Cold War, Hot Ice: International Ice Hockey, 1947-1980
In this article, John Soares examines the tense relations between several top ice hockey national teams during the period 1947-1980. He focuses especially on the antagonism between the U.S.-Canadian couple and the USSR, but also on the antipathy shown by the Czechoslovakians towards the Soviets after the Prague Spring (1968). Following Clausewitz’ theory on politics and war, he argues that ice hockey was at that time “the continuation of Cold War politics by other means”.
Originally, ice hockey played a different role for these countries. With regard to Canada, it provided an opportunity to develop a distinctive national identity. For the Russians, it enabled them to get some more recognition, considering their important victories against nations which belonged to the West. From a classical soft power perspective, one can therefore easily notice that the Soviets used ice hockey (along with other sports) to advance their interests, the first of them being the promotion of Communism. From 1960 until 1980, the U.S. experienced a decline in ice hockey competitions, which mirrored their geopolitical relative decline in the ideological struggle. Finally, the Czechoslovakians found in ice hockey an opportunity to confront their Soviet “ally”, which was not popular after the invasion of Prague in 1968.
In the early stages of the Cold War, the attitude of countries towards ice hockey competitions were closely linked to geopolitical events. For instance, Canada and the U.S. decided to boycott the World Championships in Moscow in 1957, following the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the assassination of the Hungarian leader, Imre Nagy. In 1962, the East German team could not travel to the U.S. to play the World tournament in Colorado. Indeed, the Western countries did not recognize East Germany; thus the latter could not get any visa to enter the American territory. It was also interpreted as a retaliation against the construction of the Berlin Wall the year before. This decision led to strong international criticism (particularly from the IOC) and to the boycott of both the USSR and the Czechoslovakians. Several games between the Soviets and the Czechoslovakians were very brutal in the late 1960s. Moreover, riots erupted after one match in 1969, leading the Soviet military to crack down on protesters and make Moscow less popular in Prague.
In the 1970s, the détente which prevailed in international politics led to a series of exchanges and contacts between Soviet and North American players. Positive signs were already apparent during the Squaw Valley Olympics in 1960. But the most flourishing period for “ice hockey diplomacy” seemed to occur in 1972, when Canada and the USSR organized a eight-game “Summit Series”, aiming to closer Soviet-Canadian ties. Nevertheless, many challenges remained and tensions erupted on and off the ice.
All in all, Soares shows in his article how sport can be used as a diplomatic tool. On the one hand, ice hockey has been used as a (sometimes efficient) tool of soft power, enabling countries to promote their interests and improve their image abroad. On the other hand, it has also been conceived, to a certain extent, as a means to advance peaceful objectives in a period of geopolitical détente. One can therefore conclude that sport and global politics are interrelated in international relations, and that sport moves on according to the political context. In this regard, the example of “ice hockey diplomacy” seems to diverge from the “ping pong diplomacy”, where sport has served as a driving force in closing ties between Communist China and the U.S in the 1960s..