On a warm and overcast day in Rome this month, Czechoslovakian hockey star Michal Pivonka and his fiance walked into the U.S. embassy on the Via Veneto to declare their intention to seek refuge in the United States.
Pivonka's appearance did not surprise embassy officials, who had been advised several days earlier that the 20-year-old hockey star was on his way to Rome from Trieste, an Italian seaport city just across the northwestern border of Yugoslavia.
Pivonka and his fiance, Renata Nekvindova, reportedly had left their homes in Prague July 7 on a bus bound for Yugoslavia, ostensibly to take a vacation. Their mission: a rendezvous in Italy with officials of the Washington Capitals, who in December had secretly offered Pivonka a five-year contract estimated to be worth $1 million.
On July 16, Pivonka and Nekvindova were interviewed at the U.S. embassy by an examiner for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The Czechs told the examiner they wanted to begin a new life in the United States and that they feared reprisals if they returned home.
The interview took 20 minutes. "They were granted tentative refugee status almost immediately," an INS official said by telephone from Rome. " Pivonka was very concerned about departing Italy as soon as possible, so we tried to act quickly."
Two days later, Pivonka, accompanied by Nekvindova and two Capitals officials, arrived at New York's John F. Kennedy airport, ready to seek his fame and fortune. Pivonka was introduced at a press conference at Capital Centre Tuesday, but club officials offered no details on how the defections were planned and executed. Nor do they intend to.
"We're not trying to cover up anything," Washington General Manager David Poile said. "What we're trying to do is respect the wishes of the people in the countries who have helped us. They've asked us not to say anything."
For more than a decade, employes of National Hockey League clubs have been traveling through Europe at high speeds, looking over their shoulders while doling out dollars and snipping red tape to facilitate the defections of talented Czech players.
When the Capitals last week unveiled the 17th such defector to North America, an official at the Czechoslovakian embassy called the signing "rather deplorable" and charged that Czech laws had been broken. "It could have been done officially," the diplomat said of Pivonka's signing. "I read that officials of the Washington Capitals didn't try to approach the Czech ice hockey federation. It's rather strange."
For Poile, however, there were no reservations.
"If we had tried to negotiate Pivonka's release, he never would have gotten out," he said. "If you need any proof of that, just look at Jiri Dudacek."
The Buffalo Sabres' attempts to sign Dudacek, a promising young center whom they selected in the first round of the 1981 entry draft, underlines the frustrations ncountered by NHL clubs in negotiating for Czech players through official channels.
Since his team's owners insisted that no foreign players be signed until they were released by their federations, Buffalo General Manager Scotty Bowman attempted to obtain Dudacek's services legally. "I went to the Czech hockey people and had a sensible deal," Bowman recalled. "We had even worked out the details with Dudacek's team in Kladno. But at the last minute, they told us the minister of sport had to disallow the release because Dudacek was too young to permit him to leave."
Today, five years later, Dudacek is no longer playing well enough to be on a first division team, much less the Czech national team, but he is still unavailable to the Sabres. "There is no possible way you can get releases," Bowman said. "As far as going through channels, I've been through every channel."
Most of the NHL general managers who have pursued Czech talent have followed Poile's method rather than Bowman's.
They have bypassed federation officials and gone, instead, directly to the players, offering a superior lifestyle and the funds to enjoy it. The NHL has kept a strict hands-off policy on the clubs' clandestine negotiations with Eastern European players.
"From our standpoint, once somebody has decided to leave his country and come here, we're not going to set up roadblocks to his employment," John Ziegler, president of the NHL, said the other day.
"We talked to the Czechoslovakian federation on the subject at one time, but the only players they were willing to release were players in whom our clubs had very little interest.
"No formal agreement ever was reached and the subject disappeared when we amended the entry draft so that any player outside North America had to be drafted before he could be signed by a member club."
