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Classic cloak and dagger
No one does foreign intrigue like the NHL
John Rolfe, SI.com - Posted: Tuesday August 15, 2006 1:31PM
Updated: Tuesday August 15, 2006 5:48PM

A crackling mystery is a staple of summer entertainment and Le Affaire Evgeni Malkin has certainly enlivened an NHL August that was comatose compared to the depths of the NFL offseason, where the chatter never ends and minutiae is analyzed in excruciating detail by talking heads around the dial.

The Malkin episode -- more cloak than dagger -- evokes echoes of the good old days of the Cold War when the NHL covertly helped players defect from Soviet-bloc countries. Using a network of immigrants with contacts in the old country, plus bribes, forged documents, fake names and professional people smugglers, the league's underground railroad spirited more than a dozen stars out from behind the Iron Curtain in often life-threatening circumstances.

Some of the classic escapades summon images of an NHL operative in a tree suit whispering, "Pssst, kid! We have a contract for you. It's in the stump over there with the fake beard and glasses." On Aug. 18, 1985, Jim Lites -- then the executive vice president of the Red Wings and now the president of the Stars -- met with Czechoslovakian winger Petr Klima in the woods near Neusdorf, West Germany. They had to drive around for five days while Wings owner Mike Ilitch worked the State Department in Washington, D.C., and smugglers got Klima's fiance out of Europe.

"Klima was the most difficult defection," says Lites, who helped Sergei Fedorov, Vyacheslav Kozlov and Vladimir Konstantinov flee the Soviet Union as it crumbled at the dawn of the '90s. "Klima had no travel papers. The others were in the U.S. when they defected and Russia was opening up under Gorbachev. Klima was under Brezhnev and living behind the Iron Curtain. I was just a kid, new to the business at the time, and I was scared as hell. Military guys with guns were traveling with the national team."

Perhaps the most famous operation was pulled off by Quebec Nordiques president Marcel Aubut and GM Gilles Leger, who checked into a hotel in Innsbruck, Austria, under assumed names in 1980 and stole away with Peter Stastny, his pregnant wife and his hockey-playing brother Anton, who were all in town for the European Cup tournament. A third brother, Marian, suffered a year of being forbidden to play for Slovan Bratislava before the Nordiques negotiated his release.

Not to be outdone, the Toronto Maple Leafs engineered the escapes of Peter and Miroslav Ihnacak, Slava Duris, and Miroslav Frycer. The Soviet bloc agreed to let older stars go to the NHL after their freshness dates expired, but securing top talent required dangerous prying, especially if the top talent was Russian. NHL teams had to draft European players first, and that tipped off the authorities to their interest. Security was tightened accordingly.

"I went to a tournament in Switzerland," Lites recalls. "Igor Larionov was a great young player. He told me he'd love to play in the NHL, but said, 'No chance' and ran his finger across his throat. That was the Russian reality. Their government would kill him and his family. They'd send guys to Siberia."

Now, aided by their agents as Malkin seems to have been, Russian players must dodge cut-throat mobsters of the variety that attempted to extort Alexander Mogilny and Alexei Zhitnik upon their arrival in the NHL in the early '90s. Oleg Tverdovsky's parents were kidnapped and held for ransom. Pavel Bure was found to have a passing acquaintance with a charmer who was caught on tape by the FBI threatening to skin someone alive.

"I've heard that Alex Ovechkin had to deal with some of that stuff," says Lites, who suspects that Malkin's baffling move of signing a new one-year deal with Metallurg Magnitogorsk before vanishing in Finland last Saturday was an evasive maneuver designed to throw off the mob, which has been known to wrap its oily tentacles around teams.

Lites also detects the redolent aroma of extortion as Malkin's SuperLeague team accuses the Penguins of piracy while yelling for more money as compensation for their superb young center.

"The Russians are funny," he says. "They said the same things to us when I was with Detroit. The problem is that they don't pay these kids enough. Back then, it was $300 a month and we were offering them a couple hundred grand. They sued us over Kozlov and I assume they'll litigate over Malkin. They've turned it into World War III. I'm sure the Penguins made them a very fair offer, but they probably want $3 million to $5 million."

Unless the NHL and Russian teams hammer out a new player transfer agreement, it's safe to say we'll see more of these episodes and they'll no doubt provide their share of thrills and chills as the Russians try to plug the leaks.

The NHL may be the low man on the major sports totem pole, but no one does foreign intrigue better.
 
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