NHL Draft Stories: The Defector

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The NHL Draft is just under a month away. The draft always provides plenty of drama and intrigue amongst fans and media. This has been true since its inception. While people tend to get excited about trades and prospects, there are other moments that leave people scratching their heads. For this edition, we go back to 1988 when the Iron Curtain still divided Europe, the Soviets ruled international hockey and one player dared to chase his NHL dream.

The Defector

No Russian

The rivalry between East and West during the Cold War extended to all aspects of life. It was about political ideology, human rights, military might and gaining victories over your rival no matter how small. Politicians would brag about these victories as a way of showing superiority. This rivalry spilled over into sports as well, specifically hockey.

NHL free agent frenzy

There were several iconic hockey moments during the cold war. There was the Summit Series, the Canada Cup and the Miracle on Ice to name a few. The hockey rivalry was based on the unknown. The Soviet team was very strong and they loved to brag about it, but their players were barred from playing in NHL. Teams, fans and media only had limited access to see them due to this. From 1946 to 1988 only two Soviet players played in the NHL Clubs would use later-round picks on some of the best Soviet players but there was no expectation of them ever coming to play in the NHL. There were only two ways out of the Soviet Union in those days, the very dangerous act of defection or as a corpse.

Defection

To this point, there had only been two Soviet players to ever play in the NHL, Victor Nechayev with the Los Angeles Kings and Sergei Pryakhin with the Calgary Flames. Both players have been allowed to leave because they were not viewed as star players. They did not fare well in the NHL at all. If a star player wanted to play in the NHL there was only one option: defect.
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It had been done before. Just not by a Soviet. Peter Stastny defected from the (then) Czechoslovakia in 1980 with his brother Anton Stastny. The following year a third brother, Marion Stastny defected as well. They were the first players to defect from the Soviet Block. Still, the Soviets would not allow their star players to leave and following the Stastny brother’s defections, it became much more difficult.

Alexander Mogilny

Alexander Mogilny was selected to join the famed CSKA Moskow team, known commonly as the Red Army team, as a 17-year-old in 1986. He along with fellow 17-year-old Sergei Fedorov was the youngest player on the team. In his first year, Mogilny posted 15 goals in 28 games. In 1987 he represented the USSR at the World Junior Hockey Championships. He scored three goals and five points in six games before the Punch-Up in Piestany happened.

The Soviets saw the great potential that was in Mogilny. They had him pegged, along with Fedorov and the soon-to-arrive Pavel Bure as the next great Soviet line to take over from the KLM line. The famed KLM line of Igor Larionov, Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Makarov were incredibly dominant. They led the Soviet attack during the 80’s with great success. Now it was time to get the next generations ready.

Mogilny for his part was living up to expectations. He continued to shine for the Red Army team and the USSR between 1987 to 1989. During the 1989 World Junior Hockey Championships, the world got a taste of what the Mogilny-Fedorov-Bure line could do. The line combined for 36 points in eight games en route to a gold medal. Mogilny, for his part, scored seven goals and had 12 points.

Mogilny also shined for the senior team as well. He was the youngest member of the gold medal-winning USSR team at the 1988 Olympics. At the tournament, he scored three goals and five points in six games. He also won gold at the 1989 World Hockey Championships. Despite his success with the Soviet national team, Mogilny yearned to play in the NHL and as fate would have it the 1989 World Championships would be where he would make his move.

Just In Case

While there was still an embargo on Soviet players jumping to the NHL, teams were becoming much more aware of how talented these players were. Events like the Canada Cup, the Super Series and Rendez-Vous ’87 allowed the North American hockey fan to see these talented players. It also let scouts and general managers how the Soviets would fare against NHL competition.

Teams would as mentioned, take late-round flyers on Soviet players just in case. In 1983, The Flames drafted Sergei Makarov, the Vancouver Canucks drafted Igor Larionov in 1985 and Vladimir Krutov in 1986. Despite there being (what they thought) no chance of these players ever suiting up in the NHL, they were so talented teams would take the risk.

1988 NHL Draft

The Buffalo Sabres did just that when they selected Mogilny in the fifth round of the 1988 draft. This was the highest a Soviet player had ever been selected in the NHL draft. The pick was met with groans and eye rolls from the other teams. This was the franchise that drafted a fake player after all. While Mogilny was considered a top prospect, the fifth round was surely too early to burn a pick on a player that would never suit up. The Sabres are making a joke of the draft, again. For the Sabres, it was a boom or bust pick to be sure.

For Mogilny it was his way out of an oppressive regime, he just need to plan his escape. That would take time. Time and the right opportunity. He also needed to not attract any attention to his plan or suffer the scrutiny of the KGB. There was a lot on the line for Mogilny. It needed to go just right.

1989 World Championships

After arriving in Sweden for the World Championships, Alexander Mogilny seized the moment to enact his plan to defect from the Soviet Union. He spoke no English at the time, so he got his agent, Sergei Fomitchev, to contact the Sabres from Sweden to express his desire to join the team. At first, head of player development Don Luce thought the call was a prank. After some convincing, Luce concluded this was the real deal. Now he had to figure out a way to get Mogilny out of Stockholm at the conclusion of the Championships.

Despite all his success with Soviet teams, Mogilny scoffed at not being able to live his life on his own terms. He wanted an escape and he seemed to find it.

The Defection


The plan hatched by Luce and Sabres general manager Gerry Meehan was a simple one. Get to Stockholm and ‘kidnap’ Mogilny to Buffalo. While it seemed simple enough, the Sabres and Mogilny had to take serious precautions to avoid alerting the Soviet government. So at the conclusion of the tournament, Luce and Meehan grabbed Mogilny and Fomitchev and set out to bring them to Buffalo. The foursome still had to perform some secret spy maneuvers to avoid detection. Firstly, they drove a car along the Swedish countryside so as to not give away their location. They would only stop to sleep when it was absolutely necessary and would use fake names at the motels they would use. Tension rose when a phone conversation Mogilny was having with his family was cut off mid-conversation by the Soviet government.

It was a long and stressful few days. Mogilny was sacrificing a lot. His reputation would forever be tarnished back home. He might have put his family in danger. Would he enjoy playing in the NHL more than he did with the Red Army? These were all things that were swirling around the 20-year-old’s head while trying to escape. After enough time had passed, the quartet boarded a plane to Buffalo, Mogilny was free.

Alexander the Great

After a bit of a slow start, Mogilny had an excellent career in the NHL. In 990 NHL games, Mogilny scored 473 goals and 1032 points. He led the league in goal scoring in 1992-92 with 76 goals. H was a six-time All-Star, a Lady Bing winner and a Stanley Cup Champion. During his career, Mogilny played for the Sabres, Canucks, New Jersey Devils and Toronto Maple Leafs.

Even surpassing his on-ice excellence is his legacy as the first Soviet player to defect and play in the NHL. Mogilny’s defection led to an influx of Soviet players looking to live out their hockey dreams in the NHL, free of Soviet oppression. Soviet players began to voice their discontent and expressed their desire to play in the NHL. In the subsequent years, other Soviet stars would defect including; the entire KLM line, Fedorov,  Bure, and Vyacheslav Kozlov to name a few.