This morning I thought I’d pass along a cool book for you hockey fans interested in how the NHL took it’s shape – intoducing Breakaway: From Behind the Iron Curtain to the NHL: The Untold Story of Hockey’s Great Escapes.
It can be difficult for some players to leave their home country to play in the NHL now – decades ago, it was damn near impossible for a handful of them. They simply weren’t allowed to up and leave.
Below is an except from the third chapter “The Beginning of the Czech-sodus,” which tells the story of how Petr Klima worked his way out of Czechoslovakia, and onto the Detroit Red Wings roster. If you’re interested, you can grab a copy for about $18 on Amazon.
Despite being left off their 1984 Olympic team, Petr Klima and Frank Musil were establishing themselves as Czechoslovakia’s best young players. Their developing skills gained them even more attention after Czechoslovakia won gold at the 1985 World Championship in Prague, the country’s first world title in eight years.
Whereas Musil contributed two points and stout defensive play to the championship effort, Petr Klima wouldn’t showcase his skills at the 1985 World Championship. This time it wasn’t government interference keeping him on the bench but a wrist injury sustained just days before the tournament during an exhibition game against Sweden.
Relegated to spectator status, Klima entered the locker room during a team practice to find Czechoslovakian agents combing through his locker. Throwing around his brand-name clothes, they joked about how comfortably these valued Western labels fit before carrying them past Klima and out of the locker room. “Communists don’t have to explain anything,” Klima says of the incident. “They didn’t have to have a reason.”
In the meantime, Nick Polano’s office with the Red Wings was becoming an increasingly hostile place. Still a perennial NHL doormat, the Red Wings had only a lone sign of hope: the play of Steve Yzerman. An All-Star in his first full NHL season, the explosive young center was drawing fans back to the arena, but it wasn’t enough to save Polano, who was fired after three mediocre seasons as the Wings’ coach.
Instead of exiling Polano entirely, the team decided to retain his eye for talent and named him assistant general manager. In doing so, they clearly outlined his top priority in the new job: getting Petr Klima out of Czechoslovakia. “You wanted this guy,” Devellano reminded Polano. “Now you better get him.”
By now, other teams were noticing Klima’s play. The Calgary Flames even approached Devellano about a possible trade. But the trade talks ended the moment Nick Polano received a phone call from a Czech contact on August 15, 1985. “He’s in Rosenheim with the Czech team,” the voice said. “Come now.”
Czechoslovakia’s national team would be competing in a tournament in Rosenheim, West Germany. That’s all Polano was told. Lacking any concrete details, Polano prepared to find Klima, grab him, and make a mad dash to the nearest embassy. It was a crude plan, but a plan nonetheless.
Suspecting he might defect, Czechoslovakian officials left Klima off their tournament roster. For Klima, the repeated benching weren’t simply a slap in the face; they were an attempt on his livelihood. The Czechoslovakian national team made only three or four trips across the Iron Curtain each year. Banning Klima from these tours could effectively end his dreams of joining the Wings. Fortunately, the national team was coached by Frank Pospisil, a Czech hockey icon who also coached Klima’s club team in Litvinov.
Wanting one of his best players on the ice, the coach pleaded with authorities to let his star join the team. After Pospisil promised there would be no defections under his eye, Petr Klima was on his way to Rosenheim. “We went out, they took your passport, your driver’s license, everything. So we had no ID,” Klima remembers of the trip. “Frank Pospisil did guarantee to the government that I would come back. That didn’t happen.” In Detroit, Polano commandeered Ilitch’s private jet while his interpreter—ironically also named Petr Svoboda—made his way to Germany. But Polano needed a partner within the organization to help break Petr Klima out of the Eastern Bloc.