Wednesday 12 December 2012

TBC: Breakaway

Without any doubt, the inclusion of European players in the NHL has made the league a vastly better league due to the talent brought over from the European countries. From Peter Stastny to Sergei Fedorov to Petr Nedved, the NHL has seen a vast number of extremely talented players join its ranks. The one consideration that we, as fans, seem to forget about is that these men had to escape their countries in order to impress us with their talents. Escaping a Communist country was no short order before the fall of Communism, and the newest entry to Teebz's Book Club looks at the ordeals a number of high-profile players went through to escape Communist regimes and finally arrive in North America. Teebz's Book Club is proud to present Breakaway, written by Tal Pinchevksy and published by John Wiley & Sons Limited. This book is a fantastic look at what some of the most talented hockey players in history had to do to realize their NHL dreams.

From the book's cover, "Tal Pinchevsky was born and raised in Montreal. Since moving to New York 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 web site, He is currently a staff writer and producer for" Mr. Pinchevsky graduated from McGill University, and has also contributed to a few magazines and websites that are no longer in existence.

Being that I was born in Canada, I have no idea what it may have been like to have lived in an oppressive society where the good of all is held above the good of the individual. I'm not downplaying that society, but it's never occurred to me that escaping the daily routine of bread lines and a few dollars for a day's worth of work was so difficult for the most talented athletes in a country's history. Mr. Pinchevsky's work in Breakaway not only paints this picture for you, but he is thorough with his explanations and research so that you feel as if you're experiencing what these men experienced.

The idea of hockey players defecting to North America is always a touchy subject in international politics, and was even more so with The Cold War still in effect. To have players from the former Czechoslovakia and Soviet Union risk life and limb, as well as putting their families still at home at risk of persecution, for their freedom by meeting representatives from NHL teams under the cover of darkness and in secrecy really highlights the difficulty these players had in getting out of their countries' regimes.

The Czechoslovakian players were the first to escape their country after the Russian invasion in 1968 established a Communist regime in that country. Vaclav Nedomansky was the first player who broke away from his country in secrecy. The Stastnys followed, although their arrivals came at different times and each of the three brothers felt a different level of persecution upon them in trying to leave Czechoslovakia. Michal Pivonka, Petr Klima, Frantisek Musil, David Volek, and Petr Svoboda all had vastly different stories about their escapes from the Communist Czechoslovakia, and all went on to success in the NHL.

The legendary Green Five - Krutov, Larionov, Makarov, Fetisov, and Kasatonov - were the exceptional players being scouted by NHL teams when they were destroying amateur records across the planet. These five men were the backbone of the dominant Soviet teams in the 1970s and 1980s, and yet all of these men wouldn't reach the NHL until they were in their thirties. All but one of these men would take exception to the way that Viktor Tikhonov and the Soviet system prevented them from playing on the bigger stage of the NHL. But they all would eventually suit up in the NHL after finding their own ways out, and this led to younger Russians defecting in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union thanks to the trail these men blazed.

Breakaway highlights the reasons why each of the men profiled wanted out of the Communist way of life, and documents how each man escaped. Some of the players simply left their respective national teams while on tour. Others, however, met NHL representatives under clandestine circumstances and had to be whisked away before security teams discovered these players missing from their rooms. Each story seems like it was taken out of some spy story, but the truth of the matter is that each of the men profiled risked his life in escaping to North America. Mr. Pinchevsky has done a marvelous job in bringing these stories to life in Breakaway.

To give you an idea of how difficult and dangerous escaping was for some of these players, this excerpt from Michal Pivonka's and his girlfriend Renata Nekvindova's defection should give you some perspective.
"Not long after arriving in Terst, Michal and Renata met briefly with Poile and Button in the men's hotel room. After Poile and Button checked out of the resort to make their way to the eventual rendezvous point in Italy, the young couple took one bag containing some some clothes and went to meet a shadowy figure on the outskirts of the resort. He was a Czechoslovakian expat hired by Crha to help usher the young couple through a wooded area that turned from Yugoslavia into Italy. Neither Michal nor Renata had met the man before, and neither has seen him since. 'They hired some gentleman from Toronto. I don't recall his name. I was told he was pretty well off. He just did it for the adrenaline rush, for the excitement of the chance of being caught trying to cross the border,' says Pivonka. 'He was the one who actually walked us through the woods.'

"At the time, young Michal and Renata were not able to comprehend the incredible risks they took in the woods that afternoon. Renata had barely gone on vacation before. It's only later, after discussing that night with Poile and Button, whom they met across the border in Trieste, Italy, that Pivonka truly understood the danger in what he had done. 'You were in Yugoslavia and a couple of hundred yards later you were in Italy. If you get caught in that zone, I guess they [border guards] could shoot at you. But for whatever reason, everybody was out for lunch, the guards.'"
Defecting was as scary as the players in the book make it out to be, and Mr. Pinchevsky has done a wonderful job in conveying the emotion and danger in some of the situations that the players speak about in Breakaway.

I found Breakaway to be a captivating book in which I learned a great deal about how much effort it took from both the players and the teams that were working to secure their freedom to get them on North American soil. Breakaway is a fantastic book that really brings light to the stories of some of the best European and Russian players to ever lace up their skates and their determination to escape Communism to play in the NHL. Because of Mr. Pinchevsky's excellent writing and the stories contained within the covers of the book, Breakaway absolutely deserves the Teebz's Book Club Seal of Approval!

If you're looking for any Christmas gift ideas for your hockey fan, Breakaway does have some PG-rated language, but would be suitable for teens and older. It is an excellent book that really shows the history of the era in which these fantastic players played, and deserves to be read by anyone who loves the history of the game! Highly recommended read!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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