Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Breakaway had dire consequences in Cold War

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A midnight rendezvous in a forest on the Czechoslovakia-Austria border, moving from hotel to hotel to avoid detection, secret knocks on the door, bobbing and weaving to shake gun-toting KGB agents.

A script for the next Mission Impossible movie? Nope -- these are the real-life adventures of hockey players who escaped from behind the Iron Curtain to play in the NHL.

For players in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Russia today, jumping to the best hockey league in the world -- lockout notwithstanding -- can be as simple as booking a plane ticket. But to escape the grip of communism in the '70s, '80s and '90s, you needed the stealth of a cat burglar and nerves of steel.

Tal Pinchevsky, a staff writer and producer for the website NHL.com, pulls back the Iron Curtain on some of the most gripping non-sports sports stories of all time.

Abandoning your team and country had some serious implications for players such as Vaclav Nedomansky, the Stastny brothers (Marian, Peter and Anton), Petr Svoboda, Petr Klima, Michal Pivonka and Petr Nedved.

Those they left behind often bore the brunt of the defections as their homes were raided and they frequently lost their jobs or were demoted. Any status they had painstakingly built up for years or even decades was gone shortly after the defector's empty seat on the bus or plane was spotted.

Not every would-be NHLer was prepared to have their families bear the wrath of the KGB, however. Legendary Soviet defenceman Slava Fetisov certainly had his chances to bolt but chose to blaze a trail for others to follow through legal channels.

It most certainly meant several years of delays before he made his debut with the New Jersey Devils, but he was intent on fighting the Communist system and the iron fist of his coach, Victor Tikhonov.

Even though none of the players whose stories are chronicled here came to the Winnipeg Jets, there is a local connection in Breakaway.

As the war on talent heated up between the NHL and the WHA in the early 1970s, Jets general manager Rudy Pilous is cited for "leading the charge" on recruiting European talent. His two most notable scores were Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg, who formed two-thirds of the Hot Line with Bobby Hull.

 

Free Press reporter Geoff Kirbyson plays for the Sofa Kings, a beer league team in the Adult Safe Hockey League. He is also writing a book on the Hot Line.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2012 J7

History

Updated on Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 12:52 PM CDT: adds fact box

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