A tale of intrigue that included rendezvous in eight countries culminated yesterday in the announcement that Czechoslovakian defector Michal Pivonka, a highly regarded 20-year-old center, had joined the Washington Capitals.
Pivonka, whom the Capitals selected in the third round of the National Hockey League draft in 1984, was pursued for two years by Jack Button, the team's director of player personnel and recruitment. On Friday, Pivonka and his fiance Renata Nekvindova landed in the United States, and yesterday they appeared at a Capital Centre news conference.
"I had many personal reasons for leaving Czechoslovakia, and I don't think they should be discussed today," Pivonka said, reading a prepared statement in English. "My fiance and I are happy to be in the United States. . . . My ambition is to play hockey in the National Hockey League. . . . I can hardly wait for the season to begin."
The Capitals were silent about how they got Pivonka into the United States, saying they were advised by "high sources," whom they declined to identify. The Immigration and Naturalization Service found itself with more questions than answers.
"Announcing it at Capital Centre does not give you asylum to the United States," said INS press officer Duke Austin. "There is a procedure to follow. You have to come forward and file an application, documenting a well-founded fear of persecution if you are returned to your native country.
"That procedure apparently has not been exercised in this case. There has been no contact with either our Baltimore or Washington office."
Capitals General Manager David Poile declined comment when asked to respond to Austin's statement.
Answering questions at Capital Centre through an interpreter, Pivonka said that many young Czechoslovakian players thought about NHL careers and that as soon as he learned at age 18 that he had been drafted by Washington, he started planning ways to accomplish a move.
Button said the first contact with Pivonka was made at a hunting lodge in northern Sweden in 1984, when Pivonka indicated his desire to play in the NHL if problems could be overcome.
Button said further meetings were conducted in Finland, the Soviet Union, West Germany, Austria, Canada and two other countries he declined to divulge because of the sensitive nature of the contacts.
No details of Pivonka's defection last week were disclosed.
"There was a good feeling when we landed in the U.S.," Button said. "I don't know that there were ever any great risks. But perhaps the night of greatest concern was in Moscow, when we walked along the street, and there were a number of people on the street, and we went around a corner and suddenly nobody was on the street."
Pivonka, 6 feet 2 and 190 pounds, signed a five-year contract estimated to be worth $1 million. He and Nekvindova have been staying with Poile at his home in Davidsonville since Friday.
They called their parents in Czechoslovakia on Monday. Poile said, "It was a tough thing to do. The families were very upset about it. Time is the only cure."
Pivonka said the fact that so many other players from Czechoslovakia had defected without repercussions at home made the move easier for him.
"Of course, one day I would like to go back and visit my family," he said. "In the past, the Czechoslovak Ice Hockey Federation didn't like it when players left, but nothing happened to the families. That made it much better for me. I don't believe anything will happen."
Besides his parents, Pivonka has a 13-year-old sister in Kladno.
The Czechoslovakian federation has permitted some older players to play in the NHL during the twilight of their careers. One such player, center Milan Novy, spent the 1982-83 season with Washington and scored 18 goals in 73 games.
Pivonka is the second Czechoslovakian defector in a week to join an NHL team and is believed to be the 17th Czechoslovakian defector to join a North American professional team without the federation's permission since center Vaclav Nedomansky started the exodus by defecting through West Germany in 1974. Other prominent Czechoslovakian defectors include Peter, Anton and Marian Stastny, who joined the Quebec Nordiques, although Marian now plays for the Toronto Maple Leafs; Peter and Miroslav Ihnacak with the Maple Leafs, and Petr Svoboda, with the Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens.
Asked whether some of the veterans who returned to Czechoslovakia had tried to dissuade him from an NHL career, Pivonka said: "Some of them who were not successful were not talking nicely about the National Hockey League, but I knew it was because they were not successful, because they came late in their career."
Asked whether the Capitals had approached the Czechoslovakian federation about obtaining Pivonka legally, Poile replied: "No. We wanted to get him."
Button said, "There is no question that the government and the Czech Ice Hockey Federation are aware of the potential for this to occur at any time. They make the players sign documents and make subtle threats that the money has to go back to the government. They've tried to intimidate players into thinking that things will not be that good in North America, that the money must go back and that a player will not be able to play for 18 months, which would be the case in some countries."
The Capitals expect Pivonka to be in the lineup on opening day, Oct. 9, in Pittsburgh.
"This was a two-year plan that was designed to culminate in July, but there's no question the loss of Bengt Gustafsson made it more important to do it this year," Poile said, referring to the Capitals' Swedish center who broke his leg near the end of last season, returned to his country and decided to play there.
"Gus is the biggest loss we've had. Gus is a better player than Michal right now, and Michal will need to make some adjustments to the NHL style of play, but he is a very skilled, offensive hockey player, and down the line he should be a big, big acquisition for the Washington Capitals. Quite simply, he is a talent."
Pivonka was a member of the Czechoslovakian national team that won the world championship by defeating Canada in Prague in 1985. He was a standout in the World Junior Tournament in Canada in December.
"Pivonka arguably was the best player available in the draft after Pittsburgh Penguins center Mario Lemieux in 1984," Poile said. "If he had been a North American, he would have been a first-round selection. We picked Kevin Hatcher and Stephen Leach in the first two rounds and then felt we had to gamble on Michal next."
Pivonka fulfilled his two-year army obligation before he left Czechoslovakia. Asked what his army duties consisted of, he said: "I just played ice hockey."
Frantisek Musil, a Czechoslovakian defenseman, joined the Minnesota North Stars on Friday. He has an H-1 visa, a nonresident working visa that is normal for pro athletes coming to the United States with the intention of establishing permanent residency. Musil obtained it through the U.S. consulate in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, where he went on a two-week vacation pass from Czechoslovakia, then defected.
Left wing Petr Klima of Detroit, another Pivonka teammate of Pivonka's who defected a year ago, entered the United States from Italy as a parolee pursuing an application to remain here.