Vlastimil Bubník: The Last Amphibian

Karel Kroupa and other members of Zbrojovka’s title-winning side are rightly remembered and honoured by Brno’s faithful followers. But one man sits alone in city’s pantheon of greatness: Vlastimil Bubník, the last true dual sports star.

“As a child, I was not allowed to play sports…”

Parents. They are supposed to know best. With all of their practical experience of life, accumulated through their own indiscretions and achievements, our parents are supposed to guide us through our formative years and make sure that we are on the correct path when it is time to spread our wings and leave the nest.

Growing up in Kelč, a small town in Central Moravia, Vlastimil Bubník was dissuaded from playing sports. Instead of taking to the ice rink or the football field, his father wanted him to follow in the family footsteps and become a landscape gardener. His mother, on the other hand, wanted him to have a clearly defined career path that would see him graduate after his studies and take up a white-collar role somewhere nearby.

This was Czechoslovakia in the interwar years, and at this time, sport was primarily an amateur enterprise. There was state and industrial involvement to a degree, but there was little prospect of a boy from a rural Moravian village succeeding to a level where he could make a ‘professional career’ out of his sporting ventures.

Sometimes, though, it is best to ignore the wishes of your parents. Especially if you believe in yourself and are blessed with the type of talent that comes around once in a generation.

At the age of twelve, Bubník’s talents with were clear for all to see and, rather begrudgingly, he was allowed to join the youth ranks of SK Královo Pole Brno. Playing ice hockey in the winter and football in the summer, the youngster quickly matured into a dual-sport star that was equally adept on grass as he was on ice.

After progressing through the youth ranks at one of Brno’s biggest sporting institutions, he made his senior debuts for SK Královo Pole at nineteen and quickly caught the eye of those in charge of national team affairs. An immediate regular on the ice rink, Bubník was fast-tracked into the Czechoslovak national ice hockey side and was named in the squad to compete in the 1950 Ice Hockey World Championships, which were to be held in London.

However, this meteoric rise almost would almost be his downfall. Inadvertently, Bubník became embroiled in one of the most controversial moments in Czechoslovak sporting history.

The Blue Spring

Heading into the tournament, the Czechoslovaks, as defending champions, were seen by many as the pre-tournament favourites. However, the state was still smarting after the country’s figure skating starlet Alena Vrzáňová defected in March of that year. Instead of returning home, Vrzáňová fled, initially accepting asylum in Britain before settling in New York.

Afraid that many of the ice hockey squad could follow in the footsteps of the country’s former golden girl and defect, the authorities looked to stop the team from travelling to Britain.

That excuse came at the last minute. With the entire squad at Prague airport and ready to fly, it emerged that one of the travelling party, the radio commentator Otakar Procházka, had failed to secure the necessary visas. Instead of barring Procházka, who coincidently was a late addition to the passenger list, from boarding, the entire flight was grounded.

Two days of waiting followed before the Czechoslovak government hastily explained that the team would not defend their crown as an act of protest against the British state. When the announcement was made, many players returned home. Others decided to hold a team meeting in a Prague bar to discuss the tense political situation.

Naturally, this was seen as tantamount to treason by the authorities.

Secret police infiltrated the meeting, with many contemporary commentators speculating that double world champion centre Vladimír Zábrodský had informed the state police of the clandestine gathering.

Whatever the circumstances of the police’s presence, they made their move when, rather confidently, a fight broke out. The attendees were arrested and a show-trial followed. Many of the country’s leading ice hockey players were imprisoned or forced to work in labour camps dressed up as mining projects.

Bubník, however, was one of the few to bypass the meeting and go straight home after the government’s decree.

1952 and all that

Two years later, and seen as one of the premier names in Czechoslovak ice hockey, Vlastimil Bubník finally had the chance to represent the country of his birth on a global stage. After the withdrawal of Czechoslovakia from both the 1950 and 1951 World Championships, the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo was his first major international tournament.

After a thrilling competition, Canada walked away with gold and the United States with silver. But with an identical record, nothing could separate Sweden and Czechoslovakia for third, and so the two nations squared off in a winner-takes-all play-off for bronze. During the round-robin stage, Czechoslovakia easily defeated Sweden 4-0 and begun their third-place play-off in a similar fashion as Bubník netted twice (his ninth and tenth of the tournament) and a further goal from Miroslav Rejman gave the Czechoslovaks a commanding 3-0 lead.

Despite the seemingly unassailable scoreline, Czechoslovakia crumbled. An inspired comeback from Tre Kronor saw the Swedes emerge 5-3 victors, but even in the face of this crushing defeat, Bubník’s stock rose. The youngster from Kelč was a wanted man.

Red Equals Gold

In the post-war years, Brno’s sporting landscape was dominated by the cities two major sporting entities: Spartak ZJŠ Brno and SK Královo Pole Brno. The two clubs had patronage from competing industrial sectors and drew support from different parts of the city. But in the early 1950s, the Czechoslovak government disrupted Brno’s established duopoly and threw its weight behind a club with established links to the state, Rudá hvězda Brno.

