a decade in one place, I'm about to move for the second time in the space of a year. Headline aside (just another excuse to quote Firewater), it's a good thing. We'll have more than three times the current space, a deck, a backyard, a big kitchen. I've lived in 700 square feet or so since 2002 -- now the prospect of 2,200 feels like I'm moving into one of Mike Tyson's mansions. What to do with all that space? Did I hear someone say Klouček jersey room?

* * *

My idea of avoiding catch-up posts on books kind of went by the wayside, oops. It's been a busy few weeks. Read since then:

#9 -- "Already Dead" by Denis Johnson
#10 -- "The Anatomy of England" by Jonathan Wilson
#11 -- "Cosmopolis" by Don DeLillo
#12 -- "My First Loves" by Ivan Klima

Briefly -- "Already Dead" is excellent save for a few spots where Johnson indulges a character's declining mental state a bit too much. "Cosmopolis" is only for DeLillo completists. "My First Loves" is a mixed bag and probably gets the completists-only tag too.

Which leaves "The Anatomy of England." It's great -- no surprises there, and not why I want to break it out. I've said similar things in the past but anyone who wants to write intelligently about sports would do well to read Wilson's books. He's able to put aside biases and preconceptions and take on his subjects with intelligence and open eyes. Add to this that he's a good, clear writer. He's calm and ... reassuring isn't exactly what I want to say, but it's as close as I can come right now. He's so composed in his writing that his arguments are given added weight. Whether or not you like soccer, he's worth reading.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

#8: "Prague in Danger" by Peter Demetz

A three-pronged history here, on occupied Prague in World War II. Prong one is a straightforward history of the German occupation, and the subsequent collaboration and opposition. Prong two is a reference guide to the arts scene in the Czech capital during the war -- theater, music, literature. Prong three is made up of Demetz's own memories, growing up as a young man during a confusing time. While the straightforward history is valuable and informative, it's Demetz's story that makes the book. Often wry and always (sometimes uncomfortably) honest, I could have read much more of his life story.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

#7: "The Great War for Civilisation" by Robert Fisk

Probably the strongest and most important book that I've read about the Middle East. Clocking in at well over a thousand pages, it's not going to be for everyone, but it's worth the work. Fisk has had a front-row seat to just about every regional development since the 1970s, so these are the stories of a witness rather than a historian. Recommended without reservation -- this is excellent.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Czechoslovakia, 1949

The things you find online: this was a pickup for a few bucks on the Swedish version of eBay; it's something I would have been salivating over for 50 times the price.



It's a page from a 1949 Swedish magazine, and those fellows there make up the Czechoslovakian national team. They won the World Championships that year, their second title in three years. Thanks largely to this event, they wouldn't win again for more than two decades.

The lineup is:

Standing -- Josef Jirka, coach Antonín Vodička, František Vacovský, Jiří Macelis, Čeněk Pícha, Zdeněk Marek, Josef Trousílek, Přemysl Hainý, Miloslav Charouzd, Vladimír Zábrodský, radio reporter Josef Laufer, Augustin Bubník

Kneeling -- Vladimír Kobranov, Vladimír Bouzek, Václav Roziňák, Oldřich Němec, Stanislav Konopásek, František Mizera, Bohumil Modrý

A year or so after this photo was taken, Jirka, Hainý, Bubník, Kobranov, Roziňák, Konopasek, Macelis, and Modrý were all in jail. Marek had defected to the United States. Czechoslovakia didn't do better than bronze at the WCs until 1961, and didn't win gold again until 1972. Now, more than 60 years after this photo was taken, Zábrodský, Bubník, Kobranov, Marek, and Vacovský are the only players still alive.

Update, July 8, 2013: commenter Tomáš Kohy Kučera corrected some misidentified players. Thanks, Tomáš. Also, Zdeněk Marek is still alive.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Un Flic

I've always had a fondness for this film, based almost solely on the stunning opening scene of a heist in a closed-down holiday town. Watching it anew, the cracks show a bit, and I'm a little less surprised that this is the only major Jean-Pierre Melville film that hasn't got the Criterion treatment yet.

