Saturday

Jozef Golonka

The following piece was contributed by Silvester Filkorn & Sebastian Brauneis, two film and philosophy students at the University of Vienna who are working on a documentary of the old hockey rivalry between the Soviet Union (USSR) and Czechoslovakia (CSSR), with Jozef Golonka as the center figure.

"If he had the chance to play the NHL, he had been a Star as Wayne Gretzky was" said the baron of sports journalism George Gross a decade ago about Jozef Golonka.

Golonka is the Slovak Ice Hockey Legend of the late 1950s and the 1960s. He's to be credited for the emotional highlights of CSSR hockey, be it national or international. In the early 1960s he was valued as Europe's most gifted player and his 298 scored goals in 330 confrontations in the CSSR national league and 82 goals accumulated during 134 games in the national team bear record to his prowess as hockey crack.

He won bronze and silver at the Olympic games in Innsbruck, Austria 1964 and Grenoble, France 1968, respectively, as well as two bronze and two silver medals during the world championship. Despite his outstanding capacity on the ice, the gold medal as well as the national first league championship title would tragically remain out of his reach. Never before did a player that able fail the title so close and so often.

He was born on the 6th of January 1938 in Bratislava, Slovakia. His mother did work as a trainer for figure skating and as the caretaker of the local ice stadium. Thanks to her world famous figure skater Ondrej Nepela learned to skate. "Jozko" was naturally taken along to the skating grounds from early childhood on. His mother followed the dream of pairing him up with his older sister, a figure skater, to perform as a pair. But young "Jozko", growing into an sports all-rounder and becoming a nimble power pack shattered these dreams as he found himself drawn to another sport carried out in the ice stadium - Hockey.

Due to lack of equipment and money he and other children from around the neighborhood began repairing the broken sticks of the local hockey team and competing against each other on the streets. During one of their wild and unforgiving matches on the streets of Bratislavas suburbia he and a few others were approached by Viliam Cech, a local factory worker who spent his leisure time headhunting talents for the Bratislava based team Slovan. Jozef entered the youth cadre of Slovan and received his first training from the to be Hall of Famer Misko Polloni. It was to the sedulous effort of Polloni and Cech that hockey legends like Štetina, Šulca, Stana, Zabojnik, Valach, Ducaja and Golonka began to play at all.

During the season of 1955/56 Golonka saw his first action in the A cadre of Slovan. It was on his birthday as he, Capla and Gregor where summoned to the locker room during the last third of a desperate defence that Slovan fought against a strong team from Brno. The count being 2:4. The three boys thought they had done something wrong and where to be expelled from the team. No one thought that this should be their premiere on the ice in a league match. It turned out to become the youngsters day. Gregor scored his first goal immediately after the whistle and shortly after him Golonka set the score to a straight 4:4, doing so in a legendary maneuver of outstanding finesse that the whole stadium suddenly went wild. It was this January of 1956 that the youngsters of Slovan Bratislava manifested themselves as future world class players.

Golonka earned his most famous nickname during a match against the powerful CSKA Moscow in 1957. Golonka's line was set up against legendary Russian crack Vsevolod Bobrov. Golonka sporting 60 kilograms that time, as often a victim of his own pure temper, bodychecked the 90 kilogram Bobrov so fierce and delicate that the Russian star nearly left the ice over the boards. After the action he hurried back to his teammates. They welcomed him with the statement that he did not just bodycheck Bobrov but rather gave him a close shave, sharp and clean as a Gillette razor. Hence he was to be called "Ziletka" (Gillettka).

Golonka did play tennis these times of his life as well, he even won the CSSR youth championship in 1956. By becoming the number one player the national rules of the championship demanded that he was to compete for the CSSR in the junior tournament in Wimbledon. That was quite the sensation, a Slovak should represent the CSSR at Wimbledon. But the leadership of the tennis organization decided to send the Czech born player Jelinek to England. Golonka felt so frustrated he decided to quit tennis. The following season his old trainer Jano Pramnik approached him and said; "Jozko! This years tournament is to be held in Pradubice. You shouldn't miss out!" Golonka did hesitate at first, the unfair ruling of the last year did still bother him. But finally he took part. He beat Jelinek, the very same player who was sent to Britain as his replacement with a striking 6:0 and 6:2 and did prove again that he was the best junior player. The tennis confederation and the trainers wanted him to continue, but this was his last match. He only took the racket to take revenge.

