Le numèro vingt..." the public-address announcer said, pausing a beat for silence, "Anton Stastny!"
Cheers. Yes, those were actually cheers Anton was hearing. Not just little wee ones, either—a great thunderous ovation. He skated to join his teammates at the blue line, head down, drinking it in. Eleven thousand people—foreign people who spoke a strange language—clapping and whistling in a building where he had never played a game. Not quite the sort of exhibition he had grown accustomed to in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, his home for 21 years, where he and his brothers could excite a crowd into song—but sweet all the same. You are home now, they were saying. You are one of us. A moment later, le numèro vingt-six—Peter Stastny, the better known of the brothers—received much the same loud welcome.
The two of them stood with their Quebec Nordique teammates and gently tapped their sticks on the ice to acknowledge the applause. And 15 minutes later Peter scored his first goal in the Colisèe in Quebec City, lifting the puck over Vancouver Goaltender Richard Brodeur, in a game destined to finish in a 3-3 tie. This was in late October.
It had been a long time between cheers. The Nordiques played their first nine games on the road, while their arena was being enlarged and renovated. The Stastnys had played their last game for the Czechoslovak National Team on the road in August in Innsbruck, Austria, on a line with their brother Marian—before defecting to Canada, to the Nordiques, to the NHL. They had played in their last home game sometime last spring, as members of the Slovan Bratislava team. Anton doesn't remember if they won or lost.
While Anton and Peter now play in the NHL, Marian has been suspended from Slovan Bratislava. At 27 he was the team leader, a player in his prime. He had been a star on the Czechoslovakian world-championship teams of 1976-77. He was a hero. Now he cannot find work—and he is a father with three children. "They do black things, very black things to make us go back," Anton says. "This is one of them."
The flight of Anton, 21, and Peter, 24, took place in August, when the Nordiques were contacted by the Stastnys and then helped them defect to Canada. But the story really begins in June of 1976, when one Gilles Lèger traveled to Lanseau, West Germany to scout Marian and Peter.
Lèger is a suspicious-looking character. He has thick lips that are wrapped around a cigar from morning till night. His sad eyes are concealed behind tinted glasses, and his hairstyle might be called lawn-mower shag. It hangs in uneven lengths straight down over his forehead. He wears a trench coat.
In 1974 Lèger, then the director of scouting for the WHA's Toronto Toros, had overseen the defection to Canada of Czech star Vaclav Nedomansky. Now he wanted the Stastnys—all three of them—for the WHA's Birmingham Bulls, the former Toronto Toros. Unfortunately for Lèger, the brothers were a national treasure. What did they need with a floundering league and a Birmingham, Alabama? What is that, an Alabama?
As Peter says, the '70s were "the golden age of hockey in Czechoslovakia." In 1972 that country won the world championship. In 1976, Peter's first year with the National Team, it did so again, defeating the Soviets. The Czechoslovaks also won a silver medal at the '76 Olympics and finished second to the professionals of Canada—Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, et al.—in the '76 Canada Cup. When Czechoslovakia won the world championship again in 1977, Marian and Peter Stastny were lionized. What could Lèger offer them? The next year their younger brother Anton would join them on the National Team and would play on their line. They had apartments; it took others three or four years to get one. They had cars. They had money: 1,000 korunas (a bit more than $100, a Czech workman's wages for a week and a half) for a win, half that for a tie—sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the opposition. A win over the Soviets was worth 1,800 korunas.
By 1979 the WHA and NHL had merged, the Birmingham club was defunct and Lèger was out of a job. Enter Marcel Aubut, the young, portly, ambitious president of the Nordiques. His team had been plundered by the terms of the merger, and he didn't fancy groveling in the NHL cellar for the years it would take to rebuild via the draft. "The people in Quebec are not so patient," Aubut says. He, too, had been trying to get the Stastnys, and one of the first people he hired following the merger was Gilles Lèger, whom he named director of personnel development. He also placed Lèger in charge of what was called "The European Project"—the Stastnys.
