If you are seeking other means to satisfy your “hockey jones,” Predators’ Voice Pete Weber will be periodically reviewing various forms of hockey media.
In this installment, Pete reviews “Breakway: From Behind the Iron Curtain to the NHL the Untold Story of Hockey’s Great Escapes” written by Tal Pinchevsky.
We take for granted that players from around the world populate today’s National Hockey League. That wasn’t the case as recently as 1979. Virtually every athlete in the league was from Canada (the greatest majority) or the United States. True, there were a smattering of Swedish players then in the NHL and WHA.
Until the great “Summit Series” between Team Canada and the Soviet Union in 1972, that was not considered remarkable. That was when the eyes of North American hockey were opened. The talents displayed by the Soviet’s “Big Red Machine” were immense.
When the Canada Cup was staged in 1976, further exposure to European hockey showed, what had developed in Czechoslovakia and Finland.
All teams are looking for an edge in talent. But how could the NHL gain access to those from the Soviet Bloc?
Tal Pinchevsy, a staff writer and producer for NHL.com, answers this very thoroughly in his case-by-case study. He brings to life the risks that had to be taken by players in the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia while trying to win their freedom to ply their trade in the NHL.
The risks were very real – the cost could have meant their lives or the hardships that would be put upon friends and family members they would leave behind. Those risks were also borne, at least in part, by the NHL representatives assigned to “spring them.”
The point can be argued that the first true defection was that of Vaclav Nedomansky (“Big Ned”) from Czechoslovakia to the WHA’s Toronto Toros as a 30-year old in 1974. He later was part of the first WHA-NHL trade and moved to the Detroit Red Wings.
Where Pinchevsky’s narrative gets to be nerve-wracking is the story of Gilles Leger of the Quebec Nordiques pursuing the Stastny brothers (Peter, Anton and eventually, Marian) is fraught with palpable danger.
The Nordiques began work on bringing them over in 1979, hoping they could do it easily at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympic Games. Suspecting as much, the Czech team security was so tight, Leger could not communicate with them.
Finally, in Austria for a tournament in August of 1980, Nordiques President Marcel Aubut and General Manager Leger made contact with Peter and Anton, and they (along with Peter’s pregnant wife, Darina) drove like Formula One drivers to ultimately escape Czech team officials and ultimately fly to Montreal.
Pinchevsky has similar stories to tell about Petr Klima in 1985, and the battle for the likes of the incredible KLM Line (Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov) to escape the Soviet Union.
Escaping the Soviet Union proved to be the most difficult. Goaltending great Vladislav Tretiak simply retired rather than continue playing at his high level when it was made clear to him that he would not be permitted to join the Montreal Canadiens.
While the KLM Line ultimately got to the NHL, that was made possible in part by the development of a top junior line: Alexander Mogilny, Sergei Federov and Pavel Bure. Yet as the Iron Curtain was falling, each of them was able to defect. The Mogilny case was particularly precarious.
However, when these players found their way to North America, the story was actually only beginning. Predators’ fans in particular will be interested in the story of Michal Pivonka and his fiancé. They had left Prague in 1986, supposedly on a vacation to Yugoslavia, only to end up at the U.S. Embassy in Rome to, ready to accept a contract that had been offered him by the Washington Capitals, where David Poile was General Manager. The Pivonkas lived with the Poile family for several months!
After the players arrived, most were faced with a huge language barrier. Some were faced with bigger challenges than others. Consider the Stastny family, leaving Czechoslovakia for French-speaking Quebec, and the English spoken in all the other league cities outside the province.
That is only part of the cultural adjustments that had to be made. For some of the players, it was difficult to take care of their own nutrition since their hockey clubs had attended to that for them.
All in all, a fascinating story of how the trails were first blazed from the Soviet bloc, and told well by Pinchevsky. I think you will enjoy it!
Link to amazon.com book site
Link to author interview