Part of the problem is that we're supposed to see Alain Delon as the leading man here. Melville was always more comfortable with the rogues as leads -- Roger Duchesne in "Bob le Flambeur," Jean-Paul Belmondo in "Le Doulos," Lino Ventura in "Le Deuxiemme Souffle" and (in its way) "Army of Shadows," Delon in "Le Samourai" and "Le Cercle Rouge." In "Un Flic," Delon as good guy cop doesn't cut it -- there are attempts to lend him some gravitas, either through meaningless pronouncements ("It's only when the town's asleep that I can do my work," a line that means nothing to the film) or violent behavior, all of which seems forced. But when you turn it around and take the rogue -- Richard Crenna, here -- as leading man, "Un Flic" starts to fall into place. Crenna's soulful and solid, and you'll wonder why Catherine Deneuve is torn between him and Delon.

The plot's kind of lousy -- the aforementioned triangle has no heat until the film's final moments -- but there are saving graces. The helicopter-assisted train robbery is Melville at his finest, with the scenes of Crenna calmly going about his business, slowly switching from action gear to smoking jacket, working perfectly. And it may be Melville's most visually satisfying film, whether in downtown Paris or the French countryside -- or that storm-swept coast in Saint-Jean-de-Monts. Whatever the film's flaws, that will always remain in my heart.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

#6: "Faceless Killers" by Henning Mankell

The hunt for the Scandinavian mystery that will make me happy continues. A friend recommended I check out Mankell's Kurt Wallander books -- he said they really start to get good about five in. This is the first and it's not bad, but didn't quite knock my socks off. Wallander's an interesting, flawed character, and Mankell sets it against a backdrop of the tensions causing conflict in Sweden at the time of writing (20 years ago, now). Like all the Scandinavian books (isn't there a good snappy short term for this?) I've been reading lately, it's wonderfully atmospheric and descriptive. The mystery itself is a bit unexciting, though -- the plot meanders about a bit in a haze of red herrings and Wallander's sadness, then gets tied up pretty quickly at the end. (A similar problem to "The Darkest Room" -- perhaps something in the Swedish national character?) Still, though, nicely written and I'll seek out subsequent books.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Feel the Darkness

Gare Joyce wrote an article about the Canadiens' struggles for Sportsnet not too long ago. It made a lot of people unhappy. Some for some legitimate reasons (historical errors), some for less legitimate reasons (oh god someone said something bad about a team I like). I enjoyed the article. For all its faults, it was interesting. I haven't read much by Joyce over the years, but what I've read has been thoughtful, the work of someone who thinks about hockey and its meaning beyond "the sport makes me feel good about my country/my city/my team/me."

That alone puts him in rare air. There's a lack of good hockey writing compared to other sports -- without trying I can find a mess of good stuff about basketball, a sport I don't really care about, but lasting hockey work? There's "The Game," Jason Cohen's "Zamboni Rodeo," Kent Russell's sporadic work at N+1. That's about it for real high-quality stuff. There isn't much coming out regularly in the way of good hockey writing -- the Guardian's soccer section has more fine writing in one week than the general hockey media manages in a year. The Classical's great on just about every sport, but its limited hockey coverage thus far has been of the "anthropological study of this mysterious 'hockey on ice'" stripe. Maybe it's difficult to write well about hockey? Maybe good writers aren't drawn to hockey?

So back to Joyce. The article was interesting, thoughtful; I was glad I read it even though I don't care a lot about the Canadiens beyond finding their fans pretty entertaining (seriously, Leaf fans: be less like Leaf fans and more like Hab fans). It was interesting enough that I clicked straight over to Amazon and bought the least-outrageously-priced copy of "When the Lights Went Out."