Since 1981, the Czechs annually have offered a few fading players to the NHL and seven have played here with the permission of their federation, including center Milan Novy with Washington. None of the seven was under the age of 30 and only one -- defenseman Jiri Bubla of Vancouver -- played in the NHL last season.
Although the Czechs have issued no formal guidelines, it is obvious that only players 30 or over, with declining skills, will be considered for overseas play. This year, the Czechs offered six players -- one was 36 -- but none was selected in the 1986 draft.
The Czechs, world champions in 1985 but a .500 club at the 1986 tournament, obviously want to keep their top players at home to compete against the hated Soviets in international play. The world championships always take place in April, when few NHL players are able to join national teams.
Jack Button, the Capitals' point man in the Pivonka defection, estimates that at least 10 current Czech players would have no problem playing in the NHL. He also points out that many who are not in that category defect to play in West Germany and other Western European countries.
"They defect first because they want to get out of Czechoslovakia and out from under Soviet domination," Button said. "There are Czechs playing in West Germany in the top league, the second division and even as juniors. We get frequent calls asking if we are interested in these players."
If a nation such as Czechoslovakia, which has a population of only 15 million, can produce so many talented players, one can only wonder how many Soviets are capable of playing in the NHL. So far, none has defected or been granted permission to leave, but NHL clubs are still hopeful.
When Poile was with the Atlanta Flames, he engaged in lengthy negotiations with the Soviet federation on the possibility of obtaining veteran Anatoli Firasov.
"I met with Soviet federation people many times and for a long time it was 'Yes, yes, yes,' but in the end it was 'Nyet,' " Poile recalled.
"I would guess that of the NHL's 21 teams, at least a dozen have had meetings with Soviet officials. Probably the best relationship was the one between Montreal and goalie Vladislav Tretiak, but even that never materialized."
Poile drafted Soviet defenseman Mikhail Tatarinov in 1984, eight rounds after he selected Pivonka. "We had heard from some sources that had helped Montreal contact Petr Svoboda that Tatarinov had defected in West Germany," Poile said. "It wasn't true, but now when we go to tournaments we can point to him as ours."
Although Poile said no bribes were involved in the Pivonka case, NHL clubs reportedly have spent considerable money in the defection business since Vaclav Nedomansky made the first move out of Czechoslovakia in 1974.
The Toronto Maple Leafs reportedly spent $150,000 greasing palms last December to smooth the exit of right wing Miroslav Ihnacak, who was closely watched by Czech officials because his brother, Peter, defected four years earlier. At one point, Miroslav married a Yugoslav student and tried to leave with her. He was denied an exit visa and the marriage was annulled.
Detroit Red Wings official Nick Polano reported dashes at 125 mph on the German autobahn to elude Czechoslovakian officials last year while defector Petr Klima was being processed as a refugee. "We didn't want to take any chances," Polano said. "We kept moving from city to city." When he returned to the United States with Klima, Polano found a polite note from American Express, wondering about credit card charges that had reached $35,000.
Not all the 17 Czechoslovakian defectors have enjoyed outstanding careers and many have encountered problems. Nedomansky certainly struggled financially after he auctioned himself off to the Toronto Toros of the World Hockey Association upon his defection to the West.
He retired in 1983 after six NHL seasons with the Red Wings, St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers.
"I haven't been back to Czechoslovakia because that would be a one-way ticket for me," Nedomansky said last week from his home in suburban Detroit.
"It's coming to the point now where all the young Czechosolavian players want to come here to play. It's on their minds. They would like to try it.
"I don't really like to get in the middle of anything, but if you talk to Pivonka and he wants to talk to me, give him my phone number. If he needs some advice, some direction, tell him to call me."
Despite financial difficulties worsened by a court-ordered $60,000 payment to his former agent, Nedomansky does not regret his defection -- a viewpoint apparently shared by the rest of the Czechoslovakian defectors.
"Certainly, some have hoped for better careers," Poile said, "but of all the players who have defected, I have yet to hear one say he was sorry he made the move."