The historic defection

20 years ago, Alexander Mogilny's decision changed hockey

16.06.2009
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Alexander Mogilny chose number 89 on his Buffalo jersey to commemorate the year of his defection. Photo: HHoF

It’s been 20 years since Alexander Mogilny became the first Soviet to defect for the NHL. His decision was awful brave for a kid who was just 20 at the time and helped pave the way for other young Russians to display their skills in the NHL.

The day began simply enough. Don Luce was sitting at his desk doing whatever it is the director of amateur evaluation and development does after his team has failed to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs for the sixth straight year. Gerry Meehan was at home that day, doing what a GM does during the black hole that exists between a team’s post-season ouster and the entry draft and free agent season.

When Luce answered the phone at about 10:30 on the morning of May 2, 1989, he had no idea the subsequent conversation would set into motion a dizzying series of events that would result in one of the most breathtaking young players in the world to be in his organization three days later.

No, when Luce picked up the receiver, he had no clue he was about to make NHL history, no inkling he would become involved in an international game of cat-and-mouse with the prize being a 20-year-old Soviet by the name of Alexander Mogilny.

It’s been 20 years since Mogilny became the first Soviet player ever to defect to play in the NHL. Two 50-goal seasons, a Stanley Cup, a borderline Hall of Fame career and almost $50 million in earnings later, it’s remarkable to see how things have changed.

At the time, Mogilny bolted from the Soviet team after winning the World Championship in Stockholm thinking he’d never see his family again. Now he lives in Malibu and Miami, but travels freely to and from his hometown of Khabarovsk, near the Chinese border.

He has learned capitalism well and has business interests in Khabarovsk and is involved with the city’s Kontinental Hockey League team, Amur Khabarovsk. The tyrannical coach he despised and fled that day, Viktor Tikhonov, now has a grandson by the same name playing in the NHL.

Twenty years have elapsed, but the passage of time has not prompted the major players to spill all about Mogilny’s defection. Meehan, now a businessman in Toronto who runs a company that does electronic medical records for the NHL, keeps statistics for hundreds of hockey leagues and matches prospects with U.S. college hockey programs, said he wants to give details, but must ask permission first. He tells his questioner to call back in a week, then said the nuts and bolts of the experience are still too sensitive to share.

One thing is certain. Mogilny doesn’t want to relive the event. He made that very clear in a telephone conversation, saying he forgets much of those days and has no interest in revisiting what he does remember.

He’s asked why he did it. When so many other players had the same dreams, what made him have the stones to be the first to actually do it?

“Why did I do it? I did it for freedom,” said Mogilny, now 40 and retired from the NHL for three years. “If the bird can fly and the fish can swim, you have to be able to move around the world and be free and not watched constantly. If a human being doesn’t have freedom, that’s not life. It’s like living in a cage. To me, you might as well be dead.”

However, it’s a yarn still worth telling again. First off, some new details of how it happened have emerged, thanks in large part to Luce, who is now the director of player personnel for the Philadelphia Flyers. And if not for Luce, Mogilny might not have had the opportunity to defect.

It all started at the NHL entry draft in 1988. The Sabres had two picks in the fifth round, one of them from the Rangers for a trade involving Paul Cyr. They decided to take a flyer on Mogilny, then one of the most dazzling young players in the world and thought to be a future lynchpin of the Soviet national program.

“I would never have used the draft pick if I didn’t think he would be coming,” Meehan said. “The attitude then was, ‘There’s no way this guy is going to come out. He’s too big a young star.’ It was my view that it was inevitable that, sooner or later, the Russians were going to have to let their players come and play on a world stage other than the Olympics and the World Championship.”

The Sabres would learn later of Mogilny’s strong-headedness and defiant streak, but had no idea what they were getting that day. It was a meeting with Luce at the 1989 World Juniors in Anchorage, Alaska, that planted the seed for Mogilny to defect. The line of Sergei Fedorov between Mogilny and Pavel Bure was rolling over its opponents and preparing to accept the torch from the famed KLM line of Igor Larionov between Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov.