Although Rudá hvězda saw its football side forcibly dismantled, it became a domestic juggernaut on ice. With the weight of the Ministry of the Interior behind them, they established a decade of dominance and made Brno the capital of Czechoslovak ice hockey.

As the ice hockey equivalent to Dukla Prague, Rudá hvězda, cherry-picked the best players from around the country to artificially create the greatest ice hockey team in Czechoslovak history. And of course, Vlastimil Bubník was a key member of that side.

Rudá hvězda won eleven ice hockey titles in twelve seasons and during this period of supremacy, Bubník was a regular for both club and country, racking up accolade after accolade. Alongside many of his teammates at club level, he appeared in numerous Ice Hockey World Championships and Winter Games, picking up three bronze medals and one silver to go alongside his stack of domestic trophies.

His last major honour was arguably the sweetest when in 1964, he finally got his hands on an Olympic medal that his career so richly deserved.

When he hung up his skates, his goalscoring record was second-to-none. In 127 domestic games, he scored 121 times and in the Winter Games, his points tally of thirty-seven (twenty-two goals and fifteen assists) was an Olympic record that would stand for forty-six years.

But his time on the ice is only half the story.

On Grass

Today, the prospect of a true dual sports star is a distant one. Given the sheer constraints imposed on young professionals, it is hard to imagine a gifted athlete being allowed to excel in two different disciplines simultaneously. Would renowned speedsters such as Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang or Theo Walcott be given authorisation to train for a chance at sprint Olympic gold whilst continuing with their footballing careers? No. And the same goes for countless other professional sports stars who might fancy their hand at a different sport or code, yet have to prioritise one discipline above all else.

However, things were very different in the 1950s. Dual sports stars were commonplace, with many athletes playing ice hockey in the winter and football in the summer. Some even combined the brutality of ice hockey with the finesse of tennis, with multiple-time Grand Slam finalist and Winter Olympic medallist Jaroslav Drobný perhaps being the best example.

Vlastimil Bubník was of similar stock. Throughout his career, he switched between the sports of ice hockey and football with ease. Such was his proficiency on both grass and ice that he has often been called Czechoslovakia’s last true amphibious sportsperson.

His time on the football pitch, while not as publicised as his time on the ice, was equally as noteworthy.

Bubník started playing football for SK Královo Pole during his teens in the regional Czechoslovak leagues before joining Rudá hvězda in 1953. He became a central figure for the state-backed sided and helped the club not only gain promotion to the Czechoslovak First League but to their first and only major honour, the 1960 Spartakiádní pohár.

It goes without saying that his stellar form and importance at club level saw him become a regular and established Czechoslovak international. After continuously impressing for Rudá hvězda in a wide attacking position, Bubník made his debut for his country in a World Cup qualifier against Wales in 1957 and he remained part of the national team setup for the next five years.

Almost three years to the date from his first international cap, Bubník got his first goal for Czechoslovakia when he scored the second in a 2-0 win in Romania. A week later, against the same opposition, he was at it again. His two goals in two games helped Czechoslovakia qualify for the maiden European Nations Cup, the forerunner to the UEFA European Championships.

The tournament, held in France, was a short, sharp affair and was comprised of just four teams: France, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the favourites and eventual winners, the Soviet Union.

Bubník, along with fellow greats Josef Masopust and Ján Popluhár, were unable to fight off the Soviets, who strolled to a comfortable 3-0 victory in Marseille in the semi-final. But in the third-place play-off, also at the Stade Vélodrome, Bubník’s opened the scoring, turning home Ladislav Novák’s cross deep cross for the game’s opening goal. Any fears of a Czechoslovak collapse in a third-placed play-off – as was the case for Bubník some eight years previously in the Winter Olympics – were soon dispelled as Rudolf Vytlačil team went from strength to strength. The victory was secured in the closing moments thanks to a fine solo effort from Ladislav Pavlovič.

That game in Marseille was to be Bubník’s last international appearance. His hectic sporting schedule and desire to graduate from university often caused conflict. Famously, despite being a part of the Czechoslovak squad for the 1962 World Cup in Chile, he opted to remain in Moravia and complete his studies. Whilst he stated at home and went through the formalities of academic success, his would-be teammates announced themselves to the world as they reached the World Cup final.

When Worlds Collide

In 1967, Bubník stepped away from top-level competition and opted to focus his energy solely on ice hockey. He spent some time with Vítkovice before moving to Austria, where he turned out for FBI VEU Feldkirch until he retired from active competition entirely.

In the 1970s, he became a mentor to a new generation of hockey players, both at home and abroad. During the Seventies, Bubník had two spells as a coach with his former club, sandwiched between a successful spell in Yugoslavia with HK Acroni Jesenice, where he won successive league titles.

Whether he played, be it in Brno or Prague, Innsbruck or Marseille, and no matter the surface or sport, Vlastimil Bubník set the standard. When he died in 2015, aged eighty-three, the worlds of ice hockey and football combined to pay tribute to a once-in-lifetime athlete, the likes of whom we are unlikely to ever see again.

Header picture: Pepetka

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