BY SHENG PENG
Before Alexander Mogilny, before the Stastnys, there was Vaclav Nedomansky. In 1974, the 30-year-old Czechoslovakian pivot, considered by some to be the best player outside of the NHL, became the Iron Curtain’s first hockey star to defect to North America.
For over 40 years, “Big Ned” has kept mostly quiet about his trailblazing career. But the proud 72-year-old, who recently beat lower abdominal cancer, is now ready to open up.
Vaclav and his son Vashi, a film editor who consulted on both “Deadpool” and “Gone Girl,” are collaborating on “Big Ned,” a feature-length documentary about the Nedomansky family’s harrowing escape from the Eastern Bloc to Canada. Check out the trailer here. They’re shooting for a 2017 debut.
Sheng Peng: You’ve spoken about your first hockey coach, when you were 12 years old in Czechoslovakia, as being the biggest influence on your career because he made hockey fun. How did he make hockey fun?
Vaclav Nedomansky: His name was Mr. Gajos. We played other sports. But around that time, a hockey arena was built. I was about 12 years old. He was a former player. Very enthusiastic man. It was fun to work and train and play with him. He made it fun and had a really good personality.
SP: In 1968, the Soviets invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia, stripping away many individual civil liberties. In 1969, you became a Czech national hero at the age of 25 when you led your team to two victories over the Soviets in the World Championship. What did it mean to you to be a unifying force for Czechs and Slovaks back then?
VN: At that time, hockey was my only passion. I played other sports, soccer, tennis, basketball, all that stuff. And once I decided to play hockey, then I trained properly. And I was not thinking about any future in hockey except to be better and better everyday. That was my driving force, to be better than other people.
SP: But at the time, did you think about what those victories meant politically?
VN: If you scored, you didn’t think it would be political expression. But before that tournament, it was a special situation. Everybody on our team, they knew what happened in Czechoslovakia…it helped us to be at the top possible level of play. The Russians knew there was something political about this game. If you ran into them in the arena, they would not look at us or say “Hi” or anything like that. It was a strange situation, but it was very critical, especially at that time.
SP: Indeed, emotions were running high before the first Czech-Soviet clash in those world championships. After Jan Suchy’s goal, which gave your team a 1-0 lead, you literally lifted the Soviet net off its moorings. What caused you to celebrate like that?
VN: We had a lot of chances, I had a few shots. I saw the puck go in, right in that corner there, and I was happy. I wasn’t thinking about anything besides we’re leading and we’ll hopefully win. It was just an emotional thing. It was just emotions. High emotions and happiness.
SP: So was beating the Soviets in ‘69 the most satisfying moment of your career?
VN: Probably I had more moments like that. But obviously, it was one of the best feelings. Because I don’t know if somebody else could beat Russia in the World Championship twice. After all, they tried to tell us that Russia is the best at everything. But we knew it was not true. It wasn’t that important in the end. But it was great at the time because all the Czechs and Slovaks were cheering for us. And so was all the world.
SP: What was more satisfying than that?
VN: One of the happiest moments was when I immigrated to Canada. Because that way, I was a free man. I could develop not only as a hockey player, but as a person. That was for me and my family probably my strongest feeling and most important in my career.
SP: In all, while representing Team Czechoslovakia, you scored 78 goals over 93 Olympic and World Championship contests. And you played with Jiří Holeček, perhaps the most underrated international goalie ever. How did he compare to Tretiak?
VN: Tretiak, he was a stand-up goalie, playing all the time behind a very good team. Russia was very structured, especially defensively. They had obviously played for a long time together. It was easier for Tretiak to play.
Holeček was a more flexible, reaction goalie. He would stack pads like Hasek later on, all these unbelievable saves. But I remember a critical part. I’m already in Canada at that time, it was the Canada Cup ’76, and Holeček was interviewed, and he said, “I’m the best goalie in the world.” And he played the [second game of the Canada Cup final] against Canada, three minutes in, two goals against, eventually they pull him and he never played in North America again. I watched that, and I knew him, so I could imagine how he felt.
SP: You’ve already talked at some length about your defection in 1974. But how did you feel when the Czech government stripped you of your nationality and essentially erased you from their history?
VN: I did not think I would come back anyway. I didn’t really care. I was really happy I could be in Canada at that time. Later on, they went through official channels and lawyers and they made an announcement that I would be jailed if I was caught. Stuff like that. And I didn’t pay any attention.
Maybe five years ago, for some reason…they told me that the bad stuff was erased and everything was normal. But I didn’t really care.
SP: There still seems to be some debate about this: Right now, do you consider yourself more Czech or Slovak?
VN: I was born in [what’s now the] Czech [Republic]. I studied in Bratislava, which is Slovakia. But when I immigrated [to Canada], when I jumped the Communist system, I was stripped by the [Czechoslovakian] government of my nationality. So I stay with that. I am a Canadian and American citizen.
Back then, it was very equal. That time, even in school in Slovakia, I was able to speak the Czech language there. And the same thing for Slovak people, they could use the Slovak language as the official language too. I’m under the influence of both cultures.
SP: So you joined the WHA’s Toronto Toros in 1974. But there was some disappointment in your play from management because they expected you to hit more, be more aggressive. Looking back, do you feel like such negative attitudes ever affected your play? Like you weren’t being appreciated enough in North America for who you actually were as a hockey player?