Things had started to sour for the brothers around that time. They would never have left their homeland just for the money, but they did not leave seeking "freedom" or "democracy" either. The Stastnys defected, they say, because they didn't like the way the Czech hockey program was being run. They didn't like the coach.
Czechoslovakia has a hockey league similar to the Soviet Union's. There are 12 teams in the first division, and the winner of the division is the national champion. The National Team is something else, an all-star outfit consisting of the cream of the division. But for a team to win a national championship is something special. That is for the town. Czechoslovakia is a country of two languages, two cultures. The Czechs and the Slovaks are as distinct from one another as the Flemish and Walloons in Belgium. Do not, if you please, refer to Peter or Anton Stastny as Czechs. They are Slovaks. And Slovan Bratislava was the first Slovak team to win the national championship in what amounts to Czechoslovakia's national sport.
To say it meant a lot to the Stastnys is to understate the case. Peter ranks it higher on his list of thrills than his two world championships. "My first time on National Team, we won world teetle. Second time, we won second world teetle. But the Czechoslovak teetle cost me seven years. Much pain."
Then, in short order, mysterious trades destroyed the competitiveness of Slovan Bratislava, and even the National Team went into a decline. Peter was the second leading scorer at the Lake Placid Olympics, but his team failed to win a medal, for the first time since 1960.
Lèger and the Nordiques had hoped to make their move on the three Stastnys at Lake Placid, which is only a short drive from Quebec. Lèger had a room in town, a rented cabin in the woods and a vehicle with a pass to drive everywhere but inside the Olympic Village itself. However, security was such that he was never able to make direct contact with the Stastnys.
Months passed with nothing accomplished. Then, on the evening of Thursday, August 21, Peter Stastny went to the post office in Innsbruck, where the National Team was to play Finland and the Soviet Union, waited an hour to place the call, then phoned Lèger at the Nordiques' office in Quebec. "Do you have interest?" he asked. "We are prepared." The "we" included Anton and Peter's wife, Darina, who was eight months pregnant and with him on the trip. Had Lèger said no, Peter would have called another Canadian team, probably Edmonton. He had an NHL Guide with him.
Lèger, of course, said yes. He took down the number of Peter's room in the Innsbruck Holiday Inn, then went to Aubut with the news. It was the first time they had heard directly from the Stastnys; still, they had gotten their hopes up on other occasions. Before Lake Placid there had been attempts in Germany, Switzerland and Italy. "For me, it was one more try," says Aubut.
Lèger and Aubut landed in Innsbruck around noon the next day, Friday the 22nd, and checked in at the Europa Tyrol Hotel—two blocks from the Holiday Inn. Then they let the Stastnys know where they were staying.
A third man was involved—a man referred to as 007 by those who have heard of the exploit. He must remain anonymous. We shall call him Mr. Bond. On Friday night, following their game with the Finns, Peter and Anton went to the Europa Tyrol and negotiated with Aubut and Lèger for about 2½ hours. Security around the Stastnys wasn't tight because Marian's wife and three children were still back in Czechoslovakia, and it was considered unlikely that the three brothers would split up, or that Marian would desert his family.
When the Stastnys left the Europa Tyrol Friday night, Aubut and Lèger still weren't sure they had a deal. What was left to discuss? "The money, what else?" Anton, the clever, elfish one, said recently. Peter is serious, sincere, and Anton's remark about the money set off a flurry of Slovak by Peter, a lecture by the look of Anton's rolling eyes. Then came a measured, soft-spoken explanation in English that the money was not a bone of contention. "Hockey is our love," Peter said.
Nonetheless, the Stastnys had a good idea of their market value in North America, and the six-year contracts they finally signed specified that each would get in the neighborhood of $250,000 a year.
What remained was the little matter of escape. Aubut pleaded, begged, reasoned with them to leave that very moment, but the Stastnys wanted to stay another day and play in a game against the Soviets at Innsbruck on Sunday. It would be their last game with Marian. That complicated the issue, because the Czechoslovak team was scheduled to leave shortly after the game. Still, the brothers insisted.
