Fast. Lites, who was driving, made the trip to Stuttgart at about 120 mph. "We wanted as much distance as possible between us and the Czechs before the 11 o'clock bed check," says Polano.
In the next 10 days, Lites, Klima and Polano bounced from Stuttgart to Koblenz to Frankfurt, where they holed up in a hotel waiting for Klima's immigration papers to be processed. At this time Klima asked if the Wings could get his girlfriend out of Czechoslovakia. Which is why, one evening, Polano found himself in Austria, meeting with a woman purporting to be Klima's girlfriend, plus the person who had arranged to spirit her out of Czechoslovakia.
"That was the scary part," says Polano. "I didn't know what the people I was dealing with might try." Polano checked Klima's girlfriend for a birthmark on her eyelid that Klima had described to him, "to make sure she was the right one." She passed the test, and Polano brought her to West Germany.
One rival club official estimates that the total cost of the defection might have been as high as $200,000. That's in addition to Klima's salary, of course. But if there's one thing that Hitch has made clear—much to the annoyance of his fellow owners—it is that money is no object in his drive to bring the Red Wings to respectability.
Ilitch, a Detroit-born son of Yugoslav immigrants, was once a light-hitting shortstop in the Tigers' system. He wanted to purchase the Tigers, but they were quietly snared by Tom Monaghan, founder of archrival Domino's Pizza, without Hitch getting a chance to bid.
"Mike hasn't been the same since Monaghan won the World Series," says one source close to the team.
So there is corporate pride at stake. Hitch, who calls himself "a fan with an owner's pocketbook." told Devellano last spring—following the drubbing that the Red Wings took in the playoff's, when they lost three straight to Chicago in the opening round—to go out and find the best players available. If money became a problem. Hitch promised to step in.
Which he did. With both feet. "I like to pay money," says Hitch, who personally closed the deals with Young. Staszak and Oates.
"It's ridiculous what they're paying for the players they're getting." says Peter Pocklington. owner of the Edmonton Oilers, who stand to lose more through liberalized free agency than any other team. "Nuts! Free agency will destroy hockey."
Free agency in hockey is now little more than a collective bargaining joke, a bill of goods that the Players' Association has been sold by the Old Boy owners and. at least until recently, NHLPA president R. Alan Eagle-son. Ask Washington's Bobby Carpenter or St. Louis's Joe Mullen, who played out their option years last season only to find no takers for their considerable talents. Both re-signed with their original teams. Ask Paul Coffey (page 54). a franchise player who was a 23-year-old free agent in 1984 before coming to terms with the Oilers. No competing bids. Under the current agreement, had Coffey signed with another team, the Oilers would have gotten either two first round draft choices or players of equal value as determined by an arbitrator. So what were the New Jersey Devils doing? Coffey's better than any six Devils. Any 10! What's going on?Staszak