Luce met with Mogilny in Anchorage and had a few words with him and gave him his business card. It was after that conversation Mogilny decided he would defect at the first opportunity. That came about six months later, when the Soviets were given two shopping days after winning the 1989 world title.

Luce received the call from Sergei Fomitchev, who claimed to be Mogilny’s agent. Thinking it was a ruse, Luce told Mogilny, through Fomitchev, to repeat the English phrase Mogilny said to him during their conversation in Anchorage. Luce pointed out to Mogilny that he hadn’t played particularly well and in broken English, Mogilny said, “I show you next game.” The next game was against Canada and the Soviets clinched the gold medal on the strength of a Mogilny hat trick.

When Mogilny repeated the phrase, Luce called Meehan and they were on a plane to Stockholm three hours later.

This is where things get interesting. It has always been thought Mogilny stole away from the team hotel, bidding farewell to an incredulous Fedorov to meet with Meehan and Luce in the dead of the night. It was much less glamorous, but no less interesting, according to Luce.

Meehan and Luce arrived in Stockholm around noon on May 3. They called Fomitchev, who was living in Stockholm with his Swedish wife, and made plans to go to Fomitchev’s house for dinner. Fomitchev wasn’t home when they arrived because the Soviets were out shopping and he was the team’s host. While they were waiting, they got a call saying it had to happen right away because this would be Mogilny’s best opportunity to slip away.

They established a meeting place at the mall. Fomitchev and Mogilny jumped into the rental car and Luce sped off. The next two days were spent bouncing from hotel to hotel so they wouldn’t be found.

While Luce, Mogilny and Fomitchev drove around the Swedish countryside during the day, Meehan was furiously working at the U.S. embassy trying to arrange for Mogilny’s documentation.

This was a time when thousands of political refugees were seeking to enter USA because of political persecution and Mogilny got put to the front of the queue, many say thanks in large part to the connections of the Knox family, who owned the Sabres at the time.

Luce said at one point, Mogilny wanted to call his family, so they went to a phone booth kiosk to make the call. You had to give the phone number to the operator and the call would be put through. Midway through the conversation, the call was disconnected and when the operator tried again, it took an interminable time before Mogilny gave up.

“He came out and he said, ‘They know where we are,’ ” Luce recalled. “All the calls to Russia go to Moscow and then out. He knew they had traced the call and they knew where we were.”

Meehan was also concerned, but not enough to back down on the plan. He was told to be very careful about where they went and what they did and knew his wife and daughter back in Buffalo were worried for his safety. It was also compounded by the fact Meehan was never certain Mogilny wouldn’t change his mind until they were on the plane.

“We knew there could always be a plausible story he could make up or the Soviet Red Army could make up as to why he was missing for a couple of days,” Meehan said. “One of the things I was concerned about was that he might think he wasn’t getting enough money to do it.”

Meehan signed Mogilny to a four-year deal worth $630,000, which included a salary of $130,000 for his first season.

Luce continued to change hotels and drive around during the day. The day they left, they decided to abandon the rental car in the underground parking garage at the hotel and take a taxi to the airport.

“Once we got inside the security gates, we were basically untouchable from the other side,” Meehan said.

“He asked me in his broken English, ‘Am I free now?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you’re free.’ And he went over and had a beer. He couldn’t believe it. He said ‘free’, he didn’t say ‘safe’. He said ‘free’. I found that to be kind of poignant.”

Once they got Mogilny to Buffalo, they had to continue to keep him hidden, despite the fact he convinced Luce’s son, Scott, now the director of amateur scouting for the Florida Panthers, to take him to a mall. Word about Mogilny had reached Buffalo and one of the clerks in the mall heard Mogilny and Fomitchev speaking Russian. Scott Luce dodged a bullet by telling her they were Czechoslovakian exchange students, but got Mogilny out of the mall when he saw a prominent local sportscaster lurking about.