It was this very same heated passion he showed on the ice. And quite often this passion led straight into a hefty fistfight followed by suspensions. As he was not accepted on the sports university in Bratislava he decided to join the military. He played at the Club Dukla Jihlava, a military team out of Prague during his service time. In 1959 Golonka saw his first world championship. The CSSR gained bronze with Golonka being the most prolific player in the national team. He finished the tournament with a total of 7 goals and 4 vital assists.

After his demobilization he was sought after by many clubs all over the country. But Slovan trainer Horsky convinced him to come back to Bratislava. The following years Slovan Bratislava managed to enter the cup finals on a regular basis. Players like Starsi, Dzurilla, Capla, Cernicky, Nedomansky and Golonka formed a strong Slovan team after years of insignificance. Golonka became best scorer of the league in 1960/61. He was the darling of the crowd. As he had to pause for a longer term due to an injury and the team performance started to drop, the fans demanded Golonka. He was their favorite. The little dynamo with the number 9. He was considered a showman, for some time he had the habit of getting on the ice before the rest of the team and circling the ice one full round. Only after this ritual the match was to start. Once he stepped on the ice as the last player, immediately the crowd started to get unease, they thought he was injured. But then the whole team cleared the field. He got on as the first player and circled his round laughing and cheering up the audience.

Golonka was very balanced all-round talent, he was apt in all facets of the game. He was creative, fast, technically able and strong. And he had a great tactical understanding of what was going on, or had to go on during the game. Anytime needed it was him setting the tone for the course in the game. The fans loved his self confident and provocative style and he was often called Muhammed Ali on skates.

During the 1965 world championship at Tampere Golonka again was voted best player of the tournament by a majority of European media and hockey representatives. He scored a total of six goals and gave eight assists. The CSSR team finally failed against the CCCP 1:3 and secured the second place.

The Swedish press found the following words for Golonkas performance: "There's a player amongst the CSSR team, his name is Golonka. One can only talk in words of superlatives about him. He is the Pele on ice, the Caruso on the puck, the Boticelli with the hockey stick, he is the only player in the tournament able to play the puck full speed skating backwards in unmatched precision. He's slogging without end, wrestles the puck from his opponents, he attacks, he defends, he directs the course of play, he assists and he scores by himself..."

Russian national trainer Tarasov needled the CSSR coaching staff before the contest by announcing: "If I had a player like Golonka, I'd take the WM title one hundred percent..."

Three years later, at the Olympic games at Grenoble, France 1968 a sensation became reality. After Alexander Dubcek, a politician representing a more liberal fraction of the communist party in the CSSR gained control of the state the whole CSSR found itself in an atmosphere of departure. A short period of time, to be known as the "Prague Spring" took the whole country. After years of Stalinistic repression, comparable to the former DDR (German Democratic Republic, or East Germany) the Slovak and Czech people found themselves in the midst of the very promising project of a society still communist but with a very human and liberal face. Fueled by these social turnarounds and a new found national confidence the hockey team of the CSSR was the first in a communist country to elect the captain in a secret and free vote instead of having this vital position nominated by the party. Golonak was elected with great majority. A Slovak was to head the national team in the upcoming event, a perfect sensation if one is a bit familiar with the traditional rivalries between Czechs and Slovaks in the former CSSR.

In one of the best and most explosive matches in international hockey the CSSR team beat the CCCP sbornaja 5:4. It was the first defeat for the Soviet steamroller after six years. The sports press, the fans and historians agreed that it was Golonka who lead the game. His duels with Russian defense heavyweight Ragulin were memorable and defining moments of hockey in these days. In one these duels Ragulin tried to bodycheck Golonka, but Golonka escaped with a smart move, Ragulin lost balance and fell down on the ice. His teammates had to help him with finding his helmet. He circled him in a sleek turn showing his tightened biceps. Golonka looked down on his posed arm, then shook his head signing no. And then he tipped on his brow, signaling that it’s not muscles, but cleverness that wins the game.

