In today’s world, Czech, Slovak, and Russian hockey stars can move back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean with few restrictions. But up until the early 1990s, that wasn’t the case.
Tal Pinchevsky’s new book Breakaway: From Behind the Iron Curtain to the NHL – The Untold Story of Hockey’s Great Escapes vividly documents the challenges that players from Eastern Bloc countries faced while trying to pursue their NHL dreams.
The Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia were leading forces in IIHF competition in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The dominant Soviets won six Olympics and 17 World Championships in that period. The Czechoslovaks scored three Olympic silver medals and three bronzes, and earned four World Championship gold medals along with ten silvers and nine bronzes.
Yet success for those now-defunct authoritarian nations came at a price, as Pinchevsky repeatedly shows in this 288-page book. Players were under surveillance from secret agents when the national team travelled abroad. They were often isolated from their families and forced to follow brutal training schedules. And, although it’s hard for today’s young players to imagine, if they tried to leave their countries in search of a more comfortable and lucrative NHL career, they could be cut off from their families, arrested, or even theoretically shot. (See also the detailed story on Bohumil Modry published earlier this year.)
Breakaway brings to life an important chapter in international hockey history. Without players who defected from or lobbied against the Communist system, chafing under political, economic, and social restrictions, we wouldn’t have the hybrid North America-European style of hockey that thrills fans in the new millennium.
Pinchevsky, a Montreal-born staff writer for NHL.com, excels at highlighting the sagas of Czech and Slovak players, which haven’t always been as well-covered as those of their Russian counterparts, at least in the English-speaking press.
He starts with a detailed description of the two Czechoslovakian victories over the USSR at the 1969 IIHF World Championship in Sweden – played in the bitter wake of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia during the 1968 “Prague Spring”. Later, we learn about Vaclav Nedomansky’s escape to the West via Switzerland, and a bizarre dispute with the Detroit Red Wings over a reported 15-year contract he almost landed at age 35.
Pinchevksy’s account of the defection of superstar Slovak forwards Peter and Marian Stastny via Vienna is laden with quotes from all participants, including Quebec Nordiques president Marcel Aubut and director of player development Gilles Leger. The clandestine hotel meetings and high-speed Mercedes chases involved would put James Bond to shame.
Breakaway also doesn’t shy away from the off-ice struggles that some players experienced while trying to adjust to the North American lifestyle. Regarding talented Czech forward Petr Klima, who battled with the bottle, former Detroit executive Jim Lites is quoted: “He never really reached his full potential due to his off-ice habits.”
When it comes to the late 1980s battle of outspoken Russian superstars like Igor Larionov and Slava Fetisov to leave the USSR legally and play in North America, books like Stan Fischler’s Red Line: The Soviets in the NHL and IIHF.com correspondent John Sanful’s Russian Revolution: Exodus to the NHL have covered much of this territory before. But Pinchevsky manages to bring out many quirky personal details in his passages about Alexander Mogilny and Sergei Fyodorov, who jumped ship for NHL glory just out of their teens, from Mogilny’s fondness for chicken wings to Fyodorov’s love of Nintendo.
Even someone who isn’t a hockey fan could appreciate Pinchevsky’s evocation of Cold War tensions and how they affected our favourite sport. For hockey lovers who cherish their memories of games and highlights from an era that only ended 20 years ago, Breakaway (Wiley, $32.95 CDN/$27.95 US) will make a brilliant read for this holiday season.