By Wayne Lilley
For 10 years now, any kid over six feet who ever took a faceoff in a league higher than midget in Canada has been labelled the next Beliveau. Or maybe Esposito. Unfortunately, the main benefactors of all this talent have been the minor professional and industrial hockey leagues across the country. Professional hockey has a summary way of dealing with drum-beating agents and attache cases full of press clippings.
There's been a reluctance on the past of hockey cognoscenti to make such comparisons of late. Thus, you must excuse the enthusiasm of Vaclav Nedomansky's interpreter, himself only six years out of Czechoslovakia, when he says, “They called him the Jean Beliveau of international hockey, you know, in Czechoslovakia.” Nedomansky blushes at the comparison, dismissing it as the fervor of a countryman. But Buck Houle, the man who signed Nedomansky to a Toros contract and an undeniably shrewd appraiser of shinny talent, is undeterred by the hex. “He's going to be in the superstar class,” says Houle with such assurance that he doesn't even bother trying to convince you.
Going to be? What does a guy have to do? Last year, playing for his Bratislava team in the Czechoslovakian League, Nedomansky scored 46 goals and added 28 assists in 44 games. In his 10 years with the Czech club he scored 146 goals in 211 games in international competition. He was the captain and leading scorer on the national team for the last several years and was voted the most valuable player in the World Hockey Tournament last year.
Before 1972, it was easy to dismiss international hockey as second rate. After two Canada-USSR series, though, nobody does that anymore. Nor did Nedomansky ever consider international hockey all that inferior. It's just that having accomplished almost everything there was to accomplish in Europe, he wanted to realize what he says is a life-long dream-to have a crack at professional hockey.
“The Czech Ice Hockey Federation officials had been promising me for seven years that they wouldn't stand in my way if I wanted to go to North America and play professional,” says Nedomansky, with the help of the interpreter. “But they kept putting it off and putting it off. I'm 30 and I was afraid that I would never get the chance.” The suggestion wasn't as preposterous as one might think. In 1969, Jaroslav Jirik was released by the Czechs to play for the St. Louis Blues in the NHL. But Jirik, most observers agree, wasn't on a par with Nedomansky.
The story of Nedomansky's defection through Switzerland to Canada, of the covey of big league scouts in North America making their offers through a Canadian agent, and of the coup by the Toros in snaring one of the most highly regarded hockey players in the world, is still shrouded in mystery. And for very good reason. “Let's not talk politics,” says Nedomansky. “I still have parents in Czechoslovakia.” The implication is that recriminations against the relatives of defectors aren't unknown in communist countries.
Even so, Nedomansky doesn't exactly reinforce the myth that everyone behind the iron curtain is held in strict bondage. There are, for instance, privileges for performance. “As a hockey player, I was allowed to vacation abroad,” he says. “I've been to quite a few countries in Europe. And this made it easier for me to get to Switzerland to contact people in North America.”
So the Toros outbid all the competition for the services of the European star? Perhaps, but there were other considerations, Nedomansky claims. “I'd played against Billy Harris as a player and against teams he coached when he was in Sweden. I also knew Buck Houle from his days with Canada's national team. I respected both of them. But when I heard that the Toros signed Paul Henderson and Frank Mahovlich (whom he played against when both were with Team Canada 72), that clinched it.”
There were also, it might be noted, a few dollars that changed hands during Buck Houle's furtive visit to Switzerland, though not as many, Big Ned insists, as he might have received from other teams had he chosen to play in Atlanta, New York or Buffalo.
Of course, it's on the ice that Big Ned is going to have to prove his value to the Toros. And as a rookie, he expects to be tried by opponents for durability as well as skill. “Hockey is hockey,” he shrugs. “I know I'll have to adjust to the smaller Canadian and American ice surfaces but I'm not worried about the physical part of the game. In Czechoslovakia we tried to pattern our style after the Canadian game and that includes using the body.” Nevertheless, getting in shape was a major concern both before and during the opening of training camp. At 6-foot-1 plus and a playing weight around 200 pounds, Nedomansky clearly has the physical attributes to play the North American game. And his pre-training camp regimen of running and skating was nothing new for him. “European players, especially those behind the iron curtain,” he says, “play or practise for 10 months of the year. And they keep fit during the other two.”
Despite the success of Nedomansky and teammate Richard Farda in making the jump from their Czechoslovakian team to professional hockey with the Toros, don't look for a mass immigration of hockey-playing Czech and Russian athletes. Nedomansky expects Czech officials to be watching more closely for players taking vacations. And Bunny Ahearne, the czar of international hockey, is still bleating about the money-about $40,000 per player-that he feels should go to the European teams that lose players.
But the biggest step is on the part of the player, says Nedomansky. Quite simply, it's a decision that's irreversible. “I cannot go back to my own country,” he says, a little wistfully.
The arrival of a rookie of Nedomansky's stature hasn't thrown the rival teams in the WHA into paroxysms of ecstasy. But his claim that “There are lots of players in Czechoslovakia that could play professional hockey,” may set them drooling, particularly after seeing the big center in action in a tense match against the Soviet Union. Since the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Nedomansky claims the Czechs have had a little extra to prove. He adds proudly that in the last five years, “The Czechs have won more games than the Russians” in matches between the two countries.
There have been reports that pressure off the ice can be just as powerful for a Czech hockey player as it is for a Russian. Nedomansky, it's said, wanted to play for the Brno team rather than the Bratislava team to which he was assigned by the Czech Ice Hockey Federation. When he threatened to quit if he wasn't given his wish, the Czech government countered with the threat of induction into the army for four years. It's enough to give a man pause. And enough to encourage him to play where he's told.
Aside from the attractions of playing for the Toros, Nedomansky says previous tours of Canada with the Czech team left him with a good impression of Toronto. And so far, he hasn't been disappointed. “My wife Vera and my son Vaclav Jr. are both pleased to be here and are adjusting well,” he says. “We were all going to take a Berlitz course in English, but the hockey season interfered for me.” At his present rate of progress with the language, says the interpreter, Nedomansky won't need any English course by the end of the season.
His preference for Toronto over other North American cities is guaranteed to gladden the hearts of the city fathers. His favorable response to his new home seems genuine, and it's very decent of Nedomansky to take the trouble to point out how happy he has been since his defection. In fact, it's the kind of diplomatic statement you might expect to hear from a guy like . . . well, like Jean Beliveau.