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Nedomansky paved way for European players on way to Hockey Hall of Fame

Defection from Czechoslovakia in 1974 helped change game in North America

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

 Vaclav Nedomansky's destination 45 years ago was Toronto, the first player to defect from behind Europe's Cold War Iron Curtain to lace up for a professional hockey team in North America.

At no time during his flight from Switzerland to Montreal on July 17, 1974, bound for the Toronto Toros of the World Hockey Association, did he consider his role as a hockey pioneer, that his bold, even courageous move to Canada with his wife, Vera, and 3½ -year-old son, Vashi, would in time open the door to others from Eastern Europe and eventually change the face of pro hockey on this continent.

And never did Nedomansky, 75, imagine that he would be back in Toronto this week to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

"I am grateful and deeply honored by my election," Nedomansky said from his home in Palm Desert, California. "I didn't play to become a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, I played because I loved the game. I always had small goals and tried to become better and better.

"When I made the decision to come to North America, I knew that I couldn't go back to Czechoslovakia. But I've never had any regrets about that move. I'm very happy with how it turned out. When you're a young man, you don't think about the history of your actions, that will come later on.

"It seems to me that this was such a long time ago. Since then, I've been through many changes, many situations, many jobs. My view is only one of looking forward. I don't look back because there were so many bad experiences. I'd rather not think about them."

BIG NED - Official Trailer from Vashi Nedomansky on Vimeo.

 

When he bolted his homeland for the West, Nedomansky, then 30, was regarded as the world's greatest hockey talent not skating in the NHL. "Big Ned" was a highly decorated, 6-foot-2, 205-pound center who could dominate a game at his natural position and easily play both wings and defense.

Born March 14, 1944 in Hodonin, a gifted athlete who as a boy excelled at soccer, tennis and basketball, Nedomansky began to focus on hockey as a 12-year-old in the new arena built in his hometown.

 

[RELATED: Nedomansky earned spot in Hockey Hall of Fame on, off ice, Mahovlich says]

 

From the early 1960s, for 12 seasons, he was a brilliant talent with Slovan Bratislava of the Czech Elite Hockey League, four times the circuit's leading point-scorer. He would represent Czechoslovakia nine times at the IIHF World Championship from 1965-74, winning a gold, four silver and three bronze medals, and was on Olympic teams that won silver and bronze medals in 1968 at Grenoble and 1972 at Sapporo, respectively.

But the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 bitterly soured Nedomansky's life, as it did for so much of the population, and even his outlook on hockey. Trying to ignore ugly politics, in 1969 he elevated his already legendary status at home when he led the Czechoslovakian team in two World Championship victories over the Soviets, the eventual tournament winner. He says those wins, his country a huge underdog on the hockey rink and the global political stage, are among the highlights of his life.

Within his own federation, however, Nedomansky was often left to fight his own battles.

He had attracted the attention of teams in North America by the late 1960s into the early 1970s, the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres, among others, trying to pry him out of Czechoslovakia with cash offered to the federation. In 1973, the Atlanta Flames and the WHA's Toronto Toros each flew to Prague with fat wallets, but political realities of the day always doused these sparks of interest.

Nedomansky saw no present and even less future for his family in Czechoslovakia. In June 1974, he somehow secured a visa to vacation in Switzerland with his wife and their young son. They packed just three suitcases, lest they arouse suspicions, while the Toros and Flames raced to Bern to resume their courtship.

"He was committed to the Toros before I got there," Flames general manager Cliff Fletcher was quoted as saying in Sports Illustrated, his Toros counterpart, Buck Houle, already having gone to the Canadian consulate in Bern to arrange for visas.

The Czechoslovakian government had a hunch their superstar player had no plans to return, and they aggressively began tracking him, an Eastern European cloak-and-dagger with dire consequences had he been caught and his escape plans confirmed.

Nedomansky, referred to by some as the Phil Esposito of Europe, knew that NHLers Frank Mahovlich and Paul Henderson had been lured to the Toros by Toronto business magnates John Craig Eaton and John F. Bassett Jr. The five-year, $750,000 contract he was offered was huge money for a man making a fraction of that.

On July 17, 1974, Nedomansky, his wife and their son boarded a flight in Zurich to Montreal, then flew into Toronto, leaving behind everything they knew, blazing a historic trail through the gathering darkness into a future unknown.

Travelling with him to the Toros was lesser known countryman Richard Farda, a center who had been granted political asylum in Switzerland.

"I want to prove that I can play Canadian-style hockey," Nedomansky said upon touching down.

His escape was compared to that of Soviet ballet icon Rudolf Nureyev to Paris in 1961, and to that of virtually the entire 1956 Hungarian Olympic team, which successfully requested political asylum in Melbourne.

"When all was done and we were on the plane, I felt incredible relief," Nedomansky said in reflection, suggesting that his move might have been more immigration than defection, the Canadian visas in hand not requiring that he ask for asylum upon arrival.

