“An iron curtain has fallen across the continent.” Those words from Winston Churchill's “Sinews of Peace” speech introduced one of the most well-known terms of the Cold War era. The former British Prime Minister – then leader of the Opposition – spoke accurately of the iron curtain. In some ways, the curtain could be looked at as an actual physical object because of the border defenses set up between the nations of the Western and Eastern blocs.
The curtain was a symbol of oppression for those in Eastern Europe and prevented escape to the West and to freedom. Border zones sometimes extended several kilometers from the actual borders, and were guarded by patrols with machine guns and filled with landmines. Needless to say, hockey players did not leave Eastern Europe to play in the NHL; generally speaking, no one left Eastern Europe.
Thus, it was a highly unusual event when the Quebec Nordiques used their fourth round draft pick to select Czechoslovakia native Anton Stastny. It was not the first time that an Eastern bloc player had been drafted – in fact, Stastny himself had been chosen by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 12th round of the 1978 draft – but such a selection in such an early round was very bizarre. The chances of Anton ever joining the team were virtually nil, so why bother? After all, at that time, very few Eastern bloc players had successfully defected and made it to the North American game.
There was something different about the Stastny family, however. Anton and his older brothers, Marian and Peter never walked in lock-step with the communist authorities in their homeland. In fact, they resented and hated the repressive regime. In 1976, Marian and Peter were members of the Czechoslovakian team that participated in that year’s Canada Cup tournament. Having experienced a taste of the west and NHL hockey only served to make the brothers more eager to escape.
It would be four years before any of the Stastnys would have that opportunity. In 1980, the club team that all three Stastny brothers played for, Slovan Bratislava, qualified for the IIHF European Cup final held in Innsbruck, Austria. Discussions about defection began before they even left Czechoslovakia. After talking the idea over, Peter and Anton decided to attempt the defection.
Not long after the team made the trip to Austria, Peter and Anton slipped away from the Slovan Bratislava hotel at night. They found a phone booth, and Anton stood watch while Peter dialed the contact number for the Quebec Nordiques that he had found in an NHL media guide. Once connected, he asked for Marcel Aubut, a name he had seen in the media guide.
Upon hearing that the Stastnys were calling, Aubut, who was the President and CEO of the Nordiques, eagerly took the call. Peter told Aubut that he and Anton wanted to defect, and Aubut told them that he and a team representative would fly to Austria to meet them the next day. When Aubut and Nordiques director of player development Gilles Leger arrived in Innsbruck, Peter and Anton secretly met with the two executives after their games. Arrangements were made for the defection, and following the final game of the tournament, an 11-1 loss to CSKA Moscow, Peter, Anton, and Peter’s eight-months pregnant wife Darina, who had accompanied her husband to the tournament slipped away from the rest of the team to join the Nordiques officials.
All was not yet well, however. There were intense moments before the group even left Innsbruck. During what Peter describes as “the scariest moments of my life,” Anton was separated from his brother and was lost for about an hour in downtown Innsbruck. Shortly after midnight a frantic search for him took place. When he was finally reunited with the others, Aubut, Leger, and the Stastnys made their way to the Canadian embassy in Vienna to finalize the move to Canada. In the following weeks, Aubut managed to arrange the defection of Anton’s girlfriend Galina, whom he soon married.
Still, all was not perfect in the Stastnys’ world. Marian, who was told by his brothers about their defection only hours before it took place was trapped in Czechoslovakia. Government officials were suspicious of him because of his brothers’ actions and made life completely miserable for him and his family. He was stripped of his opportunity to play hockey. He was followed everywhere he went. Finally, he decided that his only chance of having any kind of a normal life was to escape the country himself.
Marian’s escape would not be as easy as that of his brothers. He did not have a convenient hockey tournament to provide the opportunity. His brothers had not been tailed by government officials. His escape would take some detailed planning. After an incident free vacation to Hungary, Marian began to feel that his own defection might be possible. He devised a plan to go to Hungary, cross into Yugoslavia, visit the Austrian consulate to try to get a three-day visa into Austria, and then contact the Nordiques.
After being briefly stopped at the Hungary-Yugoslavia border, Marian and his wife Eva successfully crossed into Yugoslavia. After a couple of failed attempts to get a visa, he finally decided to tell a consulate worker about his situation. The consulate worker then told him that she would not give him a three day visa; rather, she would give him a seven day visa. His plan finally succeeding, Marian and his wife were finally able to rejoin their family in Canada in 1981.
The Stastny brothers made a major impact on the ice for the Nordiques. They helped turn a floundering franchise into a contender, leading the team to the Prince of Wales conference championship series in 1982 and 1985. Their impact was much bigger than what happened on the ice, though. The courage they displayed helped to inspire others living under the oppression of communist Eastern Europe to follow in their footsteps. If not for the Stastnys, we might not have Sergei Federov, Alexander Mogilny, or Petr Nedved. The Stastnys helped to turn a trickle into a flood. They put the first crack in the iron curtain.