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Payoff on a big Czech

One reason Toronto's Toros are still unbeaten is a burly center who arrived via the underground

The board chairman of Vaclav Nedomansky Enterprises Ltd. of Canada—Vaclav Nedomansky himself—gaveled the meeting to order last Friday morning. No time to waste, gentlemen. I've got to play a hockey game tonight, and I want to get some sleep this afternoon. Seated to the chairman's right, chin in hand, was legal counsel, R. Alan Eagleson. Across the table, also chin in hand, was the chairman's friend and interpreter, George Gross, known as "the Baron." Counsel presented his report, speaking rapidly in English but occasionally pausing as the Baron relayed the message in Czech.

The health insurance for Vaclav (pronounced Vatz-lav), wife Vera and son Vaclav Jr. was in effect. As was the life insurance. A checking account was operative. Ditto a savings account. The credit cards should be arriving in the mail. The leases have been signed for the new apartment. And, yes, Vaclav had passed his driver's test. "Any questions?"

"Two," said the chairman, extending a pair of fingers. When he defected from Czechoslovakia to Canada by way of Switzerland last summer (SI, July 29), Nedomansky left his old Chrysler with the attorney in Bern who had been hired by his new employers, the Toronto Toros of the World Hockey Association. The lawyer had been instructed to sell it and forward the proceeds to Nedomansky.

"No money." said the chairman.

"I'll look into that immediately," Eagleson said, scribbling on a yellow legal pad. "If worse comes to worst, we'll get the money from the Toros. Next?"

"My new car," said the chairman. Before the ink dried on his five-year, $750,000 contract, Nedomansky had bought a white 1975 Thunderbird with all the extras. The car, Nedomansky said, was in need of its 1,000-mile checkup.

"I'll call over," said Eagleson, scribbling again. "Drop it off some morning next week, and it will be ready for you by the time practice is over. Anything else?"

"No," said the chairman, shaking his head. "Thank you."

Back in Bratislava, the only board meetings Nedomansky ever attended had been on the ice when he crashed into them, something that didn't happen very often to "Big Ned," the captain of the Czech national team. "Because of my position," Nedomansky says, "I was always able to get what I wanted for my family." What he wanted last summer was a family holiday in Switzerland, a junket with no return as it turned out. But let's go back for a moment.

Three years ago, during a Canadian tour with the Czech nationals, Nedomansky managed to leak word of his possible availability to the NHL through the Baron, who had defected to the West in 1949 after being jailed following the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948. "I had known Big Ned for about seven years," says Gross, now sports editor of the Toronto Sun, "because I had always entertained Czech players on their visits to Canada and met them at the World Hockey Championships." At the lime, Big Ned was on the negotiating list of the NHL Buffalo Sabres. Gross arranged a meeting between Sabre General Manager Punch Imlach and Dr. Zdenek Andrst, president of the Czech Hockey Federation, at the Westbury Hotel in Toronto. No deal. "I was only 27 years old then," recalls Nedomansky, "and Czechoslovakia still needed me. When you become 30, that's when they don't need you anymore. I had to wait."

Nedomansky turned 30 last March, his birthday party attended by representatives of both the WHA's Toros and the NHL's Atlanta Flames, who had gained negotiating rights from Buffalo. Again, the agents first tried to deal for him through legal channels, but when the Czech federation continued to signal thumbs down, efforts moved underground. People in strange clothes began showing up at Nedomansky's duplex apartment in Bratislava at very strange hours—and knowing his affection for good vibes, they came loaded with the latest Neil Diamond, Simon and Garfunkel and Crosby, Stills & Nash releases. Eventually, Nedomansky requested a visa for the Swiss holiday, but the message was clear to his Western wooers: Don't call me, I'll call you.

It was a bittersweet July day when the Nedomanskys packed three suitcases into the Chrysler and left Bratislava. "Any more than three bags and we would have aroused suspicion. Everyone thought we'd be back in a couple of weeks," he says. Once in Switzerland, according to plan, Nedomansky met teammate Richard Farda, another Czech national player who had been given a vacation visa for his family. Representatives of the Toros and the Flames were contacted, and their respective general managers arrived in Bern the next day. The contract sessions carried on for four days; however, the Toros' Buck Houle was so confident that he had already begun immigration arrangements.

For Nedomansky, the switch in lifestyles has been easier than expected, thanks to the Baron and his wife Elizabeth, not unexpectedly known as "the Baroness." "George takes me everyplace and gives me a kick when I need it," Ned says, "and Elizabeth takes Vera shopping, makes her speak English and helps her fix the apartment." Although his English is good enough to get by in restaurants, Big Ned is hoping to speed up his adjustment to Canada with a Berlitz course. "I was one test away from my degree in physical fitness at the University of Bratislava, and I was only a few credits short of another degree, in biology," he says. "Once I learn to speak English, I will write to some universities and try to get a position as a teacher in the off-season."

On the ice the adjustment should be less of a problem. Nedomansky centers Toronto's No. 1 line for Frank Mahovlich and Tony Featherstone. (Farda presently is the Toros' No. 4 line center.) "Ned needs 15 or 20 games around the league, and then he'll be all right," Mahovlich says. "The ice here is smaller than in Europe, and we make quicker passes than they do."

Nedomansky agrees with Mahovlich's assessment. "Back home we used the scientific approach," he says. "We always tried to make plays. Here you shoot the puck in all the time and then go chase it. It's a new game for me."

New game or not, Nedomansky's adroit puck handling has enabled him to score three goals in Toronto's first five games. And as he skated onto the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens for last Friday night's game with the Winnipeg Jets the crowd of more than 14,000—the Toros' largest ever—was chorusing "Big Ned, Big Ned, Big Ned." Among those spectators was another Czechoslovakian-born center studying Big Ned from the stands. "I guess they don't make small centers any more in Czechoslovakia," said 5'9" Stan Mikita of the Chicago Black Hawks. Nedomansky stands 6'2", weighs 205 pounds and has shoulders like an Ohio State lineman.

In at least one way Nedomansky should have felt at home, thanks to Winnipeg's own international makeup, including a quartet of Swedes—Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg, who play on a line with Bobby Hull, tough Defenseman Lars-Eric Sjoberg and Goalie Curt Larsson—and a pair of Finns, Defenseman Heikki Riihiranta and Center VeliPekka Ketola. After Hull scored an early goal, Toronto dominated play, winning 3-1 to remain undefeated in the WHA's Canadian Division.

Nedomansky scored the final Toro goal, converting from the slot on a power play set up from behind the net. Mikita beamed when Big Ned fired the puck past Goaltender Joe Daley.

"Just another good Czech center," he said. And, like Mikita, another Czech center who has already become a skating corporation.