Mogilny Makes Way Into NHL at Tender Age of 20
Alexander Mogilny is a pale-faced, 20-year-old manwith acne on his cheek and an ache in his heart. He is lonely and a long way from home.
He misses his parents. He misses his friends. He wonders what happens to some of the packages he sends. He wonders if the secret police are listening when he calls home. He wonders what will happen to his loved ones. He wonders what will happen to him.
“KGB is everywhere,” he said of the Soviet secret police and intelligence agency.
He is living and traveling in a strange new culture, struggling to speak a strange new language his awkwardness with which often shames him into silence.
More than anything else in the world, Alexander Mogilny wishes his parents could see him play. For that, he knows, he may have to wait many years.
For that, he may have to wait forever.
A lot of printers ink has been spilled celebrating the nine Soviet hockey players who have joined the National Hockey League this season, many of them superstars from the Soviet national team here to ply their trade in the spirit of glasnost, and in the spirit of the Soviet government receiving hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars in exchange for their services.
They have won Olympic gold medals and world championships and much glory for Mother Russia. At or past their playing prime, they come to the National Hockey League as a reward, with President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s blessing.
Except for one. Except for Alexander Mogilny.
Alexander Mogilny is a defector. Six months ago, the Soviets billed him as their brightest young hockey star, the youngest-ever member of the national team, the youngest Soviet athlete to be awarded the prized Order of Merit. Today, they remember him as the first member of the Soviet national hockey team to defect. Like the others, he was expected to bring glory to Mother Russia. Instead, he has brought shame.
Like his eight countrymen, like all the Europeans who have flooded the NHL in recent years, Mogilny comes here to play hockey. Like all of them, he comes here facing loneliness and culture shock and the chance that he might fail and wish to go home.
But unlike them, he is very young.
And unlike them, Alexander Mogilny cannot go home.
That, he says, is the hardest thing of all.
Yes, he had seen “Moscow On The Hudson” several times -- in which Robin Williams’ character defects in Bloomingdale’s -- but no, that is not where he got the idea. Life does not imitate art to that extent.
Mogilny defected the first week of May, when he left the Soviet national team at the world championships in Stockholm, Sweden. Mogilny declines to discuss specifics, but people who know Mogilny’s story say his decision probably resulted from an an accumulation of things.
Mogilny resented being drafted into the Soviet army just so he could play hockey for Central Red Army, the best team in the Soviet Union and the team that supplies the nucleus of the Soviet national team. Central Red Army is based in Moscow. Mogilny is from Khabrovsk, a city of 600,000 located just north of Manchuria, along the Pacific coast of Siberia. Given the incredible land mass of the Soviet Union -- it has 11 time zones and the continental United States has five -- Khabarovsk is virtually as close to Los Angeles as it is to Moscow.
Far from home, Mogilny chafed under the Central Red Army regimen -- it plays an 11-month season -- and its dictatorial coach, Viktor Tikhonov, who also coaches the national team. A private in the Army -- most veteran Soviet stars are officers -- Mogilny was reportedly ticked off when he was unable to get a nice apartment in Moscow, an important perk available to many Soviet sports stars.
An astonishing skater with great natural skills and loose regard for the strictures of team play, Mogilny was generally regarded as a hot dog and a hothead. When he got into a fight in a game -- most un-Soviet-like -- he was stripped of his Order of Merit.
Using a pick they had acquired in a trade with former General Manager Phil Esposito and the New York Rangers, the Buffalo Sabres had made Mogilny their second choice of the fifth round in the June 1988 draft -- the 89th player selected overall.
Given Mogilny’s stubbornness and independent streak, the Soviets knew that if they had a potential defector, it was he. When Central Red Army was set to tour the United States -- with a stop in Buffalo, N.Y., Mogilny was demoted to the Soviet junior team, which played in the world junior championships in Anchorage, Alaska. The Soviets did not want Mogilny in Buffalo or on the U.S. mainland. They did not want him to get any ideas.
Mogilny was miffed. Sabres General Manager Gerry Meehan and Don Luce, the club’s director of amateur player development, flew to Anchorage to meet Mogilny and to tell him they had drafted him. One year later, when the Soviets were in Stockholm for the world championships, Mogilny’s friend, Sergei Fomichev, called the Sabres and said Mogilny was interested.
Meehan and Luce flew to Stockholm. Mogilny, having ducked out on his teammates, flew home with them, but not before calling his parents from Sweden to tell them what he was about to do. His mother cried and begged him to come home.
