Every time I see NHLers such as Alex Ovechkin become Vladimir Putin sycophants, or former players participate in these propagandistic hockey exhibitions Russia likes to put on — a preening Vlad netting eight goals the other day though he can barely skate — I think of Jaroslav Jiřík. For a few years during the 1990s, I had the pleasure of knowing the first hockey player from the Eastern Block to officially be allowed to play in the NHL. Jiřík, who spent the majority of his time in North America in the minors, was called up by the St. Louis Blues for three games in the 1969–1970 season, before going back to his hometown of Brno.
When I met Jiřík, he was working as a scout for an NHL player agent in the Czech Republic. His real passion, though, was flying and building planes. And when I say “planes,” I mean homemade flying contraptions. At least, that’s what they sounded like when he described them to me. Over the years, Jiřík would have numerous close calls, as his rickety inventions fell from the sky, making emergency landings on highways and farms. So, when I saw a headline about his passing in 2011, I immediately assumed — it turns out, correctly — that it was a crash that had killed him.
Jiřík, though, was best known in his home country for playing in one of the greatest series in hockey history: the Czechoslovakian national team’s victory over the Soviet Union at the World Championship in Stockholm in March 1969. The games, only seven months after the end of the Prague Spring, were nasty, physical affairs imbued with all kinds of symbolism. After beating the Soviets in the first game without Jiřík, the Czechoslovakians refused to shake hands with their opponents (a longtime hockey tradition.) This small, but courageous, post-game act of protest — Soviet Block players weren’t going to get $30-million deals from Nike, though their careers might be over — was censored on Czechoslovakian television and radio, so fans didn’t know it happened. In the next game, however, Jiřík, back in the lineup, would be one of five players — and according to some sources, the first (though he brushed me off when I asked him about this) — to cover the red star on the communist Czechoslovakia’s emblem with black tape during the game. Jiřík’s team went on to beat the Soviets again, 4–3. Prague exploded in celebration and protest with chants of “Russians go home!” and “No tanks were there so they lost.” They’d have to wait another 20 years for the Velvet Revolution.