During the Cold War, hockey players from Eastern bloc countries defected for the chance to play professionally in the United States. Tal Pinchevsky’s book Breakaway: From Behind the Iron Curtain to the NHL details these players’ stories and the relevance of this period in hockey history.
Bill’s thoughts on Breakaway: From Behind the Iron Curtain to the NHL—The Untold Story of Hockey’s Great Escapes
It is difficult for players to reach the National Hockey League, but until the fall of the Iron Curtain, it was almost impossibly difficult for players behind that boundary to make that jump. For them, getting to the world’s best and most lucrative hockey workplace meant clandestine meetings in moonlit forests and high-speed trips to border checkpoints, where the players had to hope nobody would notice they were missing until they were safely in another country.
Some of the most powerful stories in Tal Pinchevsky’s Breakaway feature players who left countries behind the Iron Curtain without telling anyone back home of their plans. Czech Michal Pivonka defected when he was nineteen to play for the Washington Capitals, attracted by what he had seen in the West on hockey trips he’d made with the Czech National Team. But the transition wasn’t easy.
“When you look back,” Pivonka told Pinchevsky, “it’s a little bit selfish on our part. What if your parents got sent to prison or your sister got kicked out from her school?”
The parents of some of the players lost their jobs. Coaches and players for the teams that lost players to defection suddenly found themselves the objects of 24-hour surveillance.
These days—when the NHL has once again locked out the players, sending some of them to temporary employment on Russian teams—may seem bad. Breakaway reminds us that the players of an earlier generation have seen worse.