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    Monday, February 23, 1998

    Jubilant Czechs welcome their hockey stars

     PRAGUE, Czech Republic (AP) -- Over 100,000 people from across the country packed Prague's Old Town Square on Monday to welcome home the Czech hockey team that won its first Olympic ice hockey gold medal.
     Tens of thousands more packed the streets adjacent to the square, and thousands of others were waiting for the team's plane at the old Ruzyne airport.
     Thousands of well-wishers also lined the street leading to the airport, while cars cruised up and down, horns blaring and flags waving from their windows.
     Premier Josef Tosovsky was on the tarmac to welcome the players as they stepped off the plane, and President Vaclav Havel later received them in the garden of his villa. Czech television carried the ceremonies live.
     "Thanks to you, billions of people now know what is the Czech Republic," Havel told the players after shaking all their hands. He also welcomed Katerina Neumannova, a cross country skier who won a silver and a bronze.
     "Also thanks to you, there's a good mood in the country ... and people have even discovered patriotism inside themselves," Havel said.
     "You didn't allow us to get any sleep," Tosovsky told the athletes at the airport. "The whole country was upside down."
     "It was difficult, but we've made it," team captain Vladimir Ruzicka told Czech television before leaving the airport.
     It took the team more than one hour to reach the president's residence, a journey that normally takes less than 15 minutes.
     Havel offered the athletes a glass of wine.
     "You have to drink fast. Some 140,000 people are waiting for you on the Old Town Square," he said.
     About 30 minutes later, the square was filled with wild cheers as the players mounted the podium one by one.
     Neumannova was the first to greet the crowd, and the hockey players followed, welcomed by Prague Mayor Jan Koukal.
     Goalkeeper Dominik Hasek, the star of the Czech team, received the wildest ovations. The players then sprayed the crowd with champagne and burst into a song composed by a Czech pop singer for the occasion.
     "I was here yesterday, so how could I stay away today," said 23-year-old waiter Jaroslav Lipa, waiting at the square. "But I'm so exhausted that I'll have to take a day off tomorrow as well."
     Over 70,000 fans watched on three giant screens in the square Sunday as Czech team beat Russia 1-0 in the final.
     Many fans with bottles of champagne began crowding the square before noon Monday to get a spot near the podium. By late afternoon, the party was roaring, despite a three-hour delay in the team's arrival.
     Petr Svoboda, who scored the only goal of the game, did not attend. He went directly to Canada to have treatment on an injured elbow before the NHL season resumes.