When Petr Klima walked away from the Czechoslovakian national team in Nussdorf, West Germany on August 18, 1985, he made history as the first Czech player to defect directly to an NHL team.
That night he was to meet Detroit Red Wings executive vice-president Jim Lites and assistant coach Nick Polano in the woods near the hotel. When Klima didn't appear, Lites and Polano went to the hotel. The Czech police knew Polano, so Lites and the pair’s interpreter had to look for Klima on their own. They couldn't find him.
Suddenly, Klima appeared, walking towards their car. He told them he wouldn't leave unless the Red Wings agreed to help get his girlfriend out of Czechoslovakia as well. Lites agreed instantly and told Klima to get in the car.
But Klima still wouldn't leave, insisting on going back into the hotel for some personal effects. Five minutes later, he reappeared, got into the car, and they all sped off, eager to put as much distance between Klima and the hotel as they could before the team’s 11 pm bed check.
Klima was now officially a defector.
"How fast does this car go?" he asked anxiously. Their rented Mercedes’ top speed was 125 mph; fast enough to relieve everyone's anxiety about being followed. "I feared that one of these times, on one of these defections, the Czechs were going to make an example with guns, if necessary," Polano later said.
Their first stop was the American consulate in Stuttgart. Polano hadn't actually believed the escape plan would work, so the Red Wings front office hadn't even bothered to contact the consulate in advance. Nor had they envisioned the difficulties they'd encounter with the Czech authorities. Klima's passport had been confiscated upon the team’s arrival in West Germany, and without any identifying papers, it was going to be nearly impossible for Polano and Lites to prove who their teenage charge was.
While waiting for the visa to clear the red tape, Klima and Polano moved from city to city in West Germany, sometimes pushing the Mercedes to its mechanical limits in order to avoid the Czech police. "We didn't want to take any chances. We just kept moving from city to city," Polano said.
Polano and Lites also made Klima wait a whole week before contacting his parents back home in Chomutov, Czechosolovakia. As it turned out, Klima's defection was big news in Czechoslovakia, and the Detroit execs had been correct in assuming they'd be actively pursued.
Still, they didn't want their newest asset to feel like a prisoner. With a Red Wings exec following him like a shadow, Klima played a little tennis and did some sight-seeing. They only let him loose on his own once, with disastrous results:
"We let him take the Mercedes for a ride, and he wrecked it,” Polano recalled. It's a good thing it was a Mercedes, a really heavy car. He did some pretty good damage to it, but wasn't scratched himself. We pushed that thing into the Hertz garage and got the hell out of there as fast as we could.”
After five weeks of hiding and waiting, Klima finally made it to the U.S. on September 22, 1985 with the help of U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese and Assistant A.G. Lowell Jensen. Polano didn't accompany him; instead he went to Vienna to meet with Klima's girlfriend and personally escort her to Germany for visa processing.
When Polano finally returned to the U.S., there was no fanfare. Instead, he found a note from American Express, politely enquiring about the $35,000* charged during Operation Extract Klima.
*For those of you keeping score at home, that's roughly the equivalent of $71,000 today.