VN: I played and grew up in a different system of hockey. It was developed on skills, playing fast, quickness, creative passing. In North America at that time, half of the players on a team weren’t very good. But they were there for fighting…
I spoke with my closest friends, and sometimes in my career, they’ve said I should be more this or that. But I didn’t feel I needed to do that because I scored 40 goals [then] 56 goals in Toronto, which is still a record in Maple Leafs Garden. I told them my speaking language would be scoring goals and passing.
I had a few fights, but it was just protecting myself. I would not be the aggressor. I was 30 years old when I came over, but I was very well trained. So if something was coming that was physical, I was able to quickly move away or use my skills.
SP: Going back to talking about goalies, you played with or against many of the greats besides Holeček and Tretiak. Eventually, you joined the Detroit Red Wings in 1977, facing the likes of Ken Dryden, Tony Esposito, and Rogie Vachon. Who was the toughest for you to beat?
VN: If I remember…I talked to, for example, Dryden. I scored some goals from long distances because he late. I think he was using glasses at that time. He told me, “I have such a bad memory about you because you scored all the time.”
With Esposito, it was hard to score on because he was big. He would go down in a butterfly. And actually, Esposito said one time…along with Cheevers, about my wrist shot, “When you handle the puck with your wrist, I never know where it goes.”
Because at that time, everybody was using the slap shot. And I would go more with the wrist shot. Even looking at old warm-up videos in Detroit from ’78, everybody has a big slap shot, and I was using the wrist shot.
Goalies play differently now, they are much better because of size and athletic approach and different styles. For me, as a goal scorer, I was trying to use my skills and quickness to surprise goalies. Doesn’t really matter who was in. If I could see that place where I could shoot, I would succeed many times.
SP: And who was the toughest defenseman on you?
VN: In Detroit, we played lots against Montreal. And I ended up always playing against Larry Robinson. He was difficult because he was big and strong.
At that time, physical play was really accepted. Many defensemen were not as good. They would try to chop you and spear you and hold you and all that stuff. Defending is easier than creating.
SP: You were said to be “standoffish” in your NHL career. What do you say to that?
VN: No, that couldn’t be true. Because first of all, right from the start, I couldn’t speak English at all. Second of all, I have many old friends from my playing years. I was very friendly. There’s no reason why anybody would say anything like that.
SP: In your final NHL year in 1983, you played for Herb Brooks in New York. It was said that you were a fan of his circular motion system. What are your memories of him?
VN: I was playing in Detroit and my contract expired. New ownership came, Mr. Illitch.
I went to New York because of [Brooks]. I had watched the Olympics, I had more or less studied all the teams.
I went into that training camp without a contract…just to play for him and make the team. I went to camp and I listened to him more and liked him very much. He liked me too. I was the oldest player at that time.
I played lots of power play. He sometimes told me, “Go and do whatever you like to do.” I had 12 goals in about 30 games, almost all on the power play. It was exceptional, and I [credit] his smarts and our personal relationship for my play. I enjoyed him very much.
I only spent part of the season there. Because at that time, because I was signed as a free agent by the Rangers too late, I was available on waivers after my first game. I scored in my first game. I went into the dressing room, and Brooks told me, “Stop doing that! Somebody’s going to pick you up.”
The next day, I came into practice, and he told me, “St. Louis picked you up.” So I had to go to St. Louis until Christmas. At that time, Emile Francis, who actually used to be the general manager of the Rangers, was the Blues GM.
In St. Louis, I played a special role, but I didn’t like it much. Around Christmas time, I went to Emile and told him, “I liked it in New York, I’ll like to go back.” So I was traded with goalie Glen Hanlon back to New York.
That was really sad when I heard that he got killed in a car accident. He’s not alone. Lots of people I know [were killed that way]. For example, my friend Ivan Hlinka. He was a player and Penguins coach. That’s very sad, and I always remember those dates.
SP: Speaking of the Rangers and Emile Francis, they were very interested in you as far back as 1967. Do you regret not defecting then? Do you think about the mark you could’ve made in the NHL if you had started as a 23-year-old?
VN: At that time, I was really young. I was happy to start to play with the national team. 19 years old. My original vision was actually to be a teacher. I studied physical education and biology. I thought if something bad happened to me in hockey, it’d be easy for me to do that job. I didn’t think of the future more than that.
But when I was coming [to North American tournaments] to play hockey in ’72, I ran into problems. The government wouldn’t allow me to play and travel because I was visited by North American hockey people.
As a young man, I thought there would be more time, I just couldn’t leave, immigrate at that time. I didn’t regret that. Even though I came here so late, but still…I enjoyed my time.
SP: Finally, your son is preparing a documentary about your life. You’ve chosen to stay quiet about your career for most of your life. Why have you decided to start talking more now?
VN: I’ve been approached from Canada, the US, the Czech Republic, Slovakia to do a book, something to explain my career and stuff like that. When I was 68, I was seriously sick. I’m a cancer survivor, and I missed two or three years.
And I think, I’m not sure, but my son, when he saw that, he said let’s do something which stays here. We are very close. We talked about things. But we didn’t talk in detail about what happened in those days. And because he’s been a filmmaker for a long time, he has a different approach, and he will try to do things in a different way than a normal documentary.
He just started on this maybe last year, putting pieces together. They’re hard to find about the past. The documentary isn’t really about playing. There are some shots which show me playing—I’m impressed how well I went through some defenses (laughs)—it is going to be more an explanation of how one transfers: 30 years spent in one country and in a different system, and then, having to adjust and make changes.
And also, my personality was such that I didn’t really like to talk about myself much. I just tried to observe and make decisions…sometimes, they were good, sometimes, they were not good. But that’s the way I am.