Red Wing Left Wing Winged It : Czech Petr Klima’s Move to Detroit Is a Tale of Intrigue

Times Staff Writer

To Nick Polano, assistant general manager, & Jim Lites, executive vice president, Detroit Red Wings:

Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to help Petr Klima defect from the Czechoslovakian national ice hockey team.

Klima secretly signed a reported $2.5-million, 10-year contract to play for the Red Wings during the 1984 Canada Cup tournament at Vancouver in September.


You must also arrange to smuggle Klima’s girlfriend out of Czechoslovakia. You can identify her by her birthmark.

Money is no object. Klima’s defection reportedly cost the Red Wings $250,000.

This tape will self destruct in 10 seconds.

Petr Klima, a 20-year-old left wing, was drafted by the Red Wings in the fifth round in 1983 after Nick Polano, then the team’s coach, had scouted him at the world championships. Klima (6-0, 190) was one of the bright young stars of the Czech junior team. His best friend, defenseman Petr Svoboda, defected earlier and is playing for the Montreal Canadiens.

“We both wanted to defect at the same time but we couldn’t because I was in the Army,” Klima said through an interpreter Tuesday night during an interview at a hotel near the airport. “I would never go AWOL.”

Polano said that the Red Wings couldn’t sign Klima then because he still had two years of military service remaining and could be shot as a traitor if he went AWOL. “He was afraid that something would happen to his family if he left the Army,” Polano said.

What did Klima do in the Czech Army? “It’s a military secret,” he said.

“I had heard that he was a bad kid, that he was always in trouble with the team,” Polano said. “I was happy to hear that because I figured he wasn’t a good Communist. He’s like any typical American or Canadian kid, fun-loving and happy go lucky. But the Communists like all their players to look sad all the time.”


Polano met with Klima when the Czech team came west for the Canada Cup in September of 1984. The first meeting was in London, Canada, and they also met in Buffalo before signing him to a secret contract in Vancouver. “I can’t say how we were able to meet with him,” Polano said.

It has been reported that Klima’s contract is worth $2.5 million over 10 years. “It’s an average contract in the National Hockey League, but it’s just a little longer than most,” Polano said. “He’s well taken care of. You have to remember that he can never go back home again.”

However, Lites said that it is a five-year deal with a five-year option if Klima plays well.

Klima said that he didn’t defect for the money.

“I came here to play hockey, not to get money,” he said. “Money wasn’t the reason I came. Hockey is something that I like doing. It’s fun.”

Polano met with Klima again at the world championships last spring in Prague. “He assured me that he wanted to come,” Polano said.

Sports Illustrated reported that it cost the Red Wings $250,000 to get Klima to America, but Lites called that figure “outrageous.”


Polano said he got a phone call from his Czech contact on Wednesday, Aug. 14, telling him that Klima was ready to defect. Even now, Polano and Lites will not reveal the names of their contacts behind the Iron Curtain.

The Czech team was training in Rosenheim, West Germany, and would be staying at a small hotel in the nearby town of Nussdorf.

Polano and Lites immediately got on a plane and flew to West Germany.

Their first meeting was in a wooded area in back of the hotel on Friday night, Aug. 16. Polano and Lites wanted Klima to leave with them then, but Klima asked the Red Wings to get his girlfriend, who was in Czechoslovakia, out of the country. Polano said Klima had decided that he was never going to be able to go back home again, so he wanted to get his girlfriend out.

“We had a prearranged meeting place, but it was a little scary,” Polano said. “He wanted to go over his contract again.”

After the Red Wings assured him that it would be taken care of, Klima’s defection was set for Sunday night.

“The decision to leave took five minutes,” Lites said. “He just looked at us and decided to go.”


Said Polano: “He didn’t have much with him, just a T-shirt and the jeans he was wearing. He went back to the hotel and grabbed some stuff. It was the longest five minutes of my life.”

With Lites at the wheel, they sped away in a rented Mercedes doing 120 m.p.h. on the Autobahn. “We wanted to put a lot of distance between us and the team. We figured that they would be looking for him after the 11 o’clock bed check,” Lites said.

Klima, who loves fast sports cars, wrecked the car a week later when he took it out for a spin. He didn’t even have a license at the time.

“Petr just laughed when he said the car had been wrecked,” Polano said. “But the lady at Hertz didn’t think it was very funny.”

Said Lites, “Thank God it was a Mercedes because it’s built like a tank.”

Klima laughed when he reminded of the incident. “It was a big car and I wasn’t used to driving big cars.”

For five weeks they hid Klima out in hotels in West Germany, taking what Lites called a sightseeing tour of the Rhine, until Klima’s immigration had been arranged. From Nussdorf they went to Stuttgart to Koblenz to Frankfurt. They waited a week before going to the U.S. Embassy because they were afraid it was being watched by Czech officials. Lites said they never feared that they were in any physical danger, but they thought that the Czech officials might try to apply mental pressure to get Klima to return.


“A lot of red tape was cut by my boss, Mr. (Red Wings owner Mike) Ilitch, who has contacts in Washington in the Reagan Administration,” said Lites, an attorney who is married to Ilitch’s daughter, Denise, who serves as general counsel for the hockey team.

U.S. immigration authorities granted Klima a “parole for humanitarian purposes.”

Said Polano: “If he hadn’t been a major league hockey player, we probably wouldn’t have gotten him out.”

