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'Breakaway' details NHL's influx of Eastern Europeans

by Dan Rosen

The stories revealed by Tal Pinchevsky in his debut book "Breakaway" recount the emotions -- both high and low -- and bravery of so many athletes who put themselves and the livelihoods of their own family members on the line to change the course of history and hockey all at once.

In "Breakaway," Pinchevsky, a staff writer for, details the clandestine movements by a few Eastern European players who opened the door to North America and the National Hockey League that so many have walked through since.

The book recounts how players from Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union literally broke away from the Cold War and found freedom in North America -- and a hockey community that welcomed them, their families and their unique talents with open arms and checkbooks.

In his book, staff writer Tal Pinchevsky details the clandestine movements by Eastern European players who opened the door to North America so many have walked through since.

These players -- among them Peter Stastny, Igor Larionov, Sergei Fedorov, Slava Fetisov and Alexander Mogilny -- saw the National Hockey League as a place of temptation and salvation, and were willing to put themselves on the line, sometimes in the middle of the night, to cross the border to a better way of life.

"These stories seemed very powerful to me," said Pinchevsky, who began the book before joining "I think anyone who cares about family and even freedom will find something relevant in these stories, even if they aren't sports fans. I also think most people have forgotten about what life was like during the Cold War, and it's important to understand just how much the world has changed in just 20-25 years."

"Breakaway" opens with Vaclav Nedomansky's tale of his defection from Czechoslovakia to North America to play in the World Hockey Association and then the NHL. He couldn't go back to his homeland until after the "Iron Curtain" fell.

Pinchevsky, 34, goes into great details of how Peter and Anton Stastny had to organize and enact their escape from Czechoslovakia to Quebec without ever telling their brother, Marian. Because Marian was married and had children, it was too dangerous to include him in the plans at the time.

Marian would defect to join Peter and Anton a year later -- after one of the darkest and loneliest years of his life in Czechoslovakia as the brother of the two stars who disgraced their country's laws by escaping illegally.

"There are several memorable moments that occurred while writing the book, but the one that sticks out most was my conversation with Peter Stastny, especially discussing his having to leave behind his older brother Marian," Pinchevsky said. "Peter is a passionate man as it is, but the emotion in his voice was palpable while he told this story. You could tell that it still affected him 30 years later."

Pinchevsky couldn't detail the dangers these players put themselves in without talking to the people on the North American side that helped them escape.

Jim Lites, now the president of the Dallas Stars, was an executive with the Detroit Red Wings in the 1980s when the team started to target European players. Nick Polano, the Red Wings' former coach, worked with Lites to bring Fedorov, Petr Klima, Slava Kozlov and Vladimir Konstantinov to Detroit.

New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello is featured in the book for his patience in adhering to Fetisov's wishes so the star Russian defenseman could make the move to North America legally.

Nashville Predators general manager David Poile, formerly with the Washington Capitals, worked to secure Michal Pivonka's clearance to come to America to join the Caps in 1986 during a time when Pivonka and his girlfriend put themselves at risk by defecting from Czechoslovakia and away from the Communist regime there.

"The only way to adequately tell these stories is to share every perspective," Pinchevsky said. "That means talking to the players as well as the coaches, scouts and executives who worked really hard to help them come to the NHL. In some cases, that even meant speaking to lawyers, journalists and immigration officials, just to understand every aspect that went into bringing these players to the West."

Pinchevsky was taken aback by how affected the families of these players were at that time. He found that the players generally discouraged him from talking about the events with their wives and other family members.

"When I started conducting research for the book, it never really occurred to me that their families also went through so much while these players attempted to come to North America," Pinchevsky said. "But as I spoke to more people, I realized that their families went through so much as well. Just being associated with a defector could make their lives very difficult behind the Iron Curtain. Before long, I realized it would be impossible to write this book without including the stories of these players' families.

"These players at least had hockey as a distraction after coming to the NHL. For their families, the transition was much more difficult because they didn't have that."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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