Peter Stastny was 11 years old in august 1968, when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia. He remembers the radio warnings that resistance would be futile and how the road signs between his grandparents' village, Pruzina, and the city of Bratislava had been turned around in a pathetic attempt to point the Soviets in the wrong direction. When the Stastnys returned home to Bratislava, Peter saw the tanks that had blasted away the democratic reforms of Alexander Dubček's brief regime without firing a single shot. "I hated them," he says.
Stastny recalls, too, the wild celebration in the streets the following spring when the Czechoslovakian hockey team twice defeated the Soviets at the world championships in Stockholm. "What other way did a country our size have to fight back?" he said. "It was David defeating Goliath."
On a September morning 20 years later, Goliath is seated next to David on a hockey bench in Quebec City. Center Peter Stastny of Czechoslovakia sits alongside goalie Sergei Mylnikov of Chelyabinsk, U.S.S.R. They both wear the blue Nordique practice uniform, as do the Americans, Canadians and Finns on the team. And though these men have been assembled for no grander purpose than to build a tower of Babel to the top of the Adams Division of the NHL, the effect is far nobler. Speaking Russian, Stastny leans over to explain a drill to Mylnikov as Mylnikov's translator, teammate and friend. "You can't hate the person," says Stastny. "You do not like the politics of his country, but the human being is warm and modest, and he will help this team."
Last season the Nordiques had the worst record in the league, largely because their goaltending was weak. To improve, they could either meet another NHL club's black-market price for a good goaltending prospect or they could raise a glass in toast to Mikhail Gorbachev and then call Rent-a-Soviet in Moscow. The folks there now deliver.
Thanks to glasnost, cuts in government subsidies to U.S.S.R. sporting programs and years of knocking on bureaucratic doors by the Calgary Flames, New Jersey Devils and Vancouver Canucks, eight Soviet players have been given permission by their country to skate in the NHL this season. Of course, the front door didn't swing open for them to leave the Soviet Union until brilliant 20-year-old winger Alexander Mogilny sneaked out the back door to Buffalo in May 1989. His defection to play for the Sabres, coupled with the resolve of some veteran Soviet players to be rewarded for their years of service, undoubtedly gave the U.S.S.R.'s sports leadership pause to ponder further losses of top young talent.
Thus has right wing Sergei Makarov, 31, one of the game's most dynamic talents, come to play for Calgary. He joins Sergei Priakin, 25, a player of lesser renown who joined the Flames late last season and appeared in two games. Vladimir Krutov, 29, a powerful and speedy left wing, will perform with the Canucks alongside Igor Larionov, 28, a slick playmaker who centered Krutov and Makarov on both the Central Red Army and Soviet national teams. Viacheslav Fetisov, 31, only a few years removed from being the world's best defenseman, has brought a Central Red Army teammate, defenseman Sergei Starikov, 30, with him to the Devils. Mylnikov, who is 31 and has national team experience, and Mogilny have no countrymen on their new teams. Nor does Helmut Balderis, a 37-year-old winger who was barely hanging on with the Minnesota North Stars at week's end.
The Soviets have been heartened by their reception. Mogilny received a lengthy ovation when he scored a goal in his first exhibition game as a Sabre. "I appreciate, I appreciate," he said in English, which he learned by going to the University of Buffalo six hours a day, five days a week, for six weeks over the summer. Canucks fans, who have left the team in droves over the years because of its failure to win, chanted "EEEE-gor" during Larionov's Vancouver debut.
Not everyone has reacted so magnanimously, of course. There is an undercurrent of resentment by North American players, both because of jobs lost to the Soviet athletes and a lingering cold war antipathy, but so far only the concerns over jobs have been publicly expressed. Certainly, if these Soviet hands are still capable of the magic they produced in Olympic and Canada Cup competitions, they will get a fair shake. Meanwhile, the world will watch, fascinated.
"I had my doubts this would ever happen," said Stastny, who defected from Czechoslovakia to Canada in 1980. "This is so nice. I really believe this and other things that we hear are happening over there tell us that we are heading into a nice, peaceful period in the history of mankind."
As the world shrinks, so will the rinks for these players. They'll all have to adjust to a more punishing game on the smaller ice surface of the NHL (international rinks are about 15 feet wider on average) with closer corners and goons, and the relentless grind of three and four games every week. The adjustment, as seen in the limited success of several veteran players from Czechoslovakia who have been released to play in the NHL, is not an easy one. For that reason Buffalo has most likely gotten the best deal in the signing of Soviet players by landing the speedy Mogilny. "If it takes the older players a few years to adjust, they'll be well into their 30's," says Rick Dudley, Buffalo's coach. "If it takes Alex a few years, that puts him right into his prime."