But Alexander Mogilny did what he felt he had to do.
The FBI interviewed Mogilny when he landed in New York, as it does all defectors. Tass, the official Soviet news agency, accused the Sabres of “piracy.” As a soldier in the Soviet army, Mogilny was granted political asylum. On Oct. 4, the eve of the NHL season, he received a visa, so he could travel freely between the United States and Canada.
“He’s very proud of his visa,” said Rip Simonick, the Sabres trainer for 20 years. “Once he had it, he showed it to everyone. It meant something to him, like a birth certificate. A birth certificate to the Free World.”
“I want to play here,” Mogilny said after the Sabres’ Wednesday morning skate before their game with the Hartford Whalers. “NHL best league in the world. Make money. Make my life. Russian system, I didn’t see a future in my life. U.S., this is good life. People are very friendly.”
It was a hockey move, not a political move. A move that could only have been made by a fiercely independent, confident guy with a self-assurance well beyond his years.
How self-assured? When the Sabres took the bus to Toronto -- it is 100 miles from Buffalo -- for their first road game of the season, Mogilny went to the wrong hotel and missed the bus. Although he had never driven into Canada on his own, he got into his beige Jeep Laredo and began the journey. A friend of Sabres teammate Christian Ruuttu who was going to the game spotted Mogilny’s vehicle on the bridge that connects Buffalo with Canada and drove him the rest of the way. He was not even late.
“He’s a guy that will take care of himself,” says Ruuttu, a Finn, Mogilny’s linemate and next-door neighbor. “He will rise to the occasion. Otherwise, he would never be here today.”
But that doesn’t make the adjustment any easier. Mogilny rents a townhouse that he shares, temporarily, with Sergei and Sergei’s Swedish-born, Soviet-educated wife, Lena. They are his confidantes, his “family,” but they are here on visitors’ visas. They will be going home soon, leaving Mogilny to fend for himself.
When it comes to shopping for clothes, he fends pretty well. Thoroughly modern Mogilny reads Gentleman’s Quarterly and loves Armani fashions. In New York, he bought a $400 shirt. No ill-fitting Soviet issue for him. Strictly chic Western European clothes.
“I like clothes,” he said, “but not American clothes.”
This is no rube who just got off the Trans-Siberian Railroad. As a budding Soviet star, Mogilny had been to Montreal and New York by the time he was 16; he has been to Los Angeles and Disney World. He was tossing down Pepsi Cola and pepperoni pizza and watching HBO with the zest of any 1980s capitalist kid.
It is the size and variety of North American supermarkets that overwhelms him.
But when Mogilny puts on the skates, he does the overwhelming.
“He’s not even trying and he skates faster than these guys,” Simonick said.
First-year Sabres Coach Rick Dudley compares Mogilny’s speed and grace to that of a young Gilbert Perrault, and says of his new wing, “he hasn’t even begun to use the speed he’s got. Nobody’s seen him turn it on. When he does, it’s awesome.”
You could also compare Mogilny’s grasp of English to the young Perrault’s. Thanks to a six-week, six-hours-a-day summer school course at the University of Buffalo, Mogilny’s English is probably better than the French-Canadian star’s was when he was breaking in.
“I’ve seen more confused French-Canadians than Alex Mogilny is,” Simonick said.
But Perreault had other French-Canadians to hang out with. And he could still go home.
“In this team, people don’t understand me,” Mogilny said. “They don’t understand my play, my style. Central Red Army, offensive. This team, defensive. I got little problem. I’m nervous.”
That did not keep him from scoring 20 seconds into his first NHL game, his and the Sabres’ first shot of the season. That did not keep him from making several plays in an exhibition game against the Chicago Blackhawks that left Sabres brass drooling at what is to come.
Sabres fans love him, roaring every time he touches the puck. When he scored his first goal of the exhibition season, they gave him a standing ovation. Except for a few isolated shouts of “Dirty Commie” in Detroit, road crowds have been kind. Only the hardest heart in America would not soften at what Alexander Mogilny has done, and the adjustment he must make.
Very shy off the ice because of his broken English, he is hardly shy on it. With his end-to-end dashes and devastating speed and puck-handling, Mogilny is a born showman.
“They all know who I am,” he told the Buffalo Evening News. “They expect much.”
Alexander Mogilny intends to give it to them. Bet that he will. For men like him, men who dare to do what he did, there is no such thing as a half-hearted effort.