While the NHL is in the midst of yet aother work stoppage, Tal Pinchevsky’s Breakaway recalls a time in the not-too-distant past in which players were struggling to play in the NHL for reasons that far transcended the business implications and the league’s player-team relations.
In a game of high risk-high reward, players, from Petr Kilma to Alexander Mogilny, literally were given the choice between spending their prime years playing for the Soviet government-backed national team(s) or pursuing NHL superstardom and the freedoms that accompanied it in North America.
Getting there was no easy task.
The players, while most adhered to a strong sense of nationalism, generally chose freedom over oppression despite their strong ties at home.
As you wallow in the reality that the season may very well be finished, be thankful this holiday for the blessings you are afforded as Americans. And pick up Pinchevsky’s book and see how players struggled to get out from behind the Iron Curtain to be able to enjoy those blessings themselves.
In the meantime, we caught up with the author to talk a little about the book and the episodes it chronicled.
HHR: By NHL teams drafting an Eastern Bloc player, was there an inherent bullseye put on that player’s back in that it at the very least may have seeded the idea of defection with him? Were teams ultimately endangering their draftee?
Tal Pinchevsky: What most endangered any player behind the Iron Curtain was the perception that they were thinking of leaving. There were any number of things a player could do to give that impression, especially meeting with NHL scouts or executives. Generally, just getting drafted wasn’t grounds to punish a player. But if a player who was drafted suddenly started conducting meetings with their NHL club or discussing plans to defect, that could get them in serious trouble, which could include being kicked off the national team.
HHR: The process of extracting a player seemed right out of a movie, and sometime times the Westerners seemed to get a rush from it. Once the player landed on North American soil as a refugee, however, was it game over? I can’t imagine the Commies conceding they lost. Given the length and intensity of the Cold War, and the large profiles of the players, how was it not a bigger international issue?
TP: The battle definitely did not end once a player arrived in North America. Behind the Iron Curtain, the media war would begin immediately. The media, which was controlled by the central government, would immediately start to portray any defector as a traitor who left their country and their countrymen for the decadent Western lifestyle. From there, the families of these players would then be targeted. Just being associated with a defector would make them a pariah in their towns and parents were known to be fired from their jobs while siblings were also kicked off their hockey clubs, all for being related to a defector.
HHR: There was a point made by Nedved about defectors getting less than they possibly deserved because they would to paraphrase, “be happy getting whatever they got because of where they came from,” despite having the most on the line. Any truth to that?
TP: These players came to North America with no familiarity with the language or culture. They hadn’t even had a credit card before coming to the West. So there was opportunity for exploitation of these players, which is a discussion that occasionally comes up in the book. But for the most part, I think the players who came over were grateful to be living a new life that afforded them the financial and political freedoms that they didn’t have back home.
HHR: Players risked a lot especially when it came to their loved ones left behind who saw their livelihoods upended. The propaganda machines tried to paint the defectors as selfish and succumbing to Western riches. While their lives drastically improved from those they lived under the regimes, there can be something said that they threw their families under the proverbial bus to live their personal dreams. They really are lucky their families weren’t sent to Siberia.
TP: From my research, it appears that the worst retribution families faced was government surveillance and demotion from their jobs, which is obviously incredibly difficult. But it doesn’t look like anyone’s family was thrown in prison or exiled to Siberia. Having said that, there is no doubt that the consequences family members faced weighed very heavily on the decisions these hockey players made. Without a doubt, one of the most difficult aspects of their transition to North American life was knowing that their families’ lives were affected by their decision to leave. For many of them, it’s a guilt that weighed on them for several years.
HHR: Many of the events in the book were really not that long ago, many within the last 20-25 years. Do you feel that fans today truly understand the impact these players had?
TP: These events aren’t exactly ancient history, but there is no questioning how much the world has changed since the end of the Cold War. We have an entire generation of hockey fans and players who were born after the collapse of the Soviet Union, so it’s really hard for them to truly understand what life was like for people who lived behind the Iron Curtain during this time. I was a kid at that time and I really couldn’t truly appreciate it until I started doing intensive research for this book. Some of the players profiled in the book, most notably Petr Svoboda, are now agents representing players from Czech Republic and Russia born after the end of the Cold War. And they all confirmed that their younger clients from Eastern Europe have no idea how different the world was back then.