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

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