by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Already some people are licking their chops at the thought of Petr Klima coming to Detroit. Klima is a hell of a hockey player — maybe the best in Europe. Fast. Strong. Gifted.

He is also 20 years old, alone, and in the middle of defecting from his country, Czechoslovakia.

Early last week, he disappeared from a hotel in West Germany, where his Czech team was training. The whispers began. He’s doing it.

Immediately the Red Wings, who own Klima’s NHL rights, got their people on an overseas flight. Agents came out of the woodwork. The drama began; money, secret negotiations, rumors.

Now some folks are counting the goals Klima will score in the NHL, how he could lead Detroit to the playoffs. “The guy could be a superstar here” gushed one Red Wings official.

But I think we are overlooking something.

The word “defected” is not one you find on sports pages, next to “traded” or “waived.”

In all likelihood, Petr Klima has just made the most gut- wrenching decision of his life, and it has less to do with sticks and goals than with an unforgiving itch in the belly of his soul.

‘I want to live free’

Like most of you, I have never had to wrestle such a yearning. But I know someone who has.

His name is Miroslav Zajonc. He, too, is Czechoslovakian and an athlete, one of the top luge (ice sledding) racers in the world. Four years ago, in a small restaurant in Vienna, he excused himself from a breakfast table of his Czech colleagues, saying he needed to use the bathroom. He slipped out the front door, ran to the nearest police station, stepped up to the desk, took a deep breath, and recited the words in German he had memorized a dozen times the sleepless night before.
“I want asylum.”

His life has never been the same.

Like Klima, Zajonc was young (barely 21), single, and suddenly a criminal in his home country. And like Klima, Zajonc never told his family of his plans. Sometimes that is the safest way.

What he went through is, in many ways, undoubtedly what Klima is enduring right now.

Let him tell the story:

“After I asked for asylum, the police took me to a refugee camp in Austria. It was two days later that I called my mother on the telephone. I told her, ‘I am staying here. I am not coming back.’

“She started to cry. She said, ‘Oh, my god. Oh, my god.’ She was afraid for me. She told me to come back quickly; I could still change my mind. I said it was too late.

“Why did I do it? Because I wanted to live free. In Czechoslovakia, you are locked inside. There is no freedom of speech. You cannot go places. You are always under control.

“Many people there dream of America. They do not talk about it, because there is trouble if you talk about it. But they are thinking it.

“Still, when I went to the police, I was shivering inside. You are never sure you will do it (defect) until the very minute you do. I thought of my family, what the government will do to them. My younger brother, they could keep him from getting into school. Or they could keep my father from ever getting a promotion. Or take his job.

“I thought about all that. But I still did it.” He really can’t go home again

For his first months in the United States, Zajonc felt as disembodied as a balloon on a tether. The simplest moments were overwhelming: going into a supermarket, meeting strangers, understanding a joke.

Eventually he found his way back into his sport. He trained, regained his form. Finally, in 1983, he won luge’s world championship title at Lake Placid.

Members of his former Czech team were at that competition. They were told not to talk to him.

“I can never go back,” he says. “I know that. I would be put in prison. But the whole country is a prison. I miss my family. The friends I grew up with. It is the decision I make. I live with it.”

A lot can be said for an NHL contract, the money, the attention, the new world that awaits a Petr Klima. But it’s not that simple. It cannot be.

In the movie “Moscow on the Hudson,” there’s a scene in which the new immigrant, confused by the lifestyle here, laments that in Russia he was miserable but, “at least it was my misery.”

People such as Klima and Zajonc trade in all that is theirs for a one-way promise because somewhere along the line, they looked into the eye of America’s promise and saw the light of their own reflection staring back at them.

As hungry as we all are for a winning hockey team, I doubt Petr Klima is thinking NHL right about now. There are more important things. It’s easy to forget that sometimes, here on the comfortable side of world.


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