The Happy Brothers/ Les frères Šťastný

Two seemingly disparate fragments of history, one with a decidedly personal edge…

Fragment one

Anton Šťastný and Peter Šťastný chose to defect from Czechoslovakia to Quebec City, Canada, in late August 1980. Older brother Marian defected a year later to join them on the NHL Nordiques. The professional hockey club pulled off a remarkable feat of Cold War legerdemain, worthy of an enthralling spy novel, to bring them to the province of Quebec.  By piercing the Iron Curtain and defecting to North America, the Šťastný brothers changed the face of professional ice hockey forever.*

Fragment two

On August 21,1968, my wife Anne’s country, then known as Czechoslovakia, was invaded by the Soviet Union. Anne is from a tiny, isolated village in what is now Slovakia. The invasion of Czechoslovakia took place the day before Anne’s 10th birthday. The Soviet Union was intent on putting an end to what is known as the Prague Spring, a period of reform in Czechoslovakia that challenged the prevailing Soviet Communist hegemony.

Soon after the invasion, Anne’s family fled to Canada with no money or possessions. None of them spoke a word of English when they arrived in Vancouver in the fall of 1968.


She moved to Levis, Quebec, with her erstwhile French-Canadian boyfriend in 1977.


Living in the Quebec City region, a near homogenous Francophone setting, Anne was used to being asked “where she was from” and being greeted with blank stares when she answered “Slovakia”… or with a one word question… “Slovenia?”


Then all of a sudden, as of the fall of 1980, in parochial Quebec City, her country of origin was well and truly “on the map.”


Anne was nonplussed. Nowhere else did Canadians (or Americans) have any idea about the existence or history of Czechoslovakia, let alone the Slovakia segment.


(When I first met Anne, I tried to impress her by asking if she was from the Sudetenland, since she was ethnically German. Alas, showing off – as is my wont – did not bear fruit. Anne comes from what was once an entirely German region in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains, half way between the Slovak capital of Bratislava and the Polish border, whereas the Sudetenland, which Hitler annexed in 1938, was very much ensconced in the Czech part of the country.)


Truth be told, Anne is not a sports fan. Our son Daniel played competitive sports for many years, and it took Anne ages to realize that she was supposed to sit in a block of seats reserved by the team’s parents, shake a noisemaker, cheer lustily, and heap abuse upon the umpire or referee.


During kid hockey games, Anne would sit in any which place, often reclining in what she came to realize was “enemy territory” and reading a novel as the match unfolded. She always felt sorry for the team that was losing. The result she hoped for was a tie.


As a youngster growing up in the 1980s, our hockey-playing son Daniel understandably didn’t appreciate this lack of hockey-parent enthusiasm. Already he had progenitors with bizarre accents, a family name nobody could pronounce, and a father who donned what he considered embarrassing garments, especially in winter. Besides which, we didn’t own a car.


To his everlasting chagrin, Daniel learned that one day a contingent of hockey parents had approached us after a game, vacillating oafishly and shamefacedly before us, to ask whether we both had a criminal record.


That was the only plausible explanation they could devise for our not partaking of the pleasures of the private automobile.


Daniel hated taking the local bus, lumbered with cumbersome hockey gear, to arenas in various corners of the city, with his weirdo parents, while the bus drivers’ portable radios blared the latest sports talk show debates concerning the trials and tribulations of Les Nordiques.

(Now 42 years of age, Dan is the proud owner of not one, but two, SUVs.)


When the era of the frères Šťastný began, Anne had no idea to whom the local folks were referring. Les Staz-nee? She didn’t peruse the Quebec City tabloid press, where the daily headlines only screamed hockey and the frères Šťastný were prominently featured, each and every day.


(In Quebec City, nuclear war could have been declared and vast swathes of the planet turned into radioactive waste, but this news would be relegated to the back pages, after the triumphs and woes of Les Nordiques had been fully recounted and analysed in minute detail.)


It was during a visit from her sister Gertrude in late fall 1980 that Anne finally learned about the Šťastný brothers. Gertrude was duly impressed by the prominence of Slovaks in this faraway corner of her adopted land, but she exclaimed when she heard les Staz-nee talked about out loud. She immediately informed Anne that they were the Šťastní bratia…pronounced in the Slovak way that bore absolutely no resemblance to the local approximation.


Šťastní bratia turns out to mean Happy Brothers… Les frères heureux.


But in the tabloid photos,  Peter, Anton, and Marian never looked Happy; they appeared determined and fierce, glowering from their perches on the team bench, flanked by their peppery coach, the legendary Michel Bergeron.

Once learning of Anne’s newly-revered origins, the hockey parents forgave Anne her trespasses when it came to hockey fandom and implored her to make contact with the Šťastný family, whose kids were playing against their own, and especially to reach out to the Šťastný wives, bewildered and disconsolate, decidedly unhappy in an alien land.


Acutely embarrassed to reveal her rusty childhood Slovak, a tongue frozen in time like a fragment of desolate linguistic tundra, Anne demurred.

Quebec City residents worshipped the frères Šťastný, and do so still, not only for their fabled skills on the ice and for their commendable efforts to communicate in French, but also because they made no bones, broken or otherwise, about the fact that they were Slovaks NOT Czechs, and that the Slovaks were an oppressed minority, as many Québécois saw themselves, swamped in a sea of Anglo oppression.


Postscript 2010

Many years after the Šťastný era had become a staple element of local mythology, Anne finally met a real-life Happy Brother. She believes that it was Marian Šťastný, who had remained in Quebec City while his brothers undertook other pursuits in Europe, including in the newly-minted nation of Slovakia, which became a sovereign state in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The Happy Brother in question, by then a genial middle-aged gentleman, was a friend of our landlord, who had him in tow in the elevator of our apartment building.


Anne and the Happy Brother exchanged stilted pleasantries in Slovak for a couple floors, after which they didn’t know what else to say.

* Read more about The Happy Brothers here:


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Robert McBryde Author: IndieReader approved, adolescence, hippies, pop music, 1960s, 1970s, blogging, social media,  CBC radio, literary non-fiction, tales, short stories, vignettes, immigrant experience, sports, Quebec anglos, living in France,  childhood and animal stories, creative memoirs, satire, autobiography, family relations, fathers, raising children, aging, facing death, travel, social commentary, love and marriage, translation: English-French; French-English

Publisher’s Note:  Funny, manic, and wistful… self-deprecating creative nonfiction…The author, Robert McBryde, a professional translator, has been compared to David Sedaris for the sometimes-snarky autobiographical satire characterizing his literary sketches. Many of the stories in his new book, titled My Time with You Has Been Short but Very Funny, have been featured on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio network.


Author’s Note:

I’ve written a new book of creative non-fiction titled My Time with You Has Been Short but Very Funny, recently published and now on the market. The book is based on stories that I told over the years as a writer/ broadcaster and host on CBC radio based in Quebec City, Canada.

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Here is an excerpt from my IndieReader review:

“[This] memoir is… an enjoyable and touching read. Radio listeners in Quebec are already familiar with the wit and wisdom of Robert McBryde. The non-fiction collection, MY TIME WITH YOU HAS BEEN SHORT BUT VERY FUNNY, gives the rest of the world access to the author’s inimitable style.”

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Here is a link to a cool group book review blog:

My Time With You Has Been Short But Very Funny, a review by Di


And this is a link to Goodreads. A great place to learn about new books and to read reviews.

Di’s review of My Time with You Has Been Short but Very Funny

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A Spirited Dive into Life’s Laughter and Tears (


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