Avalanche

Stastny brothers risked all for hockey and freedom

Before the 1980s, drafting European players was rare. Spending a valuable pick on a player from the Eastern Bloc was even rarer. However, sometimes the talent was just too good not to take the chance.

Such was the case with Anton Stastny, a young prolific scorer who first caught the eye of the Philadelphia Flyers and, subsequently, the Quebec Nordiques. The Flyers originally took Anton 198th overall in the 1978 entry draft, but it would be the Quebec Nordiques that would transform Anton’s life after he re-entered the draft in 1979 and was selected at 83rd.

If and when he would play in Quebec was still unknown at the time of the draft. What was known, however, was that Quebec didn’t just want Anton; the Nords wanted his two brothers, Peter and Marian, as well. The challenge was how to get them away from the communist rule of Czechoslovakia.

 

Living in Czechoslovakia

Stanislav and Franciska Stastny had four boys, all of whom fell in love with hockey. Vladimir would go on to coach, while Anton, Peter, and Marian made their careers by lacing up the skates. Like any other hockey family, the boys took advantage of built-in teammates and played the game as often as they could. With their talent nurtured in the hockey hot bed of Eastern Europe, Anton, Peter, and Marian developed into exceptional skaters. It wasn’t long before the three forwards settled into the positions that would make them one of the most formidable lines in hockey history with Peter centering Anton (left) and Marian (right).

Marian, the eldest, was the first to join the professional ranks. In addition to a decade of playing for HC Slovan Bratislava (Czechoslovak First Ice Hockey League) beginning in 1970, he represented Czechoslovakia in two European Junior Championships (1971, 1972), five World Championships (1975-79), the Olympics (1980) and the Canada Cup (1976). His talent was undeniable as he scored 236 goals in 369 games with Slovan Bratislava and 54 goals during international tournaments. His brothers often insisted that he was the most talented Stastny of the bunch.

Peter joined HC Slovan Bratislava in 1975, and by his second season, was scoring more than a point per game consistently. In his 198 games with Slovan Bratislava, he recorded 131 goals and 109 assists for 240 points. Like his brother, he appeared in multiple international tournaments as a representative of Czechoslovakia: two World Junior Championships (1975, 1976), one European Junior Championship (1975), four World Championships (1976-79), the Olympics (1980; for Slovakia in 1994), and the Canada Cup (1976; for Canada in 1984).

Anton, the youngest of the three, only saw three seasons with HC Slovan Bratislava before leaving for North America. Like Marian and Peter, he was an offensive weapon, putting up 147 points (81g, 66a) in only 128 games. He also participated in his share of international tournaments like the European Junior Championship in 1977, World Junior Championship in 1978 and 1979, World Championship in 1979, and the Olympics in 1980.

Living in Bratislava (located in the Slovak region of Czechoslovakia), the Stastnys were subject to the extreme oppression of communist rule. All were outspoken against it, none more so than Peter—who had an insatiable love for the west and the NHL in particular, smuggling in copies of The Hockey News whenever possible. Unsurprisingly, Peter’s public dissention angered the government, and he was given an ultimatum: be silent or don’t play. Neither option sat well with the talented center, so he made the life-altering decision to risk everything for a chance at freedom. Anton was more than willing to join him.

The escape and its aftermath

Anton and Peter’s defection could not have been more like a scene from a movie. The brothers realized their best chance at leaving was during a World Championship tournament in Innsbruck, Austria. Shortly after they arrived, Peter made a midnight phone call to the offices of the Nordiques, informing them of the decision to leave. Representatives from the organization immediately boarded a plan and flew to Austria.

They devised a plan in which, after the final game of the tournament, Anton, Peter, and Peter's pregnant wife, Darina, would walk past the team bus, get into a waiting car, and then drive all night until they reached Vienna. It went off without a hitch.

Once in Vienna, officials from the Canadian embassy whisked the group through the city streets, evading policemen by, among other things, driving the wrong way down one-way streets and using sidewalks to get around traffic. After a terrifying car chase, the group arrived at the airport and boarded an airplane, taking off for Canada—for freedom—with the clutches of communism right at their backs.

