LOS ANGELES — Even though there have been indications over the past few days that the National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players Association are finally negotiating rather than just posturing, and that an agreement on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement could be just days away, it is rather obvious that it won’t take much for the current negotiations to collapse.
Meanwhile, time marches on without the NHL on the ice. Many are looking for substitutes for their desperately-needed hockey fix. Catching an American Hockey League, ECHL, or junior league game, if you are lucky enough to have a team nearby, is probably the best substitute. But another way to help fill the void is to pick up a good hockey book, and a great choice is Breakaway: From Behind The Iron Curtain To The NHL – The Untold Stories Of Hockey’s Great Escapes, by Tal Pinchevsky, published in 2012.
As the title indicates, Breakaway details the fascinating stories of several of the great players from what was then Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, including the great Stastny brothers, Peter, Marian and Anton, along with Petr Svoboda, and Michal Pivonka, among others. Of course, Pinchevsky also covers the stories of the infamous Green Five from the Soviet Red Army team: Slava Fetisov, Alexei Kasatonov, Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov.
Breakaway also tells the stories of players who came after them, when the repressive fist of the Soviet regime had begun to weaken, including Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov, Alexander Mogilny, and Petr Nedved.
Pinchevsky, a 34-year-old native of Montreal, went into the book project thinking he was fairly well-versed in this part of hockey history.
He quickly found out how wrong he was.
“I thought I knew a lot more than I did,” said Pinchevsky, who lives in New York, where he is a writer for NHL.com. “I was a big Petr Svoboda fan while growing up in Montreal, and the Stastny’s were playing over in Quebec. You heard a few things back then about how some of them came to the National Hockey League. I was kind of young, and I vaguely remember the stories, like in 1989, about the Soviet players finally being allowed to come to play in the NHL, but I didn’t understand what the real story was.”
“Even after studying [English and] Political Science [at McGill University], and thinking I understood the factors that went into them playing for the Czech team, or the Soviet team, and then coming to North America, it wasn’t until I started doing the research for this book, and speaking to all of these people that I really started to understand the real details of their stories,” added Pinchevsky. “That includes the factors that went into them deciding to come, how it would affect their families, and how it could affect their livelihood.”
What he ended up with was a hockey book that is also part spy novel, part suspense thriller, and part history text.
Whatever you do, do not let the history text part scare you. In fact, the combination works beautifully.
“I figured if this could be a book where 007 meets [the cult classic hockey movie] Slapshot, that would be a pretty cool pitch,” Pinchevsky noted. “But as I did my research, I realized that no one had really written this kind of book before. There have been a few books that have touched briefly on some of these individual stories, but there was no single book that seemed to capture all the different stories together, and provide a chronological history of what happened.”
Before you think the 007/James Bond/spy novel angle might trivialize or overly dramatize the stories of these players, think again. In fact, these players were in real danger as they snuck out from behind the Iron Curtain, with government agents, like the Soviet Union’s ruthless KGB, just one step behind, perhaps closer than that.
Perhaps just as bad, and maybe worse, once these players escaped the Iron Curtain, their families back home faced immediate, harsh reprisals.
“That definitely seemed to be the single biggest factor for these players in deciding to come [to North America]—how it would affect their families,” Pinchevsky noted. “Would their Dad lose his job? Would their brother be kicked off his hockey team? Would their [family home] be subjected to 24-hour government surveillance?”
“I think the perception, for a lot of people at the time, was that these athletes came to North America, and that they were rich and famous, that they had a new life, and everything was great,” Pinchevsky added. “But it was tough for them, for a number of reasons, and the main one was not really being able to communicate with their families. Even if they called home, the phones were tapped, and they heard stories about how their parents might lose their jobs, and that the neighbors were not quite so friendly anymore, simply because they were now associated with a defector. There were major consequences for the families these players left behind.”
“They couldn’t even say good-bye to their families. For all those who defected, there was never a formal good-bye. They didn’t want to incriminate their families by telling them they were about to defect, because then who knows what might happen. More often than not, players would defect, then they would call home and say, ‘by the way, I’m not coming home, and I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again,’ and some of these guys were 17 or 18 years old when this happened. I can’t even imagine what that must’ve been like.”
The heavy impact on their families was not limited to those left back home.
“There’s a lot of culture shock stories, and this goes back to the families these players brought with them,” said Pinchevsky. “The culture shock was magnified for them because the players had games, practices and road trips. They had a lot of distractions that helped them make the transition. But for their wives, or girlfriends, they didn’t have that, so it was a lot more difficult for them.”
“The story that struck me was when I was talking with David Volek [who left Czechoslovakia to play for the New York Islanders],” added Pinchevsky. “He told me this story, which is mentioned in the book, about his wife—I’m not sure if they were married yet, but they were in Long Island, and his wife was home alone when the burglar alarm went off. She’d never experienced technology like that before. So the neighbor comes over, the police come over, and she doesn’t speak English. She was very young, too.”
“That kind of story was just the tip of the iceberg, as their struggles extended into their day-to-day lives. When you think about how difficult that must’ve been, it’s clearly a factor that a lot of people don’t consider when thinking about these athletes coming to North America at the time.”
The Cold War ended in late 1991, more than 21 years ago, which means that there is at least one generation of hockey fans who not only have little to no idea about who most of these players are, but they also have no clue regarding the tremendous hardships and dangers they endured, not to mention the sacrifices they made to escape the Iron Curtain so that they could play in the NHL.
