Friday, October 19, 2012
Review: Breakaway (2012)
For those of you under the age of 30, it's difficult to describe what international sports were like in the Cold War era.
From the Western viewpoint, the teams from the other side of the Iron Curtain (the Soviet Union and its affiliates) were the subject of curiosity. We didn't know much about them, we knew they came from a different economic and cultural system, and we thought they were something close to robots.
It was particularly true in hockey. The West found out just how good the Soviets were during the 1972 series matching its best with their best, and in succeeding competitions and special tours. We on this side wondered what these players would do if they played full-time in the National Hockey League.
Eventually we found out ... and got the answer a little earlier than expected. For before the Soviet Bloc broke into pieces, several hockey players figured out ways -- mostly sneaky ways filled with danger and intrigue -- to come to the Western Hemisphere to give the NHL a shot.
The stories were kept quiet at the time for security reasons in some cases, although details have come up in dribbles over the years. When "Breakaway" was released, anyone who followed the sport during that era must have instantly realized what a great idea for book it was.
Author Tal Pinchevsky talked to as many people as possible about hockey's high-profile defections and transfers over the 1980's and early 1990's. Former NHL general manager Mike Smith compares it to an 'international political spy thriller" on the back cover of the book, and everyone will have that same thought.
The first high-profile move came when the Stastnys of Czechoslovakia made the jump to the Quebec Nordiques. Not only did Peter, the best player of the bunch, make the jump, but brothers Anton and Marian made the jump too. Other followed, such as Petr Klima, Peter Ihnacek, Petr Svoboda, Peter Bondra, etc.
Then the Soviets started to come. While aging players like Slava Fetisov wanted to make the move with permission of government authorities, the young players saw many years of indentured servitude in front of them and decided to bolt first. Alexander Mogilny caused a sensation when he defected in the spring of 1989, and Sergei Fedorov did the same a short time later.
The details of the actual defection are always interesting as told by Pinchevsky. There are discreet meetings in woods, people changing hotels every day, high-speed drives, bribe money, government officials, and so on. There are plenty of reminders about how much nerve and courage it took to make that move, even with the promise of huge financial rewards at the other side of the border. After all, family members were often left behind, not to mention a lifetime of possessions and memories. They thought they'd never be able to go back, although that changed when the Iron Curtain crumbled at the end of the Eighties.
A book like this essentially depends on how open the sources are. Some of the players involved still don't like talking about the specifics, or what the move meant to relationships in their families ... and it's been more than 20 years. That means some of the stories told here are better than others. For example, Petr Nedved, the last defector, who came over at 16, is particularly open about the experience of coming to the West at that age on the hope that the NHL would call. I also found myself wondering if the 20-somethings and younger would find this to be ancient history, so this book isn't for everyone.
But for those who remember the era, "Breakaway" fills in some gaps in a unique time in hockey history quite nicely. Pinchevsky puts a human face on those then-faceless men who risked everything for the chance to play a game in North America.
Learn more about this book
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