January 16, 2016

Miroslav Ihnacak

When Miroslav Ihnacak defected from communist Czechoslovakia to the National Hockey League late in 1985, great things were expected.

Things did not exactly turn out that way.

Miroslav's brother Peter had defected four years earlier and embarked on a solid if unspectacular NHL career.

Miroslav desperately wanted to join his brother in Toronto, but Czech authorities knew he was a great flight risk. They confiscated his passport and would not allow him to travel outside of the communist bloc for hockey tournaments.

After four years of trying, the Toronto Maple Leafs successfully helped Miroslav and his fiancee Eva Olach escape the country. With the authorities perhaps distracted slightly by the Christmas holiday season, the two young Czechs crossed the border into Austria. Leafs general manager Gerry McNamara was there with a reported $150,000 to bribe their way past border guards and to freedom.

While Peter's defection led to a seven year career with the Maple Leafs, Miroslav's story was full of heartache, confusion and, as far as the Leafs were concerned, failure.

Miroslav's problems started almost immediately as he haggled over his initial contract. That did not endear him to the Leafs cantankerous owner Harold Ballard.

"The first thing he did was kind of balk on his contract, and he obviously soured Ballard on him," said McNamara in retrospect. "(Ballard) never really forgave him. He was never in his corner again."

Once signed, the Leafs rushed him into the line-up, perhaps too quickly. Playing with his brother and fellow countryman Miroslav Frycer, Miroslav would score a goal in his very first game. But the younger Ihnacack would quickly go silent, scoring just eight goals in 55 games over two seasons.

As a result he became a constant target of abuse from Ballard and the Toronto media.

"My situation with the press wasn't the greatest," continued McNamara. "Some of them felt this was the way to get back at me, to criticize this kid, because they knew Ballard was annoyed at him and they did everything they could to get back at me. It was a criticism of me, and maybe they ended up hurting the kid. I felt everyone (in the organization) tried to distance themselves from him, almost as if he was a disease and no one wanted to catch it.

"I really think they broke his heart."

Caught in the middle was brother Peter, who was generally regarded as an honest, hard working Leaf who carried himself admirably.

"I was so happy when he came here, you wouldn't believe it," Peter said. "But they brought him here to be a key member of the team, to be a Moses. To bring them from the bottom of the league to the top. When the found that Miro is human, they didn't have the time to give him to adjust."

"There was lots of pressure on me," Miroslav allowed. "Newspaper people all over me. They thought I'd come there and in a month score 50 goals and they'd with the Stanley Cup or something."

The Leafs would buy out the remainder of Miroslav's contract in the summer of 1988. He signed on with the Detroit Red Wings organization. He was called up for one game with the Red Wings that season as he had a strong year in the AHL, scoring 34 goals and 71 points in 62 games while helping Adirondack win the Calder Cup.

Ihnacak would sign with the Quebec Nordiques in the summer of 1989, but would never play for the team. He spent two seasons toiling for their farm team in Halifax.

In 1991 Ihnacak returned to Europe where he extended his career for many seasons. He played in Germany until 1998. Then, in a new political world, Ihnacak was allowed to return home. He returned to his original club team Kosice for many seasons. He would retire in 2006.

Miroslav's son Brian was born in Toronto. He went onto a lengthy hockey career of his own. A late round draft pick (2004) of the Pittsburgh Penguins, he never really came close to making it to the NHL. He played at Brown University and was well travelled in the minor leagues and several countries in Europe.

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