"The two or three years before I left had been very hard for my family. Now, we were on our way to Canada. I was very surprised and pleased that it was possible to do this in such a short period of time."

Labelled a traitor, Nedomansky's name was erased from Czechoslovakia's record books, no matter that he was a national hero. His home was pillaged, not that he much cared since he had no plans to ever return, and his father was often harassed by state police.

The culture shock in the West was dramatic for a family that spoke barely a word of English. Nedomansky had been travelling to Canada regularly since the early 1960s for various international games and tournaments, so he had a bit of an idea what he'd experience in his adopted homeland.

What he didn't expect were the sharks that circled him like he was fresh meat, ready to exploit him.

"It was mostly because of the language because I didn't speak any English at all," said Nedomansky, who spoke Czech, Russian and German. "It was always said to be based on things lost in translation. Some obviously tried to take advantage of me, tried to take a cut of my salary. I just found out much later the names of many of them, and some are very famous."

On the ice, Nedomansky felt right at home, even if he was playing on a smaller North American rink. He scored 81 points (41 goals, 40 assists) in 1974-75, his first season with the Toros, a single point fewer than Mahovlich. In 1975-76, he jumped to 98 points (56 goals, 42 assists), nine more than the Big M.

Nedomansky was growing comfortable in Toronto with his wife and son, daughter Victoria just months away, when Bassett Jr. moved the Toros to Birmingham, Alabama, rebranding the team the Bulls and stocking the roster with players who lived up, or down, to the name.

"We arrived for (1976-77) training camp and there were more people interested in fighting than playing hockey," Nedomansky said. "The fans didn't really know hockey, but still we had decent crowds and guys liked being there and playing there."

Nedomansky's bond grew with Mahovlich, who played his final season of pro hockey that year with the Bulls while the two shared an apartment in Birmingham.

"Frank was the first person who approached me when I arrived in Toronto. He called me and we had dinner together," Nedomansky said. "Everything clicked. We spent the rest of our hockey lives together and even now we are in contact all the time. I admire his knowledge of hockey, his ability as a player and his special outlook on the game and his surroundings. Frank is very special."

Then, with a laugh, said, "I told Frank's brother, Peter, 'I just talked to my friend, Frank,' and Peter said, 'How is that possible? Frank doesn't have any friends.' "

He scored 69 points (36 goals, 33 assists) that 1976-77 season, then was 12 games into 1977-78 when Detroit Red Wings GM Ted Lindsay sent shockwaves through both the NHL and WHA, trading for Nedomansky and forward Tim Sheehy for the loan of Steve Durbano and "Slap Shot" co-star Dave Hanson.

"We need strength at center and this fellow is one tremendous centerman," Lindsay said of his blue-chip acquisition.

If Bassett Jr. wanted to beef up his Bulls, so he did; in a combined 87 games with Birmingham that season, Durbano and Hanson would total 525 penalty minutes.

For the Red Wings, St. Louis Blues and finally the New York Rangers, his final stop on Broadway because of his admiration for New York coach Herb Brooks, Nedomansky scored 278 points (122 goals, 156 assists) from 1977-78 through his retirement in 1983. In 421 NHL games, he accumulated only 88 penalty minutes.

For more than 30 years after retirement, he worked as a scout for a handful of NHL teams, including the Vegas Golden Knights their first two years and was a member of Team Europe management for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. He jokes today, sort of, that he's now looking for work, a free agent who will listen to a good offer.

Always with a view ahead, Nedomansky doesn't wonder how his career might have played out had he arrived in North America before age 30.

"I thought I'd be a teacher at home, and I was happy to be playing with the national team," he said of his early 20s. "In truth, the situation at that time wouldn't permit my coming here. I was just trying to be the best player I could be."

Nedomansky's son, Vashi, an accomplished filmmaker, is in the late stages of producing a documentary on the life of this hockey pioneer, patching together historical record, family and archival photos, grainy film and storytelling from many to relate a remarkable story. The hope is to have it ready for release not long after the Class of 2019 is inducted, Nedomansky to be enshrined 42 years to the day after his trade from Birmingham to Detroit brought him into the NHL.

It's his latest honor, having been previously inducted in the first class of three halls of fame: IIHF (1997), Slovak (2002), and Czech (2008).

Thirty-six years since his final professional game, Nedomansky says there is not a single defining moment for him on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

"It was always memorable for me to play against Russians, for obvious reasons," he said. "But greater than that were the teams that stood up on my behalf. I had good camaraderie and the support of my teammates here, which was something I didn't know in Czechoslovakia.

"If I'd had problems with government or the hockey association in Czechoslovakia, I was on my own. They would suspend me, laugh at me, and no one would support me, not even my own team.

"What I found here was cooperation and support. Here, I was able to develop as a hockey player and as a free man. And I made friendships, friends for life."

Photos: Hockey Hall of Fame/Vashi Nedomansky/Getty Images/New York Rangers

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