Friday, May 2, 2014

1989-90 Buffalo Sabres Alexander Mogilny Jersey

On this date in 1989, Alexander Mogliny, then just 20 years old, made a choice that would affect the rest of his life.

While in Stockholm, Sweden, having just completed winning a gold medal at the 1989 World Championships, Mogilny made the life changing decision to become the first Soviet player to defect, leaving behind his family but escaping the totalitarian rule of the communist system, and iron-fisted Soviet old school coach Viktor Tikhonov in particular, whom Mogilny felt would make his life not only at the rink, but outside of hockey, miserable for years to come due to his independent nature.

Mogilny Soviet Union, Mogilny Soviet Union
Mogilny while playing for the Soviet Union National Team

The story begins at the 1988 NHL Entry Draft when the Sabres, with one of their two picks in the fifth round, selected one of the most exciting young players in the world, Alexander Mogilny with the 89th overall pick. While many Soviet players had been chosen in the NHL draft before, it was generally in much later rounds when taking a flyer on a player unlikely to ever appear in an NHL game was worth the roll of the dice with an essentially meaningless pick.

Gerry Mehan, the Sabres general manager explains, "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.”

At the beginning of 1989, former Sabre Don Luce, the club's Director of Amateur Evaluation, travelled to Anchorage, Alaska to to 1989 World Junior Tournament. There, Mogilny and linemate Pavel Bure, along with Sergei Fedorov, were finishing third and fourth in tournament scoring while leading the Soviets to a 6-1 record and the gold medal. Luce met briefly with Mogilny in Anchorage and gave him a business card, cementing Mogilny's decision to defect at the first opportunity.

That opportunity arrived four months later when the Soviets were given two days in Stockholm after winning the 1989 World Championship. Luce, at home in North America, received a phone call on this date in 1989 from a man who claimed to be Mogilny's agent, Sergei Fomitchev. Unsure if he was really in contact with Mogilny, he asked Fomitchev to have Mogilny repeat what he had said to him in Anchorage. Told then that he had not played very well, Mogilny had stated "I show you next game", prior to scoring a hat trick against Canada to clinch the gold medal.

After Mogilny repeated the phrase, Luce and Meehan were on a plane to Sweden three hours later, arriving midday on May 3rd. While waiting for Fomitchev to return from shopping, the got an urgent call saying Mogilny's defection had to happen right away because it would be his best opportunity to get away.

They met at a mall and drove off. The next two days were spent moving from hotel to hotel to avoid being found while Meehan worked with the U. S. Embassy to arrange the necessary paperwork.

At one point Mogilny, from the far eastern part of Russia where few players have originated from, attempted to call home and midway through the conversation the call was disconnected, giving rise to Mogilny's fears that the call had been traced and the authorities knew where they were.

The day they left they abandoned their rental car and took a taxi to the airport, and once inside the security gates, their fears of the Soviet officials was over. Meehan remembers, “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.”

Fedorov defected less than a year later at the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle and shortly afterwards the Iron Curtain fell and Bure joined the NHL without having to defect.

During his rookie season in the NHL, wearing he number 89 presented to him by the Sabres owner Seymour H. Knox III in recognition of his place in the draft and year of his defection, Mogilny would play 65 games, scoring 15 goals and 43 points as he became acclimated to living in North America and learning a new language and culture. "It was a huge adjustment to come to the NHL. The language barrier was the toughest part. Lack of communication affected me both on and off the ice. It also took some time to get used tot he airline travel. I had to deal with a fear of flying," Mogilny recalled.


He would double his goal total the following season to reach 30 for the first time.

The arrival of Pat Lafontaine in Buffalo would give Mogilny a world class teammate to work with and his point totals took another jump upwards, finishing 1991-92 with 39 goals and 84 points and became the first Russian on an NHL All-Star Team. Given a year to work together and now fully integrated into life in the United States and the NHL, Mogilny had one of the greatest seasons in league history in 1992-93. He would score 127 points from 51 assists and a remarkable 76 goals in 77 games. His 76 goals remain tied for fifth all-time in a single season with Teemu Selanne and Phil Esposito.

With Lafontaine limited to just 38 games over the next two seasons, Mogilny was named team captain in his absence, the first European to ever captain an NHL club, but his production suffered as a result of the missing Lafontaine.

Mogilny Captain, Mogilny Captain
Mogilny as captain of the Sabres

He was then traded to the Vancouver Canucks and reunited with Bure for the 1995-96 season, in which he would score 55 goals and 107 points, the second highest of his career in both categories.

Mogilny Bure Canucks, Mogilny Bure Canucks
The Russian duo of Mogilny and Bure reunited in Vancouver

After five seasons of diminishing point totals in Vancouver, from 107 to 73, then 45 twice, he was dealt to the New Jersey Devils late in the 1999-00 season, having previously enjoyed the most minimal playoff success to that point in his career, having only escaped the first round once in ten seasons.

Prior to leaving the Soviet Union, Mogilny had already, just ten days after his 19th birthday, won a gold medal at the 1988 Olympics and then added he World Championship gold just days before his defection. Now with the Devils, Mogilny would see his first extended playoff run, which would evetnually lead to a Stanley Cup championship. When he won the Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils, he became just the ninth player in history to join the Triple Gold Club.

The move to New Jersey was a positive one for Mogilny, as he would regain his scoring touch and exceed 40 goals for only the third time in his career, with 43 goals during an 83 point season and another run to the Stanley Cup Finals.

He would sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs for the 2001-02 season, where he would play for three seasons, including winning the Lady Byng Trophy in 2003 and scoring his 1,000th point in 2003-04, before returning to the Devils for the final season of his career in 2005-06 before retiring with 473 goals and 1032 points in 990 games.

Mogilny Devils, Mogilny Devils

Following his defection, Mogilny would never play for the Soviet Union again and suit up for Russia just once in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, cutting short what was destined to be a fine, if not outstanding, international career.

When asked following his career about the reasons for his defection, Mogilny responded, “Why did I do it? I did it for freedom. 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.”

Today's jersey is a 1989-90 Buffalo Sabres Alexander Mogilny jersey from the greatest season of his career, his 76 goal campaign in 1992-93. This jersey features the Sabres 20th Anniversary patch worn in Mogilny's rookie season following his defection earlier that year.

This jersey also sports Mogilny's distinctive #89, which is based on the year of his defection from the Soviet Union.

Buffalo Sabres 89-90 jersey photo BuffaloSabres89-90F.jpg
Buffalo Sabres 89-90 jersey photo BuffaloSabres89-90B.jpg
 photo BuffaloSabres89-90P.jpg

In today's video section, an interview with Mogliny from the 1989 World Junior Championships in January, a few months prior to his defection in April after the World Championships. He sticks to the party line quite well, giving little hint as to what was to follow, or at least that's what the interpreter tell us...


Here is a look at the some of the career highlights of Alexander Mogilny.


Here, Mogilny scores his 70th goal of the 1992-93 season, only the seventh player to reach 70 in NHL history.


Speaking of the remarkable 1992-93 season, here is a brief feature story on the partnership between Mogilny and Lafontaine.

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