The NHL, criticized from all sides for its refusal to eliminate fighting, now has attracted right-wing editorial opposition to another of its policies, collaboration with communist Czechoslovakia.
The particular ax being ground involves the NHL's agreement to bar defectors from playing without first serving an 18-month waiting period. That rule is stipulated by the International Ice Hockey Federation for all players attempting to play in another country without a waiver from their home federation, but the NHL never adhered to it until the 1980 agreement with the Czechs.
The idea was to permit veteran Czech players to join the NHL, and the Czech federation refused to allow them to leave unless the NHL accepted the 18-month rule. So the NHL agreed to observe it, except for four players who already had signed NHL contracts but still were in Eastern Europe. When the NHL refused to name the players, the Czechs refused to sign the agreement, and the situation became further confused when two veteran Czechs, Jiri Bubla and Ivan Hlinka, signed with Vancouver rather than with the teams that had picked them in a special NHL draft.
"We have had many discussions with the Czech hockey people, and we understand their problems," said NHL President John Ziegler. "After they talk to us, they have to go back to two boards, the one governing hockey and the party itself. It was the party that pushed for Hlinka and Bubla to go to Vancouver for more money, and that was embarrassing to the officials.
"Our original discussions involved games in North America, possible games in Czechoslovakia, clinics for officials and coaches, and releasing players to play in the NHL. They said they would release players if we would agree to the 18-month rule.
"I drew up an extensive agreement and one of the points was the grandfathering of four Czech players who signed before our discussion and had not yet defected. When they saw that, they had political problems, and they couldn't agree to the document's legal status."
Two of the defectors, Marian Stastny and Miroslav Frycer, have since joined the Quebec Nordiques. At a meeting with the Czech hockey officials in August, Ziegler recalled, "They said they asked all their boys if they were among those who had signed. All said no, and they said, 'They wouldn't lie to us.' "
The oral agreement expires March 15, and Ziegler said talks on an extension were continuing. He said he was hoping for a compromise that would make future foreign imports subject to the regular NHL draft.
As for objections to the NHL's dealing with the Czechs, Ziegler said, "We deal with the Russians, too."
After the Soviet victory in the Canada Cup, perhaps the NHL should forget the whole thing.