A nation greeted its heroes with a tickertape parade and tea with the president yesterday as the Czech Olympic ice-hockey team arrived after it completed a fantastic triple feat.
The underdog Czechs not only had won their first-ever gold medal in hockey, stunning the three best teams in the world along the way. But, best of all, by defeating Russia 1-0 in the final, they had also thumbed their noses at their former communist oppressor.
Many Czech players had been due to fly straight back to North America from Japan to rejoin their National Hockey League (NHL) teams Wednesday. But President Vaclav Havel sent his own plane to bring them home to celebrate first.
The civic reception marked the culmination of two days of joy across the Czech Republic. Four national newspapers published special Sunday editions. A Prague church even held a special thanksgiving service. "This ranks with the great moments in our country's history," explained the Rev. Petr Dvorak, who conducted the service wearing a Czech Republic hockey shirt under his vestments. "So many people told us we couldn't win, we had no chance. I think God was with us."
On Sunday morning, an estimated 70,000 Czechs had braved the predawn chill to watch the final against Russia, which began at 5:45 a.m. local time, on three huge screens in Prague's Old Town Square. Some perched precariously on window ledges and lampposts to get a better view. In unison, they counted down the last seconds, then exploded into a victory roar.
Afterward, cars with flags draped from their windows and their horns blaring roamed the streets of the capital. Autos were banned from Wenceslas Square, whose equestrian statue of Good King Wenceslas is a traditional gathering point at times of national significance.
The victory in Nagano certainly was significant for this Central European country of 10 million: Eight years after the Czechs finally threw off four decades of domination by the Soviet Union, there is still no country they would rather best in sports than Russia.
Perhaps the biggest cheer at today's homecoming was reserved for Petr Svoboda, the defenseman for the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers, who scored the winning goal.
"I think it's appropriate that a man called 'Svoboda' [in Czech the word means "freedom"] scored the winning goal against Russia, don't you," said Czech Prime Minister Josef Tosevsky.
It was 50 years ago this week when local communists seized power in what was then Czechoslovakia, a coup that aligned the nation with the Soviet Union and cut the Czechs off from the West.
Now one Prague pub is serving up a celebration goulash called "Victorious February," the same name the communists had given to their 1948 putsch.
Next August marks the 30th anniversary of the Russian-led invasion that put down budding political reforms under way in Czechoslovakia and ushered in two decades of repression by the Soviets. Czech forward Jaromir Jagr, who plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins, wears No. 68 on his jersey to remember the tragedy.
Apart from settling political grudges, the Czech win made a sports point: Most Canadians and Americans have viewed European hockey as a poor cousin, citing the NHL as vastly superior. But for Nagano, the NHL suspended its season for the first time in its history, allowing all its top players to attend. The Czech squad had only 11 NHL players, about one-half of the team, the fewest among the six elite teams in Japan. Yet it managed to rout squads made up entirely of NHL players in its final three games against the United States, Canada, and Russia.