Pinchevsky provides just enough of a history lesson to allow readers to truly understand the more than arduous journeys these players made, especially given the fact that each of them left before the Iron Curtain opened.
“Even young Russians, Czechs and Slovaks who are from those countries—they don’t know much about it at all,” he said. “Some of the guys who I interviewed for the book who were players are now agents, and they have clients who are young players born after the end of the Cold War. I asked if their younger clients had any appreciation or understanding of what life was like back then, and they said, ‘no, absolutely not.’”
“Of course, there’s no way they would, since they weren’t alive at the time,” he added. “But you do have a whole generation of people who don’t know anything about this, so this was an opportunity to educate a little bit about that while telling some interesting stories about these athletes.”
After all that, as stated earlier, don’t let the history text aspect of the book scare you away.
“It’s an interesting balance,” said Pinchevsky. “You have to provide some background as to what the [political] system is, and what life was like behind the Iron Curtain, but at the same time, you don’t want it to become too formal. That’s when you risk losing readers, especially if they’re buying a book that they think is a sports book, and all of a sudden, they’re getting lost in all this History and Political Science. I tried to present that background, without dwelling on it too much, so people would still understand how things operated in Eastern Europe at the time, and have an understanding of what was going on with these players.”
Despite what one might think before reading the book, playing in the NHL proved to be a somewhat minor part of the lure that brought these players to North America.
“[It was] just little things, like buying jeans, buying chewing gum,” Pinchevsky explained. “But it was about a lot more than being able to go to the mall to buy stuff. It was about a standard of living, living in freedom, and the idea that the government wasn’t so centralized that they could control all the basic, every-day decisions that you make in life. That’s what appealed to these athletes in their decisions to come to the West.”
“Coming over to play in tournaments or an exhibition, they saw how people lived in North America, so they knew they could make a lot more money, provide for their families, have a bigger house, and a nicer car,” Pinchevsky elaborated. “But it really was just the knowledge that you could really be free that appealed to them the most.”
What may surprise some is that while these players came to North America to escape repression and the abuse that came with it, they had to endure a different kind of abuse once they stepped onto NHL ice.
“I was told that these guys had teammates who didn’t like them simply because of where they came from,” Pinchevsky noted. “It’s crazy to think about it now, but that was a crazy, turbulent time, politically, and that caused a lot of xenophobic friction. There were also people who thought because they played that different, European style, that they couldn’t play in the National Hockey League, that they weren’t equipped to play that physical game.”
“These guys would go out onto the ice, covered with targets,” Pinchevsky added. “There was always someone who wanted to test their toughness, and see if they could handle playing the NHL game. These guys got run a lot when they first came into the league, and that made the whole thing even more difficult for them.”
Adding to the burden, whether they realized it or not, was that these players were either going to open the door for Eastern Europeans and Russians to play in the NHL, or they would shut the door on them for years.
“If these guys couldn’t play in the NHL, that would change the perception of Eastern European players,” Pinchevsky stressed. “If they failed, that would probably convince NHL general managers and owners not to draft or sign these players anymore. After all, if these guys couldn’t do it, and they’re the best players in Eastern Europe, what hope would other players from there have of making it in the NHL?”
“They had to set the bar for themselves very high, and most of them did.”
Pinchevsky also pointed out that these players are modern era NHL pioneers, and in a very significant way. In fact, their contributions are still present in every NHL game, in terms of what we see on the ice today.
“[This is] part of the history of the sport, so if you have even a passing interest in hockey, and, [for example], I suspect that there are a lot of people who started watching the Los Angeles Kings during the playoffs last season who are now paying closer attention to the NHL,” he noted. “Maybe they’re showing a bit more interest in the history of the sport. These guys are a crucial part of that.”
“The style of play that is now in the National Hockey League, and even in international tournaments, is a hybrid of what used to be two, distinct styles of play,” he added. “In the 70’s and 80’s, the NHL was mostly the North American, blue-collar style, while the European style was more of a finesse game that made use of the larger rink. Then, you had Russians, Czechs, Slovaks and other players from Europe come into the NHL, and they affected the game. Now you have a perfect combination of the two styles.”
“It’s pretty fascinating for people who are fans of the game, but maybe don’t know much about its history, to learn about how the Stastny’s, or Vaclav Nedomansky, or how Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov came to the NHL and slowly started to change the way the game is played. There’s no question that they directly influenced that. The game is not nearly as thuggish as it was back then. If you want to understand how the NHL got to where it is today, in terms of the style of play, [the influence of these Europeans] is a huge part of it.”
Pinchevsky pointed to the vaunted Detroit Red Wings as a prime example.
“If you look at a team like the Detroit Red Wings that, until Mike Ilitch bought the team, was a laughingstock for years and years, then, all of a sudden, they began bringing in Eastern Europeans and Russians,” said Pinchevsky. “Look at them now. They are the standard that most teams hold themselves against.”
“Even teams in California—they all have at least one European player who is a big part of that team,” added Pinchevsky.
Pinchevsky’s Breakaway vividly and masterfully tells the story of players who escaped repression (and worse) behind the Iron Curtain, risking virtually everything, both for themselves and their families, to play in the NHL, and more importantly, to live in freedom. Combining aspects of a hockey book, spy novel, suspense thriller, and a history text, Breakaway is compelling, educational, and entertaining, and is a must-read for hockey fans on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Pinchevsky, Tal. Breakaway: From Behind The Iron Curtain To The NHL – The Untold Stories Of Hockey’s Great Escapes. Missasauga, Ontario, Canada. John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd., 2012. ISBN: 978-1-118-09500-3.
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