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Alumni Reunion: Petr Klima

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings

Though difficult, and often deadly, trying to escape the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc nations was commonplace among diplomats, scientists and artists following the creation of those Communist states after World War II.

But defection among athletes wasn’t widely heard of before 19-year-old tennis star Martina Navratilova left Czechoslovakia in 1975.

Then, 10 years later, came along a scrawny little 20-year-old hockey player from Czechoslovakia who was hell-bent on gaining his freedom to become the first Czech to defect to a U.S.-based NHL team.

Red Wings officials collaborated with U.S. government officials to covertly smuggle Petr Klima out of Europe, and on Sept. 22, 1985, with his girlfriend by his side, Klima, who spoke no English at the time, arrived in Detroit. And with the exception of NHL stops in Edmonton, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, Klima has made metro Detroit his home for the majority of the last 27 years.

Communicating with coaches and teammates proved difficult at first, but Klima eventually assimilated to life in North America, even poking fun at himself in a 1987 soda commercial (SEE VIDEO ABOVE).

Klima’s arrival in Detroit also completed perhaps one of the best draft classes in NHL history when he joined his 1983 classmates – Steve Yzerman, Lane Lambert, Bob Probert and Joey Kocur. The Wings selected Klima in the fifth-round in ’83, but obviously needed to do some work to get him to Hockeytown.

Despite finishing dead last in a 21-team league, Klima made an offensive impact in his first NHL season, scoring 32 goals and 56 points, which was fourth-best on the Wings’ squad in 1985-86.

Three years later, the Wings packaged Klima with a former first-round pick (Joe Murphy) and a pair of second-rounders (Adam Graves and Jeff Sharples) to the Oilers for Detroit native Jimmy Carson and tough guy Kevin McClelland.

Klima has remained in hockey, currently coaching the PK Warriors Midget Major team that competes in the National Junior Prospects Hockey League against teams from Pittsburgh to Phoenix.

Recently he sat down with to talk about his experiences with the Red Wings’ organization and his former teammates:

QUESTION: Do you keep in touch with any of your former Red Wings teammates? If so, who?

KLIMA: “I keep in touch with Eddie Mio, Joey Kocur and Dino Ciccarelli, who I didn’t play with in Detroit, but I got to know him after playing against him for 13 seasons.”

Q. Which of the current Red Wings is your favorite? And why?

KLIMA: “Obviously everybody’s favorites are (Pavel) Datsyuk and (Henrik) Zetterberg, the best players and the guys who put out their 150 percent every night. I like Jakub Kindl, a young guy from the Czech Republic, but the Red Wings have a good team and a lot of good players.”

Q. What was your favorite memory as a Red Wing?

KLIMA: “Probably the playoffs in ’88 when we went to the semifinals, but got beat-up by Edmonton, but we played really well in the first rounds – me and Bob Probert and John Chabot – we put a good line together and scored a lot of goals with a lot of points. That was probably the biggest thrill because that’s when we went the farthest in the playoffs.”

Q. Which of the guys you played with was the toughest?

Petr Klima played his first five-plus seasons with the Red Wings following his defections from Czechoslovakia. (Photo by Getty Images)

KLIMA: “Obviously, Bobby (Probert) and Joey (Kocur) about the same. Totally two different players, and different fighters, but they were at the same level.”

Q. Who was the funniest?

KLIMA: “Tim Higgins was a pretty funny guy when he played here in Detroit. Eddie Mio was funny and Greg Stefan was my roommate for a long time when I didn’t speak any English, so he was funny and good to me.”

Q. Who had the biggest heart?

KLIMA: “Gerard Gallant with the way he played and way he took care of his teammates. Obviously there was Stevie (Yzerman), but Stevie was a superstar by then, but the heart and soul of the team when I was here was Gerard Gallant.”

Q. What was your favorite restaurant in metro Detroit?

KLIMA: “The Golden Mushroom at Southfield Road and 10 Mile in Southfield.”

Q. How has the NHL changed since you played?

KLIMA: “That’s a good question. When we played concussions were not an issue. There was a lot of hitting, there were a lot of good hits. But the respect for your teammates, for your opponent for his job and for his family is not there anymore. That’s why there are so many injuries. We played, we played hard – obviously hitting wasn’t part of my game – but when Probert or Kocur hit somebody they went in there and hit somebody with the respect for their job, for his family, his life. It think that is gone and guys now try to go in there and kill the guy.”

Q. Toughest team (other than the Red Wings) when you played?

KLIMA: “Probably way back then was New Jersey. They played a kind of style, a defensive hockey, which for me as a goal-scorer or as an offensive player was hard to play against.”

Q. What is your favorite Red Wings-Maple Leafs memory?

KLIMA: “Probably my penalty shot in ’88 in the playoffs when we beat them up pretty good. Allan Bester threw the stick when I was on the breakaway near the net and he just threw the stick. That was good. I bet Bester $100 before I took the shot because I was standing right there and he said, ‘You’re on.’ Then I scored and after the game he told me that he was only kidding. He still owes me a hundred bucks. Now it’s more with interest.”

Q. Who did you sit next to in the dressing room?

KLIMA: “The first year was Greg Stefan and Warren Young, and then after that it was Billy Carroll.”

Q. What do you love most about the game?

KLIMA: “I like the skill. What can you do with the puck and with your skating? I like fast skaters, I like quick guys, good hands. There are a lot of quick players who play like I played and the game that I like. We teach the kids a lot about skating, we do a lot of skill drills so the kids can do things to improve if they don’t have it. I like to see skilled players.”

Q. Who had the greatest influence on your career?

KLIMA: “Obviously my dad and my family, my brother, who was five years older and played hockey too, and I always tried to keep up with him when I was young. My family was a big influence and my mom was an athlete too, so everything I got I got from both parents. She played basketball and my dad played like 74 games for the Czech national team. My brother played until I defected and when I came over here he got send down and he didn’t play that much hockey after that.”

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