Eric Zweig: Mercurys Rising

  1. Eric Zweig Registered User

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    On February 24, 1952, the Edmonton Mercurys completed an undefeated run through the Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway, to win the gold medal in hockey. Canada had previously won Olympic hockey gold in 1920, 1924, 1928, and 1932, and after settling for a surprising silver behind a Great Britain team loaded with Canadian-born players in 1936, won gold again in 1948 when the Olympics resumed after World War II. With the Soviet Union entering the Olympic scene in 1956, Canadian men wouldn’t win Olympic hockey gold again after 1952 for another 50 years until the star-studded NHL team at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

    Though Canada no doubt deserved its gold medal in 1952, the win wasn’t without controversy. After scoring victories of 15-1 over Germany, 13-3 over Finland, 11-0 over Poland, 4-1 over Czechoslovakia, 11-2 over Switzerland, 3-2 over Sweden, and 11-2 over Norway in its first seven games, Canada managed only a 3-3 tie with the Americans in the finale for both clubs. Had Canada won the game, the United States would have finished fourth. With the tie, the U.S. claimed silver and a newspaper in Moscow accused the two North American countries of colluding to deny the Czechs (who would finish fourth) a medal.

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    Canadian fans, of course, have long accused Soviet and Russian teams, and European authorities, of similar shenanigans in international competition. But while there likely hadn’t been a fix in Oslo, European teams — as they often would — sharply criticized the Canadian and American hockey teams for their rough tactics. This would have a surprising result on Olympic and sports history.

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    At the Summer Games in London in 1948, Czechoslovakian long distance runner Emil Zatopek won a silver medal in the 5,000 meters and gold in the 10,000. He improved on that performance in Helsinki in 1952 and shortly after those Summer Olympics concluded, Zatopek claimed that the rough play in hockey (and perhaps the way his countrymen had been denied their medal) earlier that year was indirectly responsible for his record-breaking feats in Finland.

    “It was the brutal and harsh play of the United States ice hockey team which drove me to my most recent performances,” said Zatopek in a story widely reported in North American newspapers on August 16, 1952. “I made a pledge to win at least two gold medals for my country.”

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    Not only did Zatopek win gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters in Helsinki, he made a last-minute decision to enter the marathon for the first time in his life … and won the gold medal in that race too! He is the only man ever to win all three races in the same Olympic Games.

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    Zatopek fell out of favour with the Communist party in Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring of 1968, but was finally “rehabilitated” in 1990. He died in Prague on November 22, 2000 at the age of 78 and became one of the first twelve athletes named to the IAAF Hall of Fame in 2012. Zatopek was selected as the Greatest Runner of All Time by Runners World Magazine in 2013.

    But if it hadn’t been for some chippy hockey back in February of 1952, who knows what might have happened…
     
    Last edited by moderator Theokritos: Feb 27, 2021
  2. Theokritos Global Moderator

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    Great story!

    It should be noted that a "fix" was not only suspected on the Communist side of the Iron Curtain. Reportedly, Swedish newspaper The Dagbladet wrote: "We could not avoid the impression that this meeting was a kind of exhibition, the result of which was fixed in advance. The Canadians did not play as well as expected and, from the second period onwards, seemed to lose interest in the game, sometimes making mistakes that even a Norwegian hockey player would not have. There are rumors that Canadians resent the Swedes in particular and Europeans in general for their comments about the tough game."

    (Note the sideblow against the poor Norwegians who finished dead last.)
     
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  3. Theokritos Global Moderator

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    More salt into the wound of the Czechoslovaks: They were tied with Sweden on points and goal differential. Having won the head-to-head encounter 4-0, the Czechoslovaks expected to receive the bronze medal over Sweden, but instead the international federation opted for an additional & crucial elimination match for the 3rd place. More fuel to the "capitalist conspiracy" theory!

    Czechoslovakia lost that additional game against Sweden 3-5 and thus came out empty-handed.
     
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  4. Eric Zweig Registered User

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    Did NOT know that!
    Chicken Swedes and Commies ... Canada's natural international hockey enemies. (That's a joke!)
     
  5. Eric Zweig Registered User

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    Yeah, I saw that when researching the story ... but didn't go into it all because, really, all Emil Zatopek was complaining about was the dirty play (specifically of the Americans).
     

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