After the Russians caught up in the second period 3:2 Golonka answered with a decisive 4:2 goal, scoring the most important goal of the match. After the final whistle Golonka threw his hands in the air, fell on his knees and put his ear to the ice. This was to become an iconic photograph. In the background the Russian ice hockey giant Ragulin left the field, beat. This picture was front page of the sports press the world around the next day. The headline above it; "Golonka listens if the Russian Oil is still running!" The match became the sensation at home. It was a vital sign of a new way of thinking and feeling and a metaphor for the situation of the CSSR. The small nation on the edge of the iron curtain was set up against the all ruling might of the CCCP and for a short period of time it seemed possible, that the course of reform was to succeed.

The last match of the tournament did put the CSSR up against Sweden. The final score 2:2 secured the Russian triumph at the world championship once again. Golonka failed a vital chance in the last seconds of the game. And by this result the hockey metaphor for the state and fate of the CSSR continued. Six months after a triumphant return of the national team to Prague, with 70.000 people welcoming the team at the border and seaming the way all to the city center celebrating the brave match they fought against the Soviets, Russian Tanks invaded the country and crushed the reform course with brute force. Golonka was put on a list of wanted persons amongst other people of public or political interest. He had to hide in the countryside for several months. In the end, the Soviets won, again.

But "Zilletka" was to return once more. At the world championship of 1969, to be held in Prague, CSSR in origin, but moved to take place in Stockholm, Sweden because the Soviet occupants feared public unrest as thousands would commiserate in the tournament. Again Golonka headed the national team. But this time the mission was slightly different. With all resistance in the CSSR relentlessly quelled by the occupying CCCP tanks all eyes where on the hockey team again. Upon their arrival in Stockholm the CSSR team already had received more than 5000 private telegrams from fans at home. The dominating yield of the correspondence: "Beat the Russians. You don't have to win! Just beat the Russians." And beating the Russians they did, in both games! 2:0 and 4:3

It was the first time that the Russian national team was beaten by the same team twice in one championship.

Out of protest Golonka and five other members of the team crossed the star that symbolized the membership of the CSSR in the Warsaw Pact with hockey tape. They also turned their backs on the traditional handshake after the national anthem. Upon the teams return to Prague and despite a strict assembly ban 30,000 people gathered at the airport to welcome the team. The plane had to pass over the runway several times until the people where cleared off the landing strip.

Golonka had suffered from a severe knee injury just before the championship, he had to play the the last game against the Russians under constant medical treatment. After every period he received several injections into his leg. It was Glonka's last championship as a player. After the tournament he decided to go and play in Germany. There were various attempts to draft him to the NHL, but a permission to play in North America was improbable so he went to Germany. Also concerned about his knee, he figured that he would be treated softer in Europe than in North America. That turned out wrong, but Golonka stayed, paying legacy to his headstrong temper once again. As defensemen he scored 44 goals in 104 games.

In 1975 Golonka ended his career as player and started coaching the SC Riesersee and became German Champion in 1978. He came back to Czechoslovakia then to coach the CSSR Junior national team and Zetor Brno but returned to Germany and became Champion again 1984, this time with the Kölner Haie. Further Golonka coached HC Davos and after the breakup of the Iron Curtain he became coach of the ECD Iserlohn till1992 and the EHC 80 Nürnberg until 1995. After that Golonka became coach of the Slovak national team, but retired after that.

Jozef "Gillettka" Golonka is offical member of the Slovak, the German and the IIHF Hall of Fame.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

great. I did not know that someone abroad can still recall the names and Golonka, Suchy, Dzurilla.

Good work guys! I am from Slovakia and I am delighted that our old player mind abroad. Thank you

Anonymous said...

Who can forget Starsi-Golonka-Cernicky and Vlado Dzurilla in goal. Golden years.Somebody shopuld make a dvd.

Anonymous said...

I live in the Lake Tahoe area and was given a hockey stick with Golonka printed on it from the 1960 olympic time. It is hand printed twice on it with USSR. I had one more with Kallu on it. There is a Squaw Valley olympic museum here that has the players on it and has. Golonka under Czech. team. Love any imformation about the history. I couldn't find the other name.

Anonymous said...

I think the other hockey stick could be Kalevi Kallu Numminen who played for Finland and was in the 1960 olympics.

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