Klima’s girlfriend was a different matter.

Lites said that the Red Wings hired “professionals” to get Klima’s girlfriend out of the country.

“I can’t go into any details, but it was expensive,” Lites said. “He hadn’t made any arrangements for her. He just said he would send for her.”

After she had gotten out of Czechoslovakia, Polano met her in Vienna to confirm that she was the right woman.

“You’re damn right it was scary,” Polano said. “I didn’t know who I was dealing with. Petr had given me birthmarks to check for, but after I saw the way she reacted when I showed her his picture, I didn’t have to look at them.”


Polano and Lites refused to say what her name is, for safety reasons. The only thing they will say is that she is living in a Western European country while waiting to be reunited with her boyfriend in Detroit.

“I hope it’s soon. Those two kids really want to be together,” Polano said.

Petr Klima started playing hockey when he was 4 years old. His father, Joseph, who manages an ice rink, played left wing and center on the Czech national team.

Klima was born in Kadan, a city of 25,000.

“My father was my teacher,” Klima said. “Even now he gives me advice on the phone.”

Klima said he followed the NHL and dreamed of playing here.

Klima chose to wear number 85 with the Red Wings.

“The papers wrote that I chose number 85 because I was liberated in 1985,” Klima said. “That’s not true. I am glad to be in America, but I chose number 85 because it is the year when I chose to leave Czechoslovakia. When I left, I left everything behind. I did what I did for hockey. . . . Nobody else in the world would do it.”

Klima got off to a rough start this season, however.

It has taken him awhile to adjust to the NHL’s style of play. First, there was the language barrier. Klima doesn’t speak English very well, and no one on the Red Wings speaks Czech.

“It was a big problem. I can’t learn English in two months,” Klima said, pointing to an English/Czech dictionary. “But on the ice we understand each other.”

Ivan Toth, a Czech immigrant who works as the construction project manager for Little Caesars Pizza, which is owned by Ilitch, accompanied Klima on the Red Wings’ first few trips to serve as a translator. Klima also lives with Toth’s family in Birmingham, Mich. But Toth didn’t make the trip to Los Angeles with the team.


Toth, 48, a naturalized American citizen, has been in the United States for 18 years and he has four children, including a 21-year-old son, Mark. Toth said that Klima and his son have become good friends.

“I deal with Petr almost like I do my own son,” Toth said. “Petr is a very nice kid.”

However, Klima has recently purchased a house on three acres of land in Birmingham and will move out next month.

On the road, Klima rooms with goalie Greg Stefan. “He’s learning a lot of English,” Stefan said. “He’s done quite well. Hockey wise, he’s adapted quite well. He’s been quite an asset to our team.”

Klima also had trouble adjusting to the NHL. In Europe, defensemen don’t hold forwards as much as they do in the NHL and the Europeans also play a much faster game.

In the Red Wings’ first six games he had just one goal, which he scored in the season-opener against Minnesota, and he also had a plus-minus ranking of minus 10.

The Red Wings sat Klima out for one game. He sat next to assistant coach Colin Campbell in the press box.


“They wrote in the papers in Detroit that it was an educational move for me,” Klima said. “No, it didn’t help me (to sit out). Just the contrary, it made it worse.”

Klima has been outstanding in his last eight games, scoring five goals and four assists. He has become a crowd favorite in Detroit because of his dazzling moves. Klima, who is something of a hotdog, likes to make fancy moves such as putting his stick between his legs on passes. He said he tries to be stylish because he enjoys playing hockey and wants the fans to enjoy it as much he does.

“I am not satisfied with the way I have been playing,” Klima said. “In my opinion I am not as good a player as I used to be back home.”

Klima said he doesn’t like all the fighting in the NHL.

“The basic difference between European hockey and the NHL is that the NHL is more forceful. What don’t I like about the game? The fights. The fighting shouldn’t be there. It doesn’t belong in hockey. In Europe we don’t fight as much. Most people here want to see fights and not hockey.”

He also doesn’t like all the traveling that an NHL team must do.

“I’m afraid to fly,” he said. “I comfort myself by saying that it can’t fall.”

Klima seems to have adjusted well to America, his new home.

His black hair has been frosted blond. Klima said he had it done in Czechoslovakia on a bet with a friend. He also has a black rubber band round his wrist, one of the latest crazes among kids. Klima will be 21 on Dec. 23.

He said his favorite movie is “Rambo,” because he likes Sylvester Stalone.

Klima, whose hobby is fast cars, wanted a Corvette but settled for a Camaro Z-28.

“My greatest hobby is cars,” he said. “But when I look at the papers and see how many accidents there are it scares me.”


He likes American junk food. “In Czechoslovakia we don’t have pizza,” Klima said.

Said Toth: “I took him to Pizza Hut once because Little Caesars doesn’t have beer, but afterward he said that Little Caesars is better. He likes Kentucky Fried Chicken, too.”

But Toth said that Klima prefers his (Toth’s) wife’s home cooked meals.

Klima also likes pop music, including Michael Jackson and Italian rock stars.

But he misses his family back home in Czechoslovakia.

“In the beginning it was terrible, but now it’s a little better,” Klima said. “How do you expect a mother to feel when she has raised a son for 20 years. I’ve talked to them on the phone and naturally I miss them.”

Said Toth: “I’ve been here for 18 years and I still miss my family.”