The book centers on the "Punch-up in Piestany," the bench-clearing brawl between the Soviet and Canadian juniors that ended with both teams booted from the tournament (costing the Canadians a shot at the gold medal, though it was a pretty remote shot). After the 1972 Summit Series and the 1980 Olympics, I'd guess the P-UIP is one of the most famous international matches (at least for North American audiences). It certainly seems to be the source of considerable jingoism.

Thankfully, Joyce mostly avoids that. He's sympathetic to both sides, and gives Russian voices heavy play. He pushes the "robotic Soviet" myth out of the way early (and I think he gets through the whole book without referring to Russians as "enigmatic" -- GREAT JOB! Now follow suit, everyone else on planet earth). Alex Mogilny is the most interesting person in the book (alas, with perhaps the least to say about the Piestany game).

The players on both teams, however talented, were still just kids, and they've got Joyce's sympathy. The Canadian teens were largely abandoned by the power structure that was supposed to be supporting them, and Joyce does a fantastic job showing just how strange and confusing this was for the kids.

There are a couple oddities, things that aren't expanded upon: at one point then-IIHF President Gunther Sabetzki is described as being anti-Canadian, but the only supporting evidence given is that he refused to put maple syrup on his pancakes (by that standard, I may be guilty of a hate crime since I don't drink Molson). Sabetzki and a few other international officials are faceless villains, looking for an excuse to toss the Canadians out -- their side isn't given much weight. It would have helped. (though it would have also been difficult -- Sabetzki died several years before this book came out.)

Still, though: this is a really good book. It shies away from hokey, this-is-our-game self-congratulation. Instead it's honest, thoughtful writing, reassuring me that the world of hockey literature doesn't have to be a wasteland.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

A False Winter

Time for that hallowed PPA tradition: apologizing to all three regular readers (thanks, guys) for my prolonged absence. This blog isn't dead, instead it's hopefully due for a rebirth -- I'm working on a multi-pronged project that will (once again, hopefully) be pretty interesting. But it's still in progress, and a ways off.

It's been a strange winter, the warmest I can recall in Atlanta -- after last year's ice storm, this year's been more shorts and t-shirts. We've flirted with 70 degrees the last few days. We've had the air conditioner on. I'm not saying the strange weather -- and the lack of conditions that would lead me to introspection -- is the reason for the idle blog. But I'd rather consider that than the alternative, which is that I'm lazy.

* * *

Speaking of hallowed traditions: book diary catch-up!

2011:
#41 -- "Tintin and the Secret of Literature" by Tom McCarthy
#42 -- "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" by David Foster Wallace

2012:
#1 -- "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" by Stieg Larsson
#2 -- "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" by J.K. Rowling
#3 -- "Roseanna" by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
#4 -- "The Darkest Room" by Johan Theorin
#5 -- "When the Lights Went Out" by Gare Joyce

For the end of 2011, both books were fantastic. The McCarthy book won't be much fun if you haven't read Tintin, but if you have, it's amazing. The DFW essays are fantastic and the book made me feel guilty for dismissing an earlier-owned copy as boring ten pages in.

I've been on a Scandinavian noir kick to start this year, obviously, prompted first by the surprisingly good film adaptation of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," and then my disappointment in finally reading the third book in that series and finding that it wholly lacked suspense -- after about 100 pages in, there's not a shred of doubt that everything's going to be okay. Unsatisfied, I've set out to find the great Scandinavian noir novel(s), and well, still looking. "Roseanna" is atmospheric and moody but nothing really happens. Theorin will eventually write something amazing, but his first two have been a mixed bag for me. Effective, creepy, and fascinating ... but the plot of "The Darkest Room" is an absolute mess, the pacing's way off, and it just reads strange. It frustrated me, but at the same time, left me anxious to see what he does next.

"When the Lights Went Out" is something that I've wanted to read for a long time, and I've got a lot to say about it -- and I will, sometime this weekend. Really!