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  • Budd Bailey

Book Review: Freedom to Win

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

Review by Budd Bailey

When it comes to emotion and drama in international hockey games, the standard was set in 1972 in the Super Series between Canada and the Soviet Union. There is no lack of publications about that particular matchup. But not far behind are the two games that were played between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union in the world championships in Stockholm in 1969.

You have to consider the circumstances surrounding that game. In 1968, the relatively tiny nation of Czechoslovakia had tried to institute some government reforms. The effort was known as “The Prague Spring,” when hopes had bloomed that life could be a little less repressive there. The Soviets came in later that year with troops and tanks to crush those hopes – firmly and emphatically.

There was little the Czechs could do to show their anger at the situation under the circumstances. But the following year, the teams matched up in a fair fight of sorts on a hockey rink – twice. You can imagine the emotion that went into those games from the Czechoslovakian side. As the sign at the game said, “You send tanks, we bring goals.”

Actually, you don’t have to imagine it any more. The entire story is brought to life vividly in Ethan Scheiner’s book, “Freedom to Win.” And what a fabulous story it is.

The author, a professor at the University of California – Davis, goes down a couple of tracks here. In one way, he goes small – focusing in on one particular family. The Holik name is familiar to hockey fans from the 1990s or so, as Bobby was a big part of the 1995 New Jersey Devils’ championship team. He was the son of Jaroslav and the nephew of Jiri, They were the sons of Jaroslav Sr., who picked 1942 of all times to open a butcher shop in the Czech Republic. They all lived under Nazi domination during World War II, and celebrated their liberation at the end of the war. But the Soviets soon moved in to take control, and they even took control of the family butcher shop.

The sons grew up to be hockey players, and they also learned to hate the Soviets – particularly after learning the story about how the entire national team in 1950 was pulled out of the world tournament on short notice. Then after a bar fight, many of those players ended up in prison as the authorities made an example out of them. The Holik brothers eventually were good enough to become members of the national team, although Jaroslav in particular was a little feisty and always seemed to be on the edge of trouble.

Along the way, Scheiner gives many details about what was going on in the rest of the country by using a larger brush. The stories give an excellent picture of life at the time. Scheiner’s description of the period when the Soviets moved in to Czechoslovakia in 1968 are heart-breaking to read, even now. The Holiks have their ups and downs over the years, but their feelings for the oppressors never change.

Finally in the 1980s, a few cracks in Soviet domination appeared. Players like the Stastnys started to defect, and in response the Czech authorities allowed some hockey players over 30 to play in the West. Eventually, Mikhail Gorbachev loosened control over the Iron Curtain countries, and Czechoslovakia became free through “The Velvet Revolution.” Scheiner does a wonderful job of showing what that time was like on a big and small scale.

Freedom was nice, but the job wasn’t completed in a hockey sense until the hockey-crazed Czechs finally finished ahead of the Russians in a world tournament. They picked a great stage to do so – 1998 Olympics in Nagano. We can assume those players still haven’t bought a drink in their homeland in the ensuing 25 years.

There are other details along the way, of course, and some concern the Buffalo Sabres. Remember Jiri Dudacek? He was the Sabres’ first-round pick in 1981, as the team hoped he might be able to come to America some day. Scheiner coldly points out that the Sabres didn’t do their homework. Dudacek was the son of a top official of the Communist Party, and he wasn’t going anywhere.

Then there’s the case of Dominik Hasek, who provides a couple of interesting stories that I hadn’t heard before. Hasek reveals that he got into an “altercation” with a teammate shortly before the Nagano Olympics, and dislocated his thumb. He needed a special cast and new adapted glove in order to play in Nagano, and he still was the difference for the Czechs in that stretch.

There’s also a fascinating story about Hasek’s early days as a goalie in Czechoslovakia. He had started his career in his native Pardubice, but when he served in the military for two years he had to play for Dukla Jihlava. Pardubice suffered, and was in danger of relegation to a lower league as the end of the season approached. Hasek didn’t want to be part of pushing his former team down the ladder, and worked out a deal to take that night off. But an administrator vetoed the idea, and Hasek took to the ice. He made a save and then took himself out of the game, claiming he had been injured. Then in the game’s first intermission, he yelled out an obscenity and threw his Dukla jersey into a trash bin – earning an eight-game suspension.

The reaction of Sabres’ fans to the fake injury might be along the lines of “He had done it before!?” They remember the time in the 1997 playoffs when Hasek and Buffalo coach weren’t getting along. In a playoff game in Ottawa, Hasek left the game early due to what he claimed was an injury – starting a locally famous string of events that as bizarre as it was ugly.

Scheiner did a fine job of tracking down many people for this book, based on the bibliography, and went through a ton of sources as well. He really makes the time and place come alive.

While hockey certainly is the center of the book, it’s difficult to imagine anyone who won’t be moved about reading of the struggles of the Czech people. This small country always has been in a difficult geographic spot, surrounded by bigger nations. It’s been a heroic fight at times, and it’s particularly relevant at a time when a war between the Ukraine and Russia continues to range not far to the East of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

“Freedom to Win” succeeds brilliantly in personalizing the issues surrounding one particular family and its country. I don’t expect to read a better book for some time.

(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)

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