WASHINGTON — On a warm and overcast day in Rome last month, Czech 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 Czech Embassy here 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 encountered 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 life style 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 in North America with the permission of their federation, including center Milan Novy with Washington.