This has been an expensive hunting season for John Craig Eaton and John F. Bassett Jr., two young Toronto millionaires who dabble in acquiring sports franchises and stocking them with athletes. A few months ago Eaton, a department-store magnate, and Bassett, who is top-heavy in communications, offered a $3 million package to Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield of the Miami Dolphins and signed them with the Toronto Northmen, now the Memphis Southmen, of the fledgling World Football League. Last month Eaton and Bassett bagged Frank Mahovlich and Paul Henderson for the Toronto Toros of the World Hockey Association, bringing in those National Hockey League notables with a brace of contracts totaling more than $2 million. And then came last week, a new deal—and another big controversy.
Vaclav Nedomansky, the 30-year-old captain of the Czechoslovakian national hockey team, the " Phil Esposito of Europe," defected to Canada and signed a $750,000, five-year pact to play with Mahovlich and Henderson on the Toros. With Nedomansky, on a slightly delayed and less expensive ($150,000 for three years) basis, will come Czech Center Richard Farda, recently granted asylum in Switzerland.
While both players are considered prizes, Nedomansky is the plum; he is the most famous Communist-bloc athlete to defect to the West since 1956 when virtually en masse the Hungarian Olympic team requested—and received—political asylum at Melbourne.
Exact details of the intrigue that surrounded the Nedomansky-Farda defections no doubt will forever remain vague. However, Big Ned's arrival in Canada as a "landed immigrant" has already triggered an international hockey crisis that may wreck the shaky d�tente between the professional and amateur factions in the sport. Unlike the rival NHL, the WHA has not signed the agreement with the amateur International Ice Hockey Federation whereby professional clubs promise to reimburse federation members with cash payments when they sign national players. For example, the NHL Toronto Maple Leafs paid the Swedish federation some $200,000 when they signed Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom last year. In Nedomansky's case, Buck Houle, the general manager of the Toros, who arranged the defection, claims the Toros "are not compelled to pay anything to anyone."
Maybe not. However, if the WHA does not sign the agreement with the IIHF by Aug. 15—and if the Toros refuse to pay the Czech federation for Nedomansky and Farda—IIHF President John (Bunny) Ahearne of England insists that he will refuse to sanction this fall's scheduled eight-game series between the Soviet national team and a Team Canada composed of WHA All-Stars. Sanctions aside, an almost certain casualty of l'affaire Nedomansky will be the scheduled game this October between the WHA stars and the Czechoslovakian national team in Prague. Finally, the deal may well torpedo future trips to North America by the Russian nationals.
In the past few years several NHL clubs have tried to persuade the Soviets to let such Russian stars as Aleksandr Yakushev, Valery Kharlamov, Anatoly Firsov and Vladislav Tretiak play in the NHL. On his recent Moscow visit, Senator Edward M. Kennedy passed along a request that Yakushev, perhaps the best left wing in the world, be allowed to join the Boston Bruins as part of an official U.S.-Soviet cultural exchange program. It didn't work then, and now, in the wake of the Canadian deal, it may be even more impossible.
Like the Russians, Nedomansky has long been a prime target of NHL and WHA recruiters. The New York Rangers and the Buffalo Sabres, among other NHL clubs, tried to negotiate with the Czech federation for his rights, but they were always turned down. Last winter the Atlanta Flames placed Nedomansky's name on their negotiation list, and General Manager Cliff Fletcher flew to Prague and offered the Czechs $200,000 for his release. In turn, he also offered Nedomansky a five-year, $600,000 playing contract, with the promise of a job for five years after that. The Toros' Houle also went to Prague last winter to offer much the same deal. Both were turned down.
Then last month Nedomansky somehow obtained a visa for himself, his wife Vera and his son Vaclav Jr. for a vacation in Switzerland. Once Nedomansky arrived in Bern, Houle flew in from Toronto and Fletcher checked in from Atlanta. "I didn't have much of a chance," Fletcher said glumly. "He was committed to the Toros when I got there." Indeed, Houle and two associates already had gone to the Canadian consulate in Bern and had arranged for a visa for the Nedomansky family.
"He didn't really defect," Houle said, "because he didn't ask for political asylum. He applied for a visa on Monday morning and got it Wednesday morning, which was sort of a world indoor record for speed, I guess." With visas in hand, the Nedomanskys immediately flew from Zurich to Canada.
Big Ned arrived wearing a yellow sports shirt and a pair of faded blue jeans. "Where can I buy myself a new suit?" he asked in halting English. Houle grinned. "I'll call up John Craig Eaton," he told Nedomansky, "and tell him it would be nice if a new Canadian citizen could buy his first suit at Eaton's department store."