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02-04-2014, 03:23 PM
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Vaclav Nedomansky

This is what I found during the preliminary stages of the project. There is a fascinating book called Breakaway: From Behind the Iron Curtain to the NHL--The Untold Story of Hockey's Great Escapes. The first chapter of the book is online and can be found HERE. Conveniently for us, the first chapter is about Nedomansky, since he was the first star player to defect from behind the Iron Curtain during the Golden Age of European hockey. It's very quick reading and well worth reading in full yourself, but I'll summarize the key points here and quote passages that focus specifically on Nedomansky's skills as a hockey player.

The book first gives a brief summary of the events that led to the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and how the Czechoslovaks viewed the 1969 World Championships, moved from Prague to Stockholm as Soviet tanks were still in the streets, as "a replay of a lost war."

Playing in what was inarguably the single most important sporting event in their country’s history,the Czechoslovakian nationals came out flying. They carried an overwhelming physicality throughout the game, a style enabled by the recent rule change allowing full-contact body checking in all three sections of the ice. With ample opportunity to engage in rougher play, the ultramotivated Czechoslovakians were a difficult matchup for the fleet-footed Soviets.
Czechoslovakia beat the USSR twice, but were so spent they lost to Sweden in their final game and had to settle for bronze. The wins were so big that they sparked massive demonstrations against the Soviet occupiers that turned violent. Defenseman Jan Suchy and goaltender Vladimir Dzurilla were the heros of the tournament, but the tournament also marked the "coming out party" for Nedomansky, who was the third member of the Czechoslovakian team to be named an All-Star:

With nine goals in eight games, the six-foot two-inch,210-pound winger epitomized the spirit of the upstart Czechoslovakian team. Though not as individually skilled as any of the superstars on the Soviet team, the native of Hodonin was an immovable object in the offensive zone, imposing his will on even the most physical of defenses.

He had already established himself as a young star playing for HC Bratislava, but the 1969 World Championship had been something of a coming-out party for Nedomansky. His overall performance in the tournament established him as one of the top power forwards in the world, and the inability of other national teams to contain him quickly made “Big Ned” an idol in a country looking to rebuild its morale in the wake of the Prague Spring.
Domestically, Nedomansky was the star player on the only Slovak team in the Czech elite league. The book notes that while fans of the Czech clubs cared more about international tournaments, fans of HC Bratislava cared more about the domestic championship because they wanted to beat the Czechs, who they saw as treating them like second-class citizens.

In the next few World Championships:

Big Ned finished second in tournament scoring behind Russian Alexander Maltsev at the 1970 tournament, again being named a tournament All-Star. The 1971 tournament saw the Czechoslovakians improve on the podium, winning silver as the Soviets won their ninth consecutive World Championship gold. Nedomansky posted an impressive eight goals in a prelude to a performance at the 1972 tournament that would establish him as arguably the best hockey player not playing in North America
Czechoslovakia would then win the 1972 World Championships (held in their country for the first time since 1959), breaking the Soviet's string of 9 straight WC titles.

(Jaroslav) Holik may have been the hero in the big game, but it was Big Ned who firmly established himself as one of the world’s elite players with nine goals and six assists in 10 tournament games.He may have missed out on the 1972 tournament All-Star team, but Nedomansky was beginning to appear on several scouts’radars across the Iron Curtain.

“He was very good. He was an international star for sure,”says Marshall Johnston, a winger for the Canadian national team who transitioned into coaching in the NHL in 1973. “A big guy,highly skilled. Didn’t have a lot of speed, but [a] very good shot,very smart.
In the early 70s, the emergence of the WHA as a rival to the NHL created a desperate need for new talent pools. The WHA, in particular the Winnipeg Jets, led the way in signing talent from Sweden and Finland. But Eastern Bloc players were off limits - used by their countries in "international propaganda tours" before having to return home to dreary conditions.

The atmosphere seemed ripe for a Czechoslovakian star to contemplate playing in the West. And by then there was no bigger star in the East than Vaclav Nedomansky. After leading Czechoslovakia to bronze at the 1973 World Championship, Nedomansky came back in 1974 with his best tournament performance yet. The Soviets had steamrolled their way to another gold medal, outscoring the competition by an astounding 64–18 margin, but Czechoslovakia made their mark with a convincing 7–2 win over their hated Soviet rival. The 7–2 win, since referred to by hockey historians as “the Perfect Game,” was the worst loss the Soviets had ever sustained in any official inter-national competition. As he did countless other times, Vaclav Nedomansky opened the scoring that day for Czechoslovakia

With a torrid scoring pace, Nedomansky led Czechoslovakiato a silver medal and was named the tournament’s top forward with a World Championship performance so dominating that WHA teams started frothing at the mouth at the thought of add-ing the skilled star to their roster.
Shortly after the 1974 World Championships, at the age of 30, Nedomansky defected to Canada to play for the Toronto Toros of the WHA. The book gives a detailed account of the defection, including the Toros competition from other WHA teams for "one of the best players in Europe."

In retaliation, the Communist authorities in Czechoslovakia branded Nedomansky a traitor and wiped all mention of Nedomansky from the history books. Another Czech player who would later defect in 1981 said, "He just disappeared. Everybody was afraid. If somebody defected, afterward you wouldn’t even mention their name. Because you were afraid that someone was listening."

Nedomansky's debut in the WHA in 1974-75 at the age of 30 was a resounding success. He scored 56 goals (good for third in the entire league) and won the WHA equivalent of the Lady Byng. But his team stunk. The Toros' owner was losing money, decided that the team could never compete with the Maple Leafs, and moved them to Birmingham, Alabama, with the intentions of creating a hockey hotbed in the South. Several Toros players refused to follow the team to Alabama, but Nedomansky reluctantly went along.

Nedomansky, who transitioned very well to the culture of Toronto, did not at all fit into the culture of the Southern US and floundered for two years before the Birmingham experiment went bust. He was then picked up by the Detroit Red Wings. Nedomansky was reluctant to play for another US-based team because he thought it would be easier to become a citizen of Canada than the US, but eventually he began commuting to Detroit from Windsor, Ontario.

Nedomansky had a resurgence in 1978-79, leading the Red Wings in both goals and points at the age of 34. He had one more good season in the NHL, finishing 2nd on the Wings in both goals and points the following season.

The Red Wings offered Nedomansky a lucrative contract, but his agent Alan Eagleson sat on it, and Detroit rescinded the offer under pressure from other owners. Nedomansky would become the first player to sue the then-untouchable Eagleson, and the lawsuits soured him on hockey in general.

Last edited by TheDevilMadeMe: 02-04-2014 at 03:53 PM.
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