Given the 21st-century makeup of the NHL, it’s almost impossible to fathom there was a time when players had to go to such lengths to be free to play in the NHL. Young Russian players today seem to be every bit as affluent as their North American counterparts. They show up to the draft in designer jeans and speak somewhere between passable and exquisite English.

A nasty conflict between the NHL and the Russian Ice Hockey Federation notwithstanding, it’s a given that a promising Russian player will be in the NHL as soon as possible.

It’s impossible, however, to quantify what Mogilny’s defection did, if anything to expedite that process. Five months earlier, Petr Nedved left his Czechoslovakian midget team during a tournament in Calgary and players from that country had been defecting for the better part of a decade.

Soviet national team stars such as Larionov, Krutov, Makarov and Slava Fetisov were beginning to play in the NHL with the Soviets’ blessing. Negotiations were at an advanced stage and the Soviets stood to make significant amounts of money in transfer fees and were beginning to come to that realization.

But one thing is certain. What began as a trickle with Mogilny became a flood of talented players who dramatically elevated the NHL’s skill level. Fedorov defected less than a year later and Bure wasn’t far behind. The Iron Curtain fell and a free market economy also meant a freer flow of players. Chances are, the Mogilny defection did nothing more than hasten the inevitable.

But that does not diminish the courage Mogilny showed in doing what he did. He was asked if he was ever afraid for himself or the parents and brother he left behind.

“Absolutely I was,” Mogilny said. “I don’t really know how I dealt with it. You go on the ice and you forget about everything. Not always, but a lot of the time.”

There were trying times and wonderful periods during what followed. On the ice, it took Mogilny three years to become an established player. He had a well-publicized fear of flying that some claimed was a cover for wanting to get out of Buffalo.

He occasionally clashed with authority as he had in the Soviet Union. He would sometimes throw his arms up in exasperation because, prior to Pat LaFontaine’s arrival, nobody on the roster could play the game at the dizzying speed he did.

“The problems arose when Alex would get into a personality snit or decide on a certain way of behavior that wasn’t team-like,” Meehan said. “We always had a standoffish relationship. I think he respected that I helped rescue him, if you can call it that, but he also saw me as an authority figure. To him, I might have represented, to some degree, what he was leaving.”

And Fomitchev went from being his de facto agent to his tormentor, attempting to extort $150,000 from Mogilny by telling Mogilny in 1994 he would shoot and stab him if he wasn’t paid the ransom.

Mogilny went to the authorities and Fomitchev was arrested after arranging to meet Mogilny outside the Sabres dressing room after a game. Not exactly the most intelligent thug of all-time, but a threat nonetheless.

Still, Mogilny not only developed into a star player, he also became quite gregarious and fun-loving. Late in his career, he always joked about what a bad player he was and when his Toronto Maple Leafs advanced to the East final in 2002, he took a bemused look at the bedlam that surrounded him and said, “I don’t know why everybody is so excited. We only made it halfway through the playoffs.”

Twenty years after he arrived in North America, Mogilny will be eligible for the Hall of Fame for the first time this summer. But with Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Brian Leetch and Luc Robitaille also up for induction, nobody is mentioning Mogilny.

Although he’s certainly not a slam-dunk, he at least deserves consideration. He’s the second-highest scoring Russian player of all-time and has more career points (1,032) in fewer career games (990) than a host of other Hall of Famers.

“I don’t know if he’s in that category,” Meehan said, “but with what he did and the changes he brought to the game, maybe he could get nominated to the Hall as a builder.”

FOOTNOTE: Alexander Mogilny is one of only 22 players who are members of the Triple Gold Club, for players who have won the Olympic gold, World Championship gold and the Stanley Cup. His defection was No. 63 on the list of IIHF's 100 Top Stories of the Century.

KEN CAMPBELL
This story is published with the kind consent of The Hockey News.


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