WASHINGTON -- Czechoslovakia star center Michal Pivonka culminated two years of clandestine meetings and travel through at least eight countries by defecting in order to play for the Washington Capitals.
Pivonka, 20, the Capitals' third-round choice in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft, arrived secretly in the United States in the last week with his fiancee Renata Nekvindova, also 20.
'I have many personal reasons for leaving Czechoslovakia,' Pivonka told reporters Tuesday. 'But I don't think they should be discussed.'
Pivonka, who like other top athletes in eastern Europe enjoyed a rather privileged lifestyle in Czechoslavakia, did not talk of money, but simply of a desire to play in the west.
He said he believed the Czech people would understand his decision to defect.
'Of course some people, they wouldn't like it. But I would say a lot of people in Czechoslavakia... they would understand me because of my opportunities here,' Pivonka said.
Jack Button, director of personnel and recruiting for the Washington Capitals, first contacted Pivonka two years ago.
The pair met secretly seven times since then in Canada, Austria, Finland, Sweden and several other countries in western Europe.
'Pivonka has always indicated from our very first discussion that he would like to play in the best league in the world and he felt that was the National Hockey League,' Button said. 'With that determination, I have no doubt he will succeed.'
The State Department had no immediate comment.
When asked how Czechoslovakia reacted to the defection, Button said, 'We haven't talked to them and they haven't talked to us -- and I don't expect them to either.
Several seasons ago, an older Czech hockey star, Milan Novy, played for the Capitals, but with the permission of his government and its sporting federation.
The Soviet bloc nation 'does not allow young players to come over, but they let the older players do it as a reward,' said Button, who called the defection 'a sensitive situation.'
'I don't think he'll be harassed' by Czechoslovakian officials in the United States, Button added. 'He's in the United States of America. He's legally in the United States of America.'
Capitals officals said Pivonka's decision was influenced by the success of nearly a dozen other Czechs who have defected to play hockey in the west in recent years.
Last year, another Czech player, Petr Klima, defected in West Germany and joined the Detroit Red Wings. Nick Polano, the Red Wings' general manager at the time, helped Klima defect.
Pivonka, 6-foot-1 and 192 pounds, competed in the three World Junior Championships, playing against Capitals Kevin Hatcher once and Steve Leach twice, and in two World Championships.
For the past two years, he has been playing for Dukla-Jihlava, an Army team in Czechoslovakia.
'July of this year was a logical time to consummate this transaction since Michel wanted to fulfill his Army obligation in Czechoslovakia as well as leave with his fiancee,' Button said.
The NHL's Central Scouting Bureau rated Pivonka the No. 1 Czechoslovakian player and ahead of Petr Svoboda of the Montreal Canadiens in the 1984 NHL entry draft.
'Pivonka's signing fills a big void at the center created by Bengt Gustafsson's retirement,' Washington general manager David Poile said. 'If Pivonka had been a North American hockey player, he definitely would have been a first-round draft pick in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft.'