Lèger drove to Vienna, booking a room for himself in the Intercontinental Hotel and a suite at the opposite end of the corridor for Aubut. On Sunday he alerted the Canadian Embassy that some Czechoslovak hockey players would soon be needing asylum, a pronouncement that initiated a rush of buck-passing that eventually went all the way back to Winnipeg, home of Canada's Immigration Minister, Lloyd Axworthy. Axworthy flew to Toronto, called a select group of immigration officials away from their Sunday dinners and, at Toronto International Airport, in Air France's first-class passenger lounge, decided that the Vienna Embassy should help out.
Meanwhile, the Soviets were beating the Czechoslovaks 4-3. During the game Peter's wife had taken his and Anton's bags, and her own, from the Holiday Inn to a red Mercedes in a parking lot 1,000 feet away. Mr. Bond was the driver. The game ended at about 11 p.m., and afterward Peter and Anton had a few beers with their teammates, as usual, then ate a subdued dinner. Marian knew they would be leaving.
At 12:15 a.m. they finished dinner. The team bus was to leave at one o'clock. Anton and Peter said goodby to Marian without emotion, then walked past the bus to the Mercedes, in which Darina was waiting. They got in, and drove away.
The trip to Vienna took nearly six hours. At 6 a.m. Mr. Bond parked the Mercedes in front of the Intercontinental, and the Stastny brothers and Darina went up to Aubut's suite to get a little sleep. The Canadian Embassy didn't open until 8 a.m. As Lèger and Aubut were leaving the hotel to make the final arrangements with the Embassy, they recognized, and were in turn recognized by, two Czechoslovak security people.
Quite undone by this chance meeting, Aubut and Lèger started to drive the Mercedes at high speed to the Embassy at 10 Dr. Karl Leuvering Strasse, but Lèger's hands were shaking so badly that he was unable to read the map he had carefully prepared. He hopped out of the car and flagged down a taxi, instructing Aubut to make his own way to the Embassy.
At the Embassy a nervy lady named Mrs. Schallgruber listened calmly as Aubut and Lèger, two very nervous men by now, told the tale. Upon learning that the hockey players were the Stastnys, Schallgruber said they had best get these boys into custody at once. They went outside, and Schallgruber noticed a car from the Czechoslovak Embassy waiting nearby.
"Do you have a gun?" she asked Lèger.
He didn't, and Schallgruber rousted out two Austrian policemen, who escorted them to the Intercontinental.
Anton, Peter and Darina were alarmed by the sudden appearance of uniformed policemen. Just as the group entered the suite, the telephone rang. Schallgruber answered. "It's the damn Czechs," she said, hanging up. And a good thing she did, Aubut says now. "Once they get them on the phone, that's it," he says. "They will say anything; they will make any threat to get them to stay."
The Stastnys were escorted to the Canadian Embassy, and that night—Monday, August 25—they landed in Montreal.
The transition to NHL hockey hasn't been easy for Anton and Peter. The brothers, and their team, are struggling. The Nordiques are 1-9-4, and the mucking, unimaginative play in the league has been frustrating for the Stastnys. Peter, with only four goals, is told he doesn't shoot enough. That's the North American way. Shoot, shoot, shoot. Forget the slick European passing game. Anton, with five goals, is told the same thing. Shoot, shoot, shoot.
But their difficulties on the ice are just the tip of the iceberg. Darina, who speaks neither French nor English, now has a month-old daughter, Katherine—the first Stastny to be a Canadian citizen. The other day a neighbor came over and tried to explain to her that the electricity would be turned off for repairs between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. When Peter came back from practice the house was cold, and Darina was in a warmup suit and the baby was hungry because Darina couldn't heat the formula. Darina had been ironing when the power went off. Four shirts were finished and the rest were in a pile.
"I tried to tell her," the neighbor said. "I don't think she understood."
At home in Bratislava there is a sister, Eva, 14, who, the last Anton heard—although he manages this with a smile—was still crying over her brothers' absence. There is anxiety about Marian, and the things that might be done to lure them back.
"I made the decision only in the summer," Anton says. "In the autumn is too soon to go back. I am young. It is a good age for starting the rest of our life."
And then he says, without the appearance of sadness, "I have a good remembrance for my youth."