The Toronto Maple Leafs boasted today that they had acquired their newest hockey player, a star 23-year-old Czechoslovak forward, by clandestinely arranging for him and his fiance to escape from the Communist country.
The 6-foot, 195-pound Miroslav Ihnacak, who speaks no English but causes Maple Leafs executives to sing rhapsodically about his prowess on the ice, was all smiles at a news conference today in which team officials spun a tale of cloak-and-dagger intrigue about how they got him.
Harold Ballard, the irascible, staunchly conservative Maple Leafs owner, said he expected that Ihnacak would bolster his limping team, currently 10-20-5 and in fourth place in the Norris Division. And he added, "Any Communist that I could get out of there that wanted to be a Canadian, I'm very pleased."
Translating for Ihnacak was his older brother Peter, 28, a center for Toronto who quit the Czechoslovak national team during the 1982 world hockey championships in Finland, sneaking away to Sweden on an overnight ferry before coming to Canada with Maple Leafs General Manager Gerry McNamara. An older brother, John , 39, and sister, Magda, 42, had left Czechoslovakia in 1968 and settled in New Jersey.
Because of the family history of defections, Czechoslovak officials had pulled Miroslav Ihnacak's passport and would allow him to travel only to the Soviet Union, according to his brother. Although he was the leading scorer in his league the past two years (including 35 goals and 31 assists in 43 games this year), playing for the team Kosice, he had been kept off Czechoslovak national squads that traveled abroad.
Over the four years after Peter defected and came here, the two hockey-playing brothers talked twice a month on the phone as Miroslav ran up against roadblock after roadblock thrown up by Czechoslovak authorities as he tried to leave legally.
Maple Leafs officials would not give precise details of how they had gotten Ihnacak out of the East bloc to Vienna shortly after Christmas for a rendezvous with McNamara, although they said "intermediaries" had helped arrange the escape.
Ballard would not confirm a report in the Toronto Sun today that he had spread around $150,000, some of it in the form of payoffs, to grease the wheels. "If I had $150,000, I'd close the gates here and take a holiday," he said, grinning broadly.
Whatever difficulties Ihnacak may have faced may have been matched by the troubles McNamara encountered. When he flew to Vienna on Saturday night, the general manager said, the plane was about to land when suddenly the pilot pulled it back, telling passengers how guerrillas were shooting in the airport.
After landing in Linzer and a two-hour bus ride back to Vienna where he made contact with the defector, McNamara then found he had problems with Canadian consular officials in Vienna. They told him that Miroslav and his girlfriend, Eva Olach, would have to go to a refugee camp and apply for asylum with Austrian authorities before the embassy could begin processing their immigration permits. The consular officials said the whole process would take about two months.
The "intermediaries" hid Ihanack in Vienna but McNamara said he felt he was being shadowed himself by intelligence agents and worried that the Czechoslovaks, or even the KGB, might find the hockey player and take him back to Czechoslovakia and put him in prison.
On New Year's Day, hockey officials complained about the problems in a leak to newspapers here, raising a public hue and cry in Canada about heartless bureaucrats and red tape, causing two Canadian cabinet ministers to intervene.
The permits then quickly granted, the party left Vienna Wednesday, taking the long way around the world into Canada at Vancouver, because, McNamara said, "when you're ever in a situation like this, you take the first flight out of the city."
McNamara said Ihnacak would practice Saturday, but said it was too early to tell when he might play.
Both Miroslav and Peter Ihnacak were selected by Toronto in the 1982 draft, Peter in the second round and Miroslav in the ninth.
"A lot of people are drafting some Eastern European players in the hope that some day we may enjoy some exchanges of hockey players, not just Czech but also Russian," said Washington Capitals General Manager David Poile, who is scouting Czechoslovaks and Soviets playing in Hamilton, Ontario, in the world junior games.