He Turns Impatience Into Virtue : Hockey: Mogilny, the Buffalo Sabres’ high-scoring right wing, usually wants things done now-- and his way.


Please, be patient.

Those words were having the opposite effect on right wing Alexander Mogilny last season. The Buffalo Sabres were telling him to wait until after the season for a contract renegotiation.

Mogilny insisted that an immediate change was necessary.

Finally, the Sabres’ general manager, Gerry Meehan, asked Mogilny’s agent, Don Meehan--no relation--to arrange a meeting.

So, the three convened in a hotel lobby in Montreal. Gerry Meehan told Mogilny to meet with his agent and then come back and talk. Then Don Meehan and Mogilny talked at one end of the lobby, Don telling his client of the Sabres’ desire to wait.


After several minutes, Mogilny came back to Gerry Meehan.

“Well, what did he tell you?” Gerry Meehan asked.

“He’s not my agent,” Mogilny answered. “I just fired him.”

And that incident sums up the 23-year-old Mogilny, who is rapidly becoming one of the NHL’s brightest stars as he closes in on the 50-goal mark.

Once he decides he wants to do or get something, Mogilny acts quickly and decisively. His speed on the ice is almost an expression of his personality.

Please, be patient.

The consequences of asking Mogilny to be patient were illustrated worldwide in May of 1989. As a member of the Central Red Army hockey team, Mogilny was waiting to get a nicer apartment in Moscow, standing by while other Soviet sports stars got better digs. And he watched other Soviet hockey stars patiently wait for years to get a chance to leave for the NHL, their skills visibly eroding with age.

And so, at 18 he left his country, his team, his family and friends--perhaps forever, he thought. Mogilny defected from the Soviet national team at the World Championships in Sweden.

“Well, I’ve always been a little different or something,” Mogilny says. “It’s probably why I always had problems with my coaches. Because I don’t like it when somebody tells me something. What to do and stuff like that.

“If I think it’s wrong, I try to do it my own way. If I disagree with something, I like to say it. I couldn’t see myself playing back home.”

Garry Meehan helped Mogilny defect, after determining during the initial phone call that Mogilny’s desire was not a hoax.

After all, no other player from the former Soviet Union had ever defected. Several from Czechoslovakia had fled to the NHL, but never one from the Soviet Union, most certainly not a “soldier” in the Soviet army.

Even now, Mogilny declines to discuss the exact details of his flight for freedom.

“He told me, ‘Mike, I was scared,’ ” said Mike Barnett, Mogilny’s current agent. “As great a talent as he is, his real legacy is that he is the one who broke the proverbial ice in coming over. The others had the blessing of their federation. At 18, he went out the back door and had everything to lose.”

What Mogilny did was pave the way for other Soviets to join the NHL much earlier in their careers. One of his former linemates, winger Pavel Bure, ended up with the Vancouver Canucks and the other, center Sergei Fedorov, with the Detroit Red Wings. Mogilny, Bure and Fedorov were supposed to be the successors to the famous “KLM Line” of Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov.

Instead, Mogilny is tied for fifth among the league’s scoring leaders with 49 goals and 78 points. Last week, he had a chance to become the sixth player in NHL history to score 50 goals in 50 games. It would have taken a hat trick against Philadelphia on Tuesday, but he was held to an assist. And Mogilny sat out six games in October because of a shoulder injury.

Bure is tied for eighth in the league with 44 goals and 75 points. And if Fedorov weren’t playing behind Steve Yzerman, he would surely have more than 24 goals.

“Imagine if they had stayed together,” said Buffalo center Pat LaFontaine, whose partnership with Mogilny has helped him be second in league scoring.

“It probably would have been one of the greatest lines in history. But having them here makes for more of an exciting league.

“I think we’re better off just imagining how good they would have been. It’s like making a sequel to the movie “Slap Shot.” It’s a good thing they didn’t, because the original is a classic. You’d think a sequel might be better. But it’s never as good as the original.”

The fighting during “Slap Shot” has been, rightly or wrongly, the overriding image of the NHL. Now, the league wants to promote speed and skills--which means that Mogilny, Bure and Winnipeg’s Teemu Selanne are the future of the NHL. The era of the Wayne Gretzkys and Mario Lemieuxes appears to be giving way to these youngsters from Russia and other parts of Europe.

Mogilny, for his part, casts a wary eye toward stardom. For him, Buffalo has been good in the sense that the Bills are the biggest game in Upstate New York. Or were, until Sunday.

“I don’t like to be recognized,” he said. “I just go about my own business. I’m not that big yet. I guess you want to be big to a certain point. I just want to be a great hockey player, that’s it.”

His first three seasons in the league were marred by inconsistency as he struggled to adjust to the new language and to life in the United States. He even overcame a fear of flying.

Also, back in the former Soviet Union, his teammates didn’t get traded. Here, Mogilny took it hard when a couple of his teammates were traded away. He has adjusted to the reality of business in the NHL.

“I was a young age when I came here,” Mogilny said. “And a couple of the guys treated me well. And all of a sudden, boom, next year, they’re traded. It was a big loss for myself. I found it really hard for me. I said, is it worth it to get hurt?”

Buffalo Coach John Muckler went through the superstar stuff with the Edmonton Oilers in the Gretzky-Jari Kurri days. Now, he’s coaching another top 1-2 combination in LaFontaine and Mogilny.

“Alex was 18 years old when he came here, now he’s 23,” Muckler said. “He’s at the age where he should be playing well. He’s more confident now. Pat helps him. When you’re talented, it’s easier to play with someone who is just as talented and just as creative as you.”

Last month, Mogilny scored a hat trick in Buffalo on a night when there was a promotion involving sombreros. After Mogilny was chosen as the game’s first star, he skated out wearing a sombrero. His teammates say he would never have done that last season.

“In training camp, he said he didn’t want to disappear this season,” LaFontaine said. “He realized what kind of player he can be. He took on a responsibility to take it to that level. He’s more confident and he has a sly sense of humor.”

And he is wiser and richer.

Which brings us back to that contract Mogilny wanted last season. He will earn $750,000 this season and $850,000 next season. And then there are the bonuses. This season, he will earn $10,000 per goal from 40 on. From 45 on, it increases to $20,000. And there will be another six-figure sum awaiting Mogilny, depending on where he finishes in the league scoring race. If he wins it, he makes $200,000. Fifteenth place brings him $100,000.

The money will help Mogilny indulge in one of his favorite hobbies--shopping.

“He’d rather have one $800 suit than four suits costing $200 each,” Barnett said. “He came from Siberia, almost near the Chinese border. I have no idea where he got that attitude and philosophy. How many Russians do you know playing golf? He plays every day and has a six handicap.”

Mogilny is right about himself--he is different. Asked to describe his success this season, he doesn’t speak in hockey terms.

“It’s like a fine wine,” he said. “I’m getting better every game.”