Tal Pinchevsky, Class of 1995, returned to Selwyn House on November 12 and 13 to talk to students about his job as a writer for NHL.com, and about his new book, Breakaway: From Behind the Iron Curtain to the NHL - the Untold Story of Hockey's Great Escapes.
Tal's book chronicles the events that led the defections of many Eastern European hockey players to North America, as well as the effects of those defections, not only on the players themselves, but on the game of hockey. The story is played out on a stage of decades of international feuds, with a plot involving KGB agents, clandestine meetings and car chases.
"It was a very different time," says Tal. "The bad feelings between Czechoslovakia and USSR are hard to imagine today." The Soviet crackdown on the "Prague Spring" uprising of 1968 had fanned the flames of a long-simmering unrest between the USSR and its satellite countries.
As well, the Cold-War rivalry between the Soviets and the west added to the competitive atmosphere. "The best way to show which system was superior was through sports," Tal points out.
As a result, hockey arenas became political arenas, with old scores being settled on the scoreboards.
In North America, demand for new players exploded in 1972 with the establishment of the World Hockey Association and the resulting "war for talent" between the WHA and the NHL. Scouts began casting their eyes toward Eastern Europe.
The first Czech to defect was Vaclav Nedomansky. In 1974 he and his family pretended to be taking a vacation in Switzerland. Instead, they boarded a plane for Toronto, not knowing if they would ever see their friends and family again. Once a big star in his home country, Nedomasky's name was "effectively erased from the history books back home," Pinchevsky says.
The effect was profound, not only in the hockey world, but in the world of geopolitics. "Nedomansky had helped plant the seeds of a new kind of revolution through Eastern Europe," Tal writes. It was a case of "Czechoslovakia and other USSR satellite countries asserting their national will in the face of the Soviet bear."
The defections often tore families apart, as was the case with the Stasny brothers, who were lured to Quebec City to play for the Nordiques in 1968. The two younger ones, Peter and Anton, defected while on tour in Austria, fleeing from men in black for the sanctuary of the Canadian embassy.
But Marian, he oldest, had three children and felt compelled to stay home, where he was kicked off hockey teams and was constantly under government surveillance. "He was ostracized and lost every friend he had," Tal says. "He couldn't play hockey. His kids were barred from university, and his parents couldn't get an apartment."
If the younger Stasny brothers had returned they would have been thrown in prison.
There are similar stories in the cases of the families of Petr Svoboda and Petr Kilma. Even though the fortunes of most of the defectors improved greatly in North America, they often had difficulty adjusting to the culture and learning English and/or French. Some adapted easily, some not.
Tal says the influx of players from Eastern Europe "transformed the NHL. You can see [their influence] in today's game," he says.
The Europeans were used to larger ice surfaces and they played a "faster, fluid, more finessed game." The Canadian style of play at that time was more physical, relying more on enforcers than is the case today. As result of the flood of European immigrants, the Canadian game has, in Tal's opinion, become more exciting. "Our players are in better shape today [as a result]."
Since moving to New York City in 2001, Tal has written primarily about sports and popular culture for a variety of print and online publications, including The New York Times, ESPN the Magazine, Rolling Stone, the New York Post, Spin, The Source, Men's Fitness, Time Out New York, The Hockey News, and Madison Square Garden's website. He is currently staff writer and producer for NHL.com.
And don't ask him about the lockout.
Breakaway was published by John Wiley and Sons in Canada in September and in the USA in October. It's available at Chapters, through Amazon.com, and is available on Kindle and Sony e-books.