Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Operation: Extract Petr Klíma

by Jennifer Conway

Diary of a Mad Sports Historian

When Petr Klíma walked away from the Czechoslovakian national team in Nussdorf, West Germany  on August 18, 1985, he made history as the first Czech player to defect directly to an NHL team.

That night he was to meet Detroit Red Wings executive vice-president Jim Lites and assistant coach Nick Polano in the woods near the hotel. When Klíma didn’t appear, Lites and Polano went to the hotel. The Czechoslovak police knew Polano, so Lites and their interpreter had to look for Klíma on their own. They couldn’t find him.

Suddenly, Klíma appeared, walking towards their car. He  told them he wouldn’t leave unless the Red Wings agreed to help get his girlfriend out of Czechoslovakia as well. Lites agreed instantly and told Klíma to get in the car.

But Klíma still wouldn’t leave, insisting on going back into the hotel for some personal effects. Five minutes later, he reappeared, got into the car, and they all sped off, eager to put as much distance between Klíma and the hotel as they could before the team’s 11 pm bed check.

Klíma was now officially a defector.

“How fast does this car go?” he asked anxiously. Their rented Mercedes’ top speed was 200 kilometres per hour; fast enough to relieve everyone’s anxiety about being followed. “I feared that one of these times, on one of these defections, the Czechs were going to make an example with guns, if necessary,” Polano later said.

Their first stop was the American consulate in Stuttgart. Polano hadn’t actually believed the escape plan would work, so the Red Wings front office hadn’t even bothered to contact the consulate in advance. Nor had they envisioned the difficulties they’d encounter with the Czechoslovak authorities: Klíma’s passport had been confiscated upon the team’s arrival in West Germany, and without any identifying papers, it was going to be nearly impossible for Polano and Lites to prove who their teenaged charge was.

Klíma and Polano moved from city to city in West Germany while waiting for the visa to clear the red tape, sometimes pushing the Mercedes to its mechanical limits in order to avoid the Czechoslovak police. “We didn’t want to take any chances. We just kept moving from city to city,” Polano said.

Polano and Lites also made Klíma wait a whole week before contacting his parents back home in Chomutov. As it turned out, Klíma’s defection was big news in Czechoslovakia, and the Detroit execs had been correct in assuming they’d be actively pursued.

Still, they didn’t want their newest asset to feel like a prisoner. With a Red Wings exec following him like a shadow, Klíma played a little tennis and did some sight-seeing. They only let him loose on his own once, with disastrous results:

“We let him take the Mercedes for a ride, and he wrecked it,” Polano recalled. “It’s a good thing it was a Mercedes, a really heavy car. He did some pretty good damage to it, but wasn’t scratched himself. We pushed that thing into the Hertz garage and got the hell out of there as fast as we could.”

After five weeks of hiding and waiting, Klíma finally made it to the U.S. on September 22, 1985 with the help of U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese and Assistant A.G. Lowell Jensen. Polano didn’t accompany him; instead he went to Vienna to meet with Klíma’s girlfriend and personally escort her to Germany for visa processing.

When Polano finally returned to the U.S. there was no fanfare. Instead, he found a note from American Express, politely inquiring about the $35,000 charged by the team during Operation Extract Klíma.

Follow Jennifer Conway at Diary of a Mad Sports Historian or on Twitter @NHLhistorygirl.

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