Michal Pivonka, the Czechoslovakian center who defected to join the Washington Capitals, has been admitted to the United States as a refugee, team and Immigration and Naturalization Service officials confirmed yesterday.
Pivonka, 20, and his fiance, Renata Nekvindova, were granted "refugee status" last week by INS officials in Rome. INS spokesman Verne Jervis said they were granted that status after they successfully made their case to the INS that they had a "well-founded fear of persecution" if they returned to their home country.
However, an official at the Czechoslovakian embassy in Washington yesterday called the signing of Pivonka by the Capitals "rather deplorable" and said "definitely some Czech laws must have been broken." Jaroslav Kubista, a second secretary at the embassy, would not elaborate on what laws he believed might have been broken.
"Mr. Pivonka, maybe after some time, may have some second thoughts," Kubista said. " . . . This approach by the Capitals doesn't help sporting exchanges. It could have been done officially. I read that officials of the Washington Capitals didn't try to approach the Czech Hockey federation. It's rather strange."
Washington General Manager David Poile said at a news conference yesterday at Capital Centre that the team did nothing illegal in its courtship of Pivonka. Afterward, however, Poile told a Washington Post reporter, "I don't want to talk about it the plan for the defection because that's something illegal."
Reminded that he had said at the news conference that nothing was done illegally, Poile said, "It was the method of how it was done."
Asked if he broke any laws, Poile said, "Well, you answer to me: is it legal or illegal to take someone out of a country without a visa?"
Poile said neither he nor Jack Button, director of player personnel and recruitment, personally aided Pivonka and Nekvindova in leaving Czechoslovakia.
Pivonka and Nekvindova arrived in Washington Friday and moved into Poile's Davidsonville, Md., home. On Monday morning, Pivonka signed a five-year contract that was estimated to be worth $1 million. The deal reportedly had been tentatively agreed upon last December in a room at a Holiday Inn in Hamilton, Ontario. Pivonka was in Hamilton with a Czechoslovakian team to play in an international tournament.
At the news conference yesterday, Poile declined to provide further information about Pivonka's defection. "We have nothing to hide," Poile said. "The only thing we have done a little bit different from similar cases of previous defecting hockey players is not to tell the whole story. I'm doing that because of what I was told by the Washington Capitals' legal counsel."
Furthermore, Poile said, "There's a little more involved here than a hockey player. We had a girlfriend involved, too. We had an excellent plan, and that's why Pivonka is here today."
Lynda Zengerle, a Washington attorney retained by the Capitals, confirmed the meeting between Pivonka and INS officials in Rome but declined to provide further details. Asked why Pivonka applied in Rome for refugee status, Zengerle said, "Just look at the map," apparently referring to the proximity of Rome to Czechoslovakia.
Pivonka is the second Czechoslovakian defector in a week to join an NHL team and is believed to be the 17th Czechoslovakian defector since 1974 to join a North American professional team without the Czechoslovakian federation's permission. Last week, Czechoslovakian defenseman Frantisek Musil joined the Minnesota North Stars after fleeing his country through Yugoslavia.
Button, the Capitals' principal contact in the negotiations with Pivonka, said the club's courtship of Pivonka stretched over two years, beginning in 1984, when they selected him in the third round of the NHL draft. Describing the secrecy of the operation, Button said, "At one point, we cut a $5 bill in half and he had half of it. That way, if we had to move suddenly or use someone with whom Michal was not familiar, the other half would serve to identify the holder to him.
"Michal was adamant that we never approach him in Czechoslovakia. He was really cool about the whole thing. I didn't get his address in Czechoslovakia until last February, and he didn't give me his phone number there until he was out.
"The big thing right from the start was to establish trust between us. No matter how difficult, we made contact with him every time we promised to, so that when the time came to make the move, he could count on us to be there."
Poile said that from the first meeting with Pivonka, when the Czechoslovak was informed he had been drafted and was asked if he was interested in joining the Capitals, Pivonka was "very enthusiastic. At each subsequent meeting, he was questioned about his commitment and he never wavered."
Although Poile stayed out of Czechoslovakia this time, he knows the country well. He visited Vaclav Nedomansky in his Bratislava home in 1974 and was close to luring the first of the Czechoslovakian defectors to North America on the Atlanta Flames' behalf until World Hockey Association money overcame his bid.
While the Capitals were consulting their lawyers yesterday, Pivonka was going through a workout at the Severna Park Racquetball Club, meeting his first Capitals teammate, Craig Laughlin, and looking over apartments with a real estate agent.
Pivonka drove the Poiles' Toyota and was undaunted by the heavy truck traffic on Route 3. He also conducted an interview in English, with an occasional assist from an interpreter, to help his cultivation of the language.
Pivonka negotiated his five-year contract with the club himself, without the assistance of an agent, although Poile said, "He knew what was going on. I'm sure he had talked to Musil and Petr Svoboda in Montreal and knew what they were getting."
"I'm glad it's over," Pivonka said. "I was a little surprised by all the newspaper and TV people, but Mr. Poile had informed me about it. It's not like that in Czechoslovakia.
"I have had no problems here. I'm having a good time. I want to learn English and get used to it as soon as possible. People have been very friendly here, and and I like that.
"I know the NHL is hard and that is why I want to lift weights, to be stronger. Playing so many games -- I must play 100 or 110, more than ever before -- will be very hard for me, too, but I believe I can do it. I must prepare for it."
Mike Marcus of the Severna Park facility's staff agreed to arrange a program for Pivonka. Laughlin, who has been working out at the club for five weeks, will accompany Pivonka in future sessions.
Poile's wife, Elizabeth, hobbling on a broken foot she suffered falling down some steps three hours after Pivonka and his fiance arrived at her home, already has taken them on a shopping expedition.
"They came with just a little suitcase, and with very little in it," she said. "So they needed to buy shoes and a couple of outfits.
"Michal knows what he wants. He knew good quality. He's very bright and very confident. He knows what he wants out of life, too. He's pretty worldly and not flustered by anything."
There have been a couple of minor problems. When the Czechoslovaks prepared to watch "Jaws" on TV Sunday, a power outage spoiled the plans. And a projected crab feast was derailed because Pivonka does not like seafood.
"Except for seafood, he doesn't care what he eats," she said. "I ask what they'd like and they say, 'Anything.' For breakfast one day he had four hot dogs, three boiled eggs and six pieces of toast.
"It's been delightful having them here. They're very adaptable and it's nice to see two people so much in love. They're quick to learn, and they're willing to try things. They're both very athletic and they swim, play tennis, run, ride bikes. They like to watch TV, too. When we watched the 'A Team,' they knew Mr. T."
Nekvindova, an excellent long jumper in high school, was a university student majoring in physical education when she left with Pivonka.
"I want to study English, then continue my education," she said through an interpreter.
Pivonka's nickname at home is "Piva," and he said the name Pivonka means "Flower." The Capitals immediately jumped on the obvious comparison to Guy Lafleur.
Coach Bryan Murray, contacted in Shawville, Quebec, said he was optimistic about Pivonka on the basis of videotapes and Button's relentless praise.
"I've heard nothing but good things, and I'm hopeful he'll be a kid with something to prove," Murray said. "How high up we'll play him is hard to say right now.
"I guess for now you'd fit him in after Bob Carpenter and Alan Haworth on our list of center icemen. Maybe one night he'd play as high as second and next maybe fourth, depending on the situation.
"The big thing is, we have to be willing to let him play. With Gus Bengt Gustafsson gone, he has a chance to fill a pretty important spot for us."
Staff writers Tony Kornheiser and John Goshko contributed to this report.