Story #63

Alexander Mogilny becomes the first Soviet NHL-defector

May 2, 1989 – Stockholm, Sweden


In the spring of 1989, the Soviet Union had just won its 21st World Championship title at Stockholm’s new and beautiful Globen Arena. Coach Viktor Tikhonov was happy. His team had swept through the tournament with nine straight wins, just like the good old days. Tikhonov knew that his rebellious fabulous-five unit of Vyacheslav Fetisov, Alexei Kasatonov, Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov would soon leave for the NHL, but the succession was secured. Two immensely talented 20-year olds--Alexander Mogilny and Sergei Fedorov--would be teamed up with 18-year old Pavel Bure to provide Tikhonov more gold medals for years to come. This new troika would be as exciting as anything that Soviet hockey has produced. Mogilny was already part of the 1988 Olympic gold team in Calgary and was named the best junior player in the world following the 1989 World U20 Championship in Anchorage, Alaska. Fedorov established himself as a legitimate star with his six goals in Stockholm. Youngster Bure would join them for the 1990 championship in Switzerland.

Following the traditional end-of-championship banquet on May 1, the Soviet players were awarded two “shopping days” in Stockholm before the team was scheduled to return to Moscow on May 4. When the team gathered outside the hotel to go to the airport on this sunny May morning, there was, however, one player missing – Mogilny.

Two days earlier, Mogilny slipped away from the team’s hotel, assisted by the Soviet team host during the championship, Sergei Fomichev. Mogilny, who was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in 1988, called Don Luce, the Sabres director of scouting, and asked for a meeting, indicating “he had some interest in coming out”. Luce flew immediately to Stockholm with the club’s general manager, Gerry Meehan. They met with Mogilny on May 4 at a secret location, the same day as the Soviet team left the Swedish capital for Moscow.

On Friday, May 5, Mogilny left Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport with the Sabres officials, and seven hours later they landed at JFK Airport in New York. Mogilny had been allowed to enter the United States under a procedure in which aliens are given permission pending a later determination of their status.

This was the first defection by a Soviet hockey player, and it became front page news the world over. That athletes defected from other eastern European countries was nothing unusual. Polish footballers, Czechoslovak ice hockey players, Hungarian boxers, Romanian wrestlers, East German rowers and Bulgarian weight-lifters left their countries illegally with regularity during the 1970s and ‘80. But never a Soviet hockey player.

The reason was simple. Hockey players during the Soviet era were a privileged group, and all of their basic needs were taken care off. But Alexander Mogilny was one of the first players of a new generation of western-oriented Russians who wasn’t satisfied with merely the basics. He knew of the NHL. He knew he was drafted. He realized that he had potential to earn a great deal of money while living a life where he didn’t have to take orders from a hockey coach eleven months of the year.

Only two years after Mogilny’s defection, the Soviet Union didn’t exist anymore and players started to leave in greater numbers and of their own free will. Mogilny never played for CCCP again, but he did represent his native land one last time. In a twist of the highest irony, Mogilny returned to Stockholm seven years after his defection to take part in the preparation for the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. The national team he now represented was called Russia, and he once again teamed up with Sergei Fedorov.

Mogilny retired in 2006 after 16 NHL seasons and 990 games in which he collected 1,032 points, but no move he made was greater than that night on May 2, 1989, when he forsake his homeland to play hockey where he wanted, the NHL.

About the Top 100 Stories

As part of the IIHF's 100th anniversary celebrations, is featuring the 100 top international hockey stories from the past century (1908-2008). Starting now and continuing through the 2008 IIHF World Championships in Canada, we will bring you approximately three stories a week counting down from Number 100 to Number 11.


The Final Top 10 Countdown will be one of the highlights of the IIHF's Centennial Gala Evening in Quebec City on May 17, the day prior to the Gold Medal Game of the 2008 World Championship.


These are the criteria for inclusion on this list: First, the story has to have had a considerable influence on international hockey. Second, it has to have had either a major immediate impact or a long-lasting significance on the game. Third, although it doesn't necessarily have to be about top players, the story does have to pertain to the highest level of play, notably Olympics, World Championships, and the like. The story can be about a single moment — a goal, a great save, a referee's call — or about an historic event of longer duration — a game, series, tournament, or rule change.

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