The Washington Capitals -- taking advantage of the sweeping and dramatic political transformation of Eastern Europe -- announced yesterday the signing of two players from Czechoslovakia.
Right wing Peter Bondra and defenseman Jiri Vykoukal arrived here Friday night from Prague, immediately began English lessons and will join the team when training camp begins Sept. 8 in Lake Placid, N.Y.
"We've got to give them a period of time to get adjusted to playing in North America and being happy living in the Washington area," Capitals General Manager David Poile said. "If they can make an adequate adjustment, I believe they have the talent that will allow them to play in the NHL. My expectations are tempered by the fact that they've got to learn English and how to function around here. That's not done in a two-week period of time."
While last season was noteworthy for the nearly dozen Russians who played in the league, this year's invasion of new talent is to come mostly from Czechoslovakia. There are no more restrictions to prevent Czechoslovaks from leaving. Capitals left wing Michal Pivonka -- who took both players out to dinner and will help with translation chores -- had to defect in 1986 to reach the United States and the NHL.
However, there is a potential hangup with regard to Bondra. He still has several years remaining on the contract he signed with his team in Kosice. The NHL has agreements with the International Hockey Federation and several countries to honor valid contracts. However, "valid" is a word that is getting lost in translation.
Poile said Vykoukal was contractually clear to play in the NHL. But as for Bondra, Poile said: "I'm sure this will be a problem. Bondra has a contract with his team in Kosice, but in our opinion, the contract is not valid for a number of reasons. We'll deal with the NHL and see what happens."
Bondra's case appears similar to that of Jergus Baca, a Czechoslovak defenseman who reached an agreement with Hartford in July. Teams with Czechoslovak players have argued that prior contracts were signed in the days of the restrictive Communist government and are no longer valid.
NHL President John Ziegler reportedly was working on an agreement with the Czechoslovak hockey federation. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Poile said he is optimistic that Bondra will be allowed to play in the NHL. Even if Bondra cannot, Poile said he thought the Capitals could sign Bondra to an American Hockey League contract and have him play in Baltimore this season. Poile said Bondra was aware of that possibility.
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Bondra, 22, was the Capitals' ninth-round choice (156th overall) in the 1990 entry draft. He was the third-leading scorer in the Czechoslovak Elite league last season with 29 goals and 17 assists in 42 games.
Bondra was born in the Soviet Union but, according to the Capitals, moved with his family to Czechoslovakia when he was 3. Poile said it was his understanding that Bondra has Czechoslovak citizenship and that there was no contact with the Soviet hockey federation. Apparently because of his birthplace though, Bondra never played on any Czechoslovakian national teams in international competition -- where most foreign players are scouted.
The 5-11, 180-pound Vykoukal is just 19 but has a fair amount of international experience. He was a second-team all-star in the 1989 world junior tournament and played on the Czechoslovak team that competed in the Goodwill Games. It was in Seattle where the Capitals finalized the agreement with Vykoukal, who was their ninth-round pick in 1989. Last season Vykoukal had 15 points in 42 games with Sparta Praha (Prague).
Wayne Gretzky has written his autobiography and, not surprisingly, the superstar does not have many kind words for his former boss, Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington.
In "Gretzky: An Autobiography," the Los Angeles Kings captain described Pocklington as a cheapskate and said, "Sometimes he could be a complete jerk."
Pocklington sold Gretzky to the Kings in August 1988 for a reported $18 million, just months after Gretzky led the Oilers to their fourth Stanley Cup in five years.
In the book, co-written by Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated, Gretzky said Pocklington was miserly. Gretzky said the first time the Oilers won the Stanley Cup, Pocklington gave diamond rings to everyone on the team, but the size of the diamond was commensurate with how Pocklington viewed their contribution to the club. Gretzky said the training staff, assistant coaches John Muckler -- now coach -- and Ted Green were given fake diamonds. Gretzky said General Manager Glen Sather then persuaded Pocklington to get the coaches genuine diamonds. . . .
Mario Lemieux skated yesterday for the first time since his back surgery, and the Pittsburgh Penguins' center's only complaint was "just some minor stuff from working out."
Lemieux skated for about 15 minutes and shot a few pucks on the Civic Arena ice. He missed 21 games last season because of a herniated disk in his lower back.
On July 11, Peter Sheptak of Montefiore-University Hospital removed about half the disk and shaved part of a vertebrae to free a compressed nerve. . . .
Former Minneapolis Southwest High School coach Dave Peterson has been rehired to guide Team USA in the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.