The XXIst Winter Olympic Games to be held in Vancouver this February will mark the fourth time the National Hockey League has shut down to allow its players to participate in the competition. This will only be the second time ever that the Winter Olympics will have been hosted by the country universally credited with being the historical home of the sport of ice hockey. Oddly enough, the last time the Olympics were held in Canada (at Calgary, Alberta, in 1988) also coincided with the occasion that “professionals” were, for the very first time ever, welcome at the Winter Games.
As it was, with the world watching, proceedings four years earlier on the eve of the Games at Sarajevo in what was, at the time, Yugoslavia had made the policy of “amateurs” only clearly unsustainable.
Ironically enough, this was the same Balkan city which had been the scene of a flashpoint to another great upheaval in history. The assasination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife kicked off the chain of events that brought about the First World War. By the conclusion of that conflict, two historical empires, that of Austria-Hungary and Russia, ceased to exist, as did the institution of the Czar for the latter.
Exactly seventy years later, controversy once again stepped to the forefront in Sarajevo with far-reaching consequences.
Ever since the modern revival of Olympic competition, the International Olympic Committee had enforced its policy of amateurs only. Despised pay-for-play whores, past or present, were strictly prohibited. Of course, the arrival of the state-sponsored programs of the Warsaw Pact nations presented a double-standard beneath the surface.
Eastern bloc hockey players competed domestically for clubs that were run or controlled by state institutions, such as the army or perhaps a trade union. Accordingly, the players would have their occupations listed as solider or physical education instructor. In reality, the players spent all their time practicing for their club teams. Meanwhile, as top sportsmen, international hockey players enjoyed the same privileges and trappings of the elites of their contemporary communist societies.
This particular concept of “amateur” prevailing in Eastern Europe was, however, accepted by the IOC officials. As was the idea that the hockey players competing in the elite leagues of Western Europe were only part-timers earning part-time-type money. This despite the fact it was known that the West German international ERICH KUEHNHACKL, the 6’6″ giant who would ultimately lead the ’84 Sarajevo Games in scoring (8 go 6 as, 14 pts), had turned down an offer to skate in the National Hockey League for the New York Rangers in the late 1970s.
It was rumored that the Rangers’ contract proposal did not exceed what the Czechoslovak-born scoring star was earning exercising his skills for EC Koeln in the Bundesliga.
Basically, it was the National Hockey League clubs operating in North America who were alone and always defined by the IOC as a “professional sports organization.” All Canada, and, to a lesser extent, the United States, could do was roll their eyes and attempt to comply with the IOC regulations as best they could. The Canadians, frustrated and feeling the effects of significant NHL expansion from the late 1960s onwards, did not even bother to a team at either the 1972 Sapporo or 1976 Innsbruck Winter Games.
But it was not a philosophical clash between East and West that brought about a great storm at Sarajevo in early February, 1984. The force that finally opened the door once and for all to every player in the world, National Hockey League included. It was, rather, a backyard North and South affair.