Last week’s tragic crash of a Russian plane carrying the Lokomotiv ice hockey team to their opening season match in Belarus brought an international conglomeration of hockey players, official, coaches and fans together in mourning. The crash was called a “black day” in hockey’s history. Over the weekend, thousands of Czechs gathered in Prague’s Old Town Square for a memorial by the national hockey federation to remember the three Czech players, Jan Marek, and Karel Rachůnek and Josef Vašíček, who were among the 36 team members, coaches and staff killed in the crash.
Knowing what I do of Czech culture, I know the impact of the tragedy was keenly felt here, where hockey is considered the national sport. Not only that, but hockey has brought the Czech Republic the most international recognition and acclaim in the sports arena, including several world championships and a gold medal in the 1998 Winter Olympic Games. Marek, Rachůnek, and Vašíček each played on the world championship gold-medal-winning teams either in 2005 or 2010 and had built impressive careers in the Czech Republic and abroad. These young men represented the best sportsmen their country could offer, and their loss as top-notch athletes will be long-grieved.
Hockey is able to draw intense passion from an otherwise sedate, non-combative nation. Likewise, Czech hockey players are not only athletic stars, but also vibrant personalities. They provide role models for aspiring youth at home and as ambassadors abroad they often bring real Czech culture, manners and trends to an international stage. When I first came to Prague, I taught a young Czech who asked me in all seriousness if I didn’t know Jaromír Jágr because he lived in America too. When I replied in the negative, he rattled off a list of other Czech hockey players that played for international teams to see if he could find one I knew.
Currently, a majority of accomplished Czech players go abroad to build impressive careers playing for foreign teams. They return home when their careers are on the decline or when the call of family obligations draws them back to their roots. In one of the news stories following the tragedy, I read that only 14 days before the crash, Jan Marek had expressed his desire to go home and to play for Sparta since the recent birth of his son. Knowing the anguish that often accompanies families’ decisions to live abroad or to live apart from their family in order to advance their careers or to provide a better future for their families, my heart goes out to the wives, parents, and children these hockey stars left behind.
In a nation where ice hockey is the equivalent of NFL football or MBL baseball, the strength of the Czech hockey tradition continues to deepen with each generation. As soon as Czech boys are old enough to lace their skates, you’ll find them stick in hand on the neighborhood pond, perfecting the perfect goal shot. Many of Anna’s friends already take weekly hockey lessons and aspire to play like the pros, or at least like their accomplished hockey-playing fathers, in a couple of years. There are special schools, even at the grammar school level, for young hockey players to better fit their sports activities into their academic schedules.
When there’s an ice hockey match in Prague, the neighborhood around the HC Sparta stadium is packed with flag-bearing, drum-beating fans dressed in the maroon jerseys of their home team. I’ve never seen the stadium where the rival HC Slavia plays on game night, but from all reports its fans are equally fierce in their devotion. Police are usually present to calm rowdy fans, although overall, matches are relatively safe events. It goes without saying that a night at the hockey arena is one to be remembered for its fast-action on the ice, as well as the antics of the fans and, of course, the beer and greasy stadium snacks.
Before I came to Prague, the only type of hockey I knew of was field hockey, a prep school sport played by boys in my freshman university dorm. For a girl from small town Virginia, ice hockey was played by Yankees (the Northerners) or, even more remote, Canadians. But arriving in the Czech Republic in January of 2002 with hockey season well underway, it was impossible not to acknowledge the significance of the sport to the Czech nation. My Czech students dropped their activities to watch matches on television. Afterward they then shared a lot about the “sport” of watching hockey.
Ice hockey became unexpectedly dear to my heart, in March of that year, when a coincidental set of circumstances led my future husband and I to meet at what was the first live ice hockey match for either of us. Incredible as it was for me to believe, Radek had never been to a live hockey match, though he later told me that he liked watching the sport on television because it kept his attention better than any other. It was my first match, and to be honest, I went mainly because the ticket was free and I didn’t have anything better to do that Saturday afternoon.
I don’t remember much about the game, including who Sparta played or who won. What I do remember is meeting the tall, handsome Czech stranger who shook my hand and later treated my friend and me to a beer during the match. Although it wasn’t until a few weeks after when we met again that we had a chance to talk, I still have a clear mental image of seeing Radek for the first time on that chilly March afternoon. I remember thinking later that he couldn’t really be Czech, if he’d grown up here and had never been to a live hockey match. I was also suspicious that he had so many English-speaking friends. Little did I know then that years later I’d be grateful for every English-speaking friend we had.
While being a part of a bilingual family is nowhere near the same as being a professional hockey star, still over the years of living in the Czech Republic and traveling home for extended vacations, I’ve learned a little about living apart from my family. When my focus gets narrow and I become obsessed with the minutia of daily life, sometimes it’s hard to keep in perspective the enormous blessings of health, family and safe travels that I’ve been given thus far.
My heart sincerely grieves for the loss of the Lokomotiv hockey team and staff, as hockey players and as individuals, many of whom were just beginning their careers and their adult lives. I hope and trust these men’s excellent reputations as sportsmen and as fathers, husbands and sons will continue to live on. Moreover, I hope that this tragedy will incite an overhaul of air-travel safety regulations to ensure that future sports teams might be better protected.