When Michal Pivonka turned up in the United States last week and announced he had defected from Czechoslovakia to play hockey for the Washington Capitals, he surprised very few people in his native country.
Hockey players leaving Czechoslovakia in search of money and freedom are part of a tradition that began here shortly after the Communists took over the government in 1948. At that time, star hockey players were viewed as a threat because they were wealthy. Some were arrested. Other fled. Thirty-eight years later, they still are leaving.
No one here uses the word defection. A player either leaves "with permission" or "without permission." Pivonka, a sharpshooting center who was viewed as a future star, did not have permission.
This morning, sitting in a small office of the Hockey Sports Hall, Frantisek Pospisil, the coach of the Czechoslovakian national team, shook his head as he talked about Pivonka.
"He has a bright future as a player," he said. "He plays with great self-confidence and desire. He is weak on defense, but he will learn that. He has many years to improve. He will only get better as he gets older."
Pospisil coached Pivonka as a junior in Kladno, the Prague suburb in which they both lived. He watched him grow and improve. And then, when he should have been ready to become a star for Pospisil's national team, the coach watched him leave. But there is no anger. No bitterness.
"That is the way of sports here," he said. "People come and people leave."
They have played hockey in the Czech lands -- Bohemia, Moravia and Czech Silesia did not unite with Slovakia to form a republic until 1918 -- since 1910. In that year, according to historians here, a small group of Czechs that had been playing a crude form of the game, using a ball, journeyed to Switzerland to play a touring Canadian team.
In the first game they played with a puck, the Canadians beat them, 25-0. But they learned quickly. One year later, they were European champions, even though it was not until 10 years later that the first indoor hockey rink was built in the country. That arena, now crumbling, sits directly across the street from the brand new tennis stadium where this week's Federation Cup matches are being held.
The 1911 championship began a tradition. In the 1920s and 1930s, the dominant club team in Europe was LTC-Praha. Even that far back, the Czech youth program was flourishing. "We have always had a very well-organized youth program," Pospisil said. "That has been the key to Czech hockey."
But Czech hockey took a giant step backward after the change in government. In addition to those jailed and those who fled, seven members of the national team were killed in a plane crash in 1949.
One of the early defectors was a center named Jaroslav Drobny. But after leaving Czechoslovakia, Drobny decided that, perhaps, he was a better tennis player than a hockey player. He was right. Twice, he was French Open champion and, in 1954, he was Wimbledon champion. There is no record here of his achievements, in tennis or hockey.
In the 1950s, hockey continued to grow. The government disbanded LTC-Praha in 1948, but other teams began to flourish around the country. By the early 1950s, the first division of the Czech Hockey League had 20 teams. Club Sparta became the dominant squad, and also later became a tennis club that in the early 1970s produced a player named Martina Navratilova.
But during this time, many Czech hockey players were leaving to play for other European teams. Some had permission to leave. Others didn't.
"Leaving is part of hockey here," said one longtime Czech official who asked not to be identified. "Players just cannot make the money here they can make elsewhere. But things have changed the last few years, especially now with players going to Canada. Once, the families of players could never get out after they left. Now, usually, they can."
In all, 17 players have left Czechoslovakia in the last 12 years to play in the NHL. Many others have left to play for European teams. In 1985, after Czechoslovakia stunned the Soviet Union to win the world title here, four players left and accepted offers from European teams. All had permission to leave. Under the current rules of the Czech Hockey Association, once a player turns 30, he is free to leave at any time. Until then, he owes his country two years in the Army (18-20) and 10 years with the national team.
Pivonka finished his tour of duty in the Army on July 1. His contract reportedly had been sold to Club Sparta for next season for 150,000 crowns ($15,000), which is a lot of money for a Czech player transaction. Now, Club Sparta must try to get the money back.
"He could not say no to the money," said the same official. "That is why they leave -- money. People here understand."
And that is not because there is any lack of passion here when it comes to hockey. More than soccer, even more than the now powerful tennis, hockey is this country's national sport. World (championship) Cup victories over the Soviets are cause for national celebration. The 1976 Olympic final -- when the Czechs led the Soviets, 3-2, with seven minutes left and lost, 4-3 -- is still considered a national tragedy.
And, when the national team performed poorly in this year's World Cup in Moscow, there were dozens of theories about what had gone wrong and many people called for the resignation of Pospisil.
"I am 42 now," Pospisil said. "I played for the national team for 10 years 1967-77 , so I know what pressure is about. But not pressure like this. I have been coach one year and it feels like 10 years. The Czech people expect great things from their hockey team."
Because so many players leave, the Czech national coach must constantly scramble. But in a country with more than 200 indoor arenas and 325 outdoor arenas -- even though the population is only about 15 million -- new players seem to appear all the time.
Youth hockey begins here at age 5. It is highly organized and feeds the top players to the best junior programs. From there, the best move on to the national team.
"When someone leaves, we can replace them with a good young player," Pospisil said. "But sometimes it takes a year, two, three. To lose a talented young player like Pivonka does not hurt us right now, but it may hurt us in the future."
Pospisil was asked about his hopes for the 1988 Olympics. He smiled wanly. "For now, I am worried only about the 1987 championships in Vienna. My hopes are to at least get a medal there. If we do not, the question about the Olympics must be put to someone else, because surely I will be fired."