A couple weeks ago, Justin Bourne of The Backhand Shelf posted his recommendation of Tal Pinchevsky’s new book, Breakaway: From Behind the Iron Curtain to the NHL – The Untold Story of Hockey’s Great Escapes. Having finished it last weekend, I’m finally getting around to posting my thoughts.
I’ll admit, I was a little underwhelmed, though I think that has to do with having heard parts of the stories before. Growing up a Red Wings fan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it’s easy to have already heard (at least parts of ) the defection stories of Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov, or Petr Klima. The story of how European players were contantly tested and were percieved as too soft for the NHL was the story of the Russian Five era Red Wings.
I would have liked to know more about Konstantinov’s defection, in particular. How do you go about bribing a doctor to give a cancer diagnosis in a collapsing Soviet Union? Of course, with Konstantinov unavailable as an interview, that story becomes much harder to tell.
Negatives aside, there were a few things that really stuck with me from each of the stories.
With the early defections – Vaclav Nedomansky, the Stastnys, Klima – it’s amazing just how much the representatives of the North American teams had no idea what they were doing. It really was a case of just flying over to Europe with a bag of cash and then figuring it all out on the fly.
The flip side of that is just remarkable: These players were willing to leave their homes with no plan, just a goal. With that in mind, it’s not a surprise how often the hold up for a player was finding a way to get his significant other to North America as well. You can’t just leave everything behind.
It shouldn’t be a shock (though I say that only after having read the stories) that some defectors aren’t willing to talk about their entire experience. To them, it was something they had to do, not something they want to share.
Also surprising was just how isolated some of the early defectors were once they made it to North America. Yeah, we heard a lot about Fedorov when he came over, but the thing to remember was that some of his relative success adapting came from what the Red Wings learned when Klima came over.
We’re talking about people who may not have spoken the language, may not have seen a supermarket, may never have had a checkbook or a credit card. It’s one thing to adapt on the ice, it’s another thing entirely to change your way of life.
It’s incredible what some of these trailblazers were able to accomplish and what it took for them to do it. The NHL we know today would not exist without their efforts.