Posted: Tuesday August 15, 2006 1:31PM; Updated: Tuesday September 12, 2006 6:33PM
Igor Larionov's desire to defect to the Red Wings was tempered by the threat of an all-expenses-paid, one-way trip to Siberia.
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A crackling mystery is a staple of summer entertainment and Le Affaire Evgeni Malkin has certainly enlivened an NHL August that was comatose compared to the depths of the NFL offseason, where the chatter never ends and minutiae is analyzed in excruciating detail by talking heads around the dial.
The Malkin episode -- more cloak than dagger -- evokes echoes of the good old days of the Cold War when the NHL covertly helped players defect from Soviet-bloc countries. Using a network of immigrants with contacts in the old country, plus bribes, forged documents, fake names and professional people smugglers, the league's underground railroad spirited more than a dozen stars out from behind the Iron Curtain in often life-threatening circumstances.
Some of the classic escapades summon images of an NHL operative in a tree suit whispering, "Pssst, kid! We have a contract for you. It's in the stump over there with the fake beard and glasses." On Aug. 18, 1985, Jim Lites -- then the executive vice president of the Red Wings and now the president of the Stars -- met with Czechoslovakian winger Petr Klima in the woods near Neusdorf, West Germany. They had to drive around for five days while Wings owner Mike Ilitch worked the State Department in Washington, D.C., and smugglers got Klima's fiance out of Europe.
"Klima was the most difficult defection," says Lites, who helped Sergei Fedorov, Vyacheslav Kozlov and Vladimir Konstantinov flee the Soviet Union as it crumbled at the dawn of the '90s. "Klima had no travel papers. The others were in the U.S. when they defected and Russia was opening up under Gorbachev. Klima was under Brezhnev and living behind the Iron Curtain. I was just a kid, new to the business at the time, and I was scared as hell. Military guys with guns were traveling with the national team."
Perhaps the most famous operation was pulled off by Quebec Nordiques president Marcel Aubut and GM Gilles Leger, who checked into a hotel in Innsbruck, Austria, under assumed names in 1980 and stole away with Peter Stastny, his pregnant wife and his hockey-playing brother Anton, who were all in town for the European Cup tournament. A third brother, Marian, suffered a year of being forbidden to play for Slovan Bratislava before the Nordiques negotiated his release.
Not to be outdone, the Toronto Maple Leafs engineered the escapes of Peter and Miroslav Ihnacak, Slava Duris, and Miroslav Frycer. The Soviet bloc agreed to let older stars go to the NHL after their freshness dates expired, but securing top talent required dangerous prying, especially if the top talent was Russian. NHL teams had to draft European players first, and that tipped off the authorities to their interest. Security was tightened accordingly.
"I went to a tournament in Switzerland," Lites recalls. "Igor Larionov was a great young player. He told me he'd love to play in the NHL, but said, 'No chance' and ran his finger across his throat. That was the Russian reality. Their government would kill him and his family. They'd send guys to Siberia."