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Sunday, September 03, 2006

When Hockey Players Were Enemies of The State

Peter Ihnačák

With Evgeni Malkin's recent flight to the United States bring the word "defector" back into some sportswriters' vocabularies (a tag that, in Malkin's case, somewhat misses the mark), Joe O'Connor of the National Post takes a look back at the story of Peter Ihnačák, one of the many former Eastern Bloc athletes who went through much worse than Malkin did in order to escape from behind the Iron Curtain.

Ihnačák fled Communist Czechoslovakia in 1982, going on to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs for eight seasons, where his 66 points in '82-'83 still stands as the Maple Leafs' rookie record. Peter's brother, Miroslav, also went on to play for the Toronto organization, and Peter Ihnačák (now a scout for Toronto) has a son, Brian, who is currently in the Pittsburgh Penguins system.

Not to diminish Malkin's experience in any way-- a report from Friday on says that Malkin's parents back home are looking to sell their house and move from Magnitogorsk because of harassment, a report that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette picked up also-- but Peter Ihnačák's story, and there are many others like his, is a reminder of how much worse things were back then:

Ihnačák has not told his tale in a long time. People don't ask him about it much anymore, and the young players he scouts in rinks from Bavaria to the Black Sea wouldn't really understand, even if he did try and tell them what it was like.

"They don't even know what communism is," he says. "They don't know how it operated."

Secret police, phone taps, travel bans, burly men in ill-fitting suits banging on your door in the middle of the night -- such were the tools of repression favoured by the state in the Czechoslovakia the former Leaf grew up in.

Ihnačák's older sister, Magdalena, got out in 1967, the year before the Russian tanks rumbled in to Prague, bringing a violent end to a brief period of democratic reform. His older brother, John, escaped to West Germany the following year and, two years later, another sister, Maria, fled to the United States.

"Every time my team went to the West they made me stay home, because of my family history," Ihnačák says. He could travel in Eastern Europe -- to Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, East Germany, and Russia, but he was barred from seeing what life was like on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Ihnačák spent two months training with the national team before the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.. He went to Lake Placid to play in a pre-Olympic tournament in the summer of 1979, where he had a tearful reunion with John, Maria and Magdalena.

Back in Czechoslovakia, Ihnačák and the rest of the Czechs were outfitted with crisp, new uniforms and perfectly tailored suits for the Olympics. The night before the team left, the phone rang. It was a voice telling Ihnacak to forget about Lake Placid. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan in Dec., 1979, had the higher-ups worrying about possible defections. And he was a flight risk.

"They put some other kid on the team whose parents had ties to the Communist Party," he says.

Peter and Anton Statsny's escape to Quebec in the summer of 1980 only made matters worse.

Ihnačák was dropped from the national team before the 1981 Canada Cup. He was denied a tourist visa to West Germany and, finally, his passport was confiscated. A few weeks later, a letter appeared at his front door explaining that his passport had been taken because, as a brother to defectors-- and a potential defector himself-- he was considered an "enemy of the state."

"That was enough for me," he says. "I quit (the team) and went home to Poprad, to my mother and father."

Two weeks later, another letter appeared at mom and dad's house. It was a warning. The state was the only employer in Czechoslovakia and, missing work was a major no-no. The penalty for being AWOL was arrest and possible imprisonment. So Ihnačák returned to the rink, and he worked harder than ever.

He approached the police about his passport, and asked for its return. They said no. He went back again. They said no. He went again, and again, and again and no was always the answer until, after months of pleading, the authorities relented.

Still, when the national team travelled to Finland, Peter Ihnačák, like always, was left behind.

"But I had my passport back, and for the first time I started thinking about leaving," he says.

Ihnačák started cashing in his Czech crowns for whatever Western currency he could find on the black market-- deutsche-marks, Australian dollars, even Canadian dollars. He also started playing the best hockey of his life, and the national team coach pushed for him to be included on the 1982 world championship team.

The tournament was in Helsinki, Finland. It was the opportunity Ihnačák had been waiting for.

It was only later, after communism had crumbled, that he learned a handful of his teammates doubled as KGB informers, and that when they asked him if he ever thought about leaving Czechoslovakia for good, it was not just friendly dressing room banter.

The dressing room chatter provided him with a vital piece of information: the KGB agent that accompanied the team to Finland would search the players' rooms, every day, after they left the hotel. So Ihnačák took his passport, and the foreign bills he had socked away, to the team's first workout. Fearful, too, that the KGB man might search the dressing room when he was on the ice, he tucked his cash and documents into his hockey pants for safe keeping.

Ihnačák called his brother in New York that night, and told him he didn't want to go back to Czechoslovakia. John Ihnačák caught the next flight out of New York, and contacted Peter upon his arrival. He said he would be waiting for him in a cab, at the back door of the hotel, after practice.

"I grabbed the money and the passport from my hockey pants after practice and I went out on the street and I got a taxi-- I don't know how I got it-- I had never been to the West before, so I just jumped in the street, and they stopped for me."

The Czech hockey delegation was walking out of the hotel as Ihnačák was walking in, and the officials asked how he was doing. He said everything was perfect, and that he was ducking up to his room to lie down before dinner.

Ihnačák said goodbye, and then he walked right past the elevators and out the back door to where John, as promised, was waiting.

Afraid the airport would be crawling with KGB agents once the alarm was sounded, John had bought two tickets for a party boat that cruised between Helsinki and Stockholm, Sweden.

The brothers reached the harbour, and their hearts began to pound. A man was checking papers. John and Peter inched forward in the line and, when they reached the man-- an employee of the boat-- he asked for their tickets.

"It was unbelievable," Ihnačák says. "All that night I didn't sleep. I just kept thinking and thinking. In that minute, when I stepped on the boat and left the harbour, I had lost everything.

"And I was scared for my mother and my father, because I know when my sister escaped the police came and raided our house, and asked questions."

There would be repercussions this time as well.

Ihnačák's younger brother, Miroslav, was a hockey player. The secret police seized his passport, and he was banned from travelling altogether -- even to the Eastern Bloc.

"My brother went through hell," Ihnačák says. Four years later, Miroslav and Peter were reunited as Leafs.

Ihnačák had to say goodbye to his dying father, Stefan, over the phone. He remembers that they would talk, and then, as the lung condition that killed Stefan in 1983 worsened, Peter would do the talking while his dad listened. There were other things he missed -- friends, teammates, Prague -- but he never regretted leaving.

"The first time I went home was 1990," Ihnačák says. "I just couldn't believe it. When I left it looked like communism would be forever.

"And then I turn on the TV one day, and I'm watching what's happening in Czechoslovakia, and there are people on the street, and it's a peaceful revolution.

"Communism was done."

Ihnačák does not begrudge Malkin, or any of the other post-communist malcontents in the Russian league, who are looking to defect to North America. But he does hope that the hockey world will always remember that the decision to leave home, back in his day, had more to do with politics than NHL paychecks.

"I wanted to play hockey, yes," Ihnačák says. "But I wanted to play hockey somewhere where I was going to be free."


Blogger gsdgsd13 said...

Great story. I'm familiar with Ihnačák, but I never had even the slightest inkling of all that.

9/3/06, 3:00 PM

Anonymous mrs. brushback said...

I could read stories like that all day. Someone must have written a good biography, right?

9/5/06, 3:03 PM

Blogger Brushback said...

I found no mention of a book during any searches, unfortunately.

9/6/06, 2:45 PM


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