Sadly, Marian did not leave with his brothers. While he helped arrange their defection, he stayed behind as he had a wife and children back home, a family he clearly could not leave, and trying to bring them to Austria at that time would have alerted the secret police to what was being planned.

Anton and Peter’s departure devastated Marian; watching his brothers leave—knowing what it meant for him, his family, and his career—left him feeling alone, vulnerable, and confused. Marian knew without a doubt it was the right decision for him, and though he held no ill will against brothers, he never quite understood why they left as they did.

Once in Canada, Peter and Anton instantly transformed the struggling Nordiques into a competitive team. The Stastnys’ arrival bolstered the team’s record by 17 points from the previous season and helped jump-start a seven-year run of playoff appearances. The brothers enjoyed what could arguably be described as the best year of their careers up until that point—especially Peter, who won the Calder Trophy on the back of a rookie record-setting 109-point season. Little did they know just how much better things would get.

Marian, on the other hand, suffered the worst year of his life. The government punished him for Anton and Peter’s so-called betrayal, and the repercussions were severe. The national hockey association in Czechoslovakia forced Marian off the ice, both nationally and at the club level, refusing to let him play or even be involved in hockey. They also banned him from working anywhere in the country, limiting his ability to support his family. In an effort to improve his situation, he spoke out against his brothers, claiming disapproval of their defection. In truth, he and his family schemed to leave the country themselves.

Marian wasn’t the only one impacted by his brothers’ actions, though. Their father was demoted at work, and he and Franciska lost out on an apartment for which they had been waiting for years. Marian’s family lost significant weight due to the stress that resulted from the government’s persecution.

Throughout this time, however, the Nordiques never stopped trying to bring Marian and his family to Canada. When they took Anton and Peter, they anticipated the financial impact of the inevitable backlash from the government and provided Marian with enough money to see him through the coming year. The team also worked surreptitiously with various organizations within Czechoslovakia to establish a system for extracting Marian, his wife, and his children.

During the months of 1980, the family created a ruse of remodeling its home and took many short trips to neighboring countries, always following the strict guidelines set forth by the government for travel outside of Czechoslovakia. On one such trip, however, they kept going, making it to Austria via Hungary and then Yugoslavia. Once safely in Vienna, Marian contacted officials with the Nordiques, who immediately flew out to meet the family and take them back to Canada. Marian and his family were safely in Quebec, and the Stastny line was reunited for the 1981-82 season.

A new life

Anton, Peter, and Marian’s Impact on the Nordiques—and the NHL itself—cannot be overstated. With the Stastnys now on board, Quebec saw playoff action every season until 1987. The first season after Marian joined the team, the Nordiques made it all the way to the conference finals, finally losing to the eventual Cup champion New York Islanders. In 1984-85, the team made it there again, this time losing to Philadelphia four games to two.

The team might not have gone all the way in the post-season, but the line of Anton, Peter, and Marian was a force that other teams struggled mightily to contain. As often happens when siblings play together, the three innately knew where the others were on the ice. No look passes were a common sight, and the three perfected the tic-tac-toe play. Each player scored at a torrid pace in Marian's first season with the team, combining for a total of 300 points (Anton with 85, Peter with 139, and Marian with 89).

By the end of their NHL careers, the Stastny brothers and their story became legendary, and Peter would go on to become a Hockey Hall of Fame inductee in 1998.

While Anton and Peter were the first players from Czechoslovakia to play in the NHL, they would not be the last. In fact, the Stastny brothers’ defection eventually prompted a relationship between the NHL and the Czechoslovak Ice Hockey Federation in which the two organizations negotiated the transfer of players to North America. The Stastnys also ignited an exodus of sorts with their bold escape as other Eastern Bloc players made their way west. Once communism finally fell, the gates to North America crashed opened for players from across Eastern Europe.

While the change would likely have happened at some point, Anton, Peter, and Marian became a beacon of hope and freedom in a time when those shackled by communist rule felt most oppressed, ushering into North American hockey a new breed of player and changing the landscape of the NHL forever.

TSN Original - Stastny from Candela Collective Inc. on Vimeo.



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