BUFFALO, N.Y. - There was never a question of his talent, the big unknown was would Alexander Mogilny ever be allowed to leave the Soviet Union to play in the National Hockey League? The Sabres decided to roll the dice and use their 5th round pick (89th overall) in the 1988 draft on the speedy Russian star.
"It was a total gamble, it was like roll the dice and hope he wants to come" says former Sabres executive and player Don Luce. It was a gamble because Mogilny was the Soviet's rising star in the waning days of the cold war. When the Sabres made their selection, no Soviet player had ever been on an NHL roster.
Luce, who was the Head of Player Development, first met Mogilny at the 1989 World Junior Championships in Alaska. "I introduced myself just briefly between games. I just gave him my business card and explained if you ever need to come over just give me a call."
Fast forward four months to the World Championships in Stokholm, Sweden. Mogilny was the most talked about player in the tournament, a tournament the Soviet Union won. As the Soviets celebrated, Mogilny was planning his escape. A dramatic series of events unfolded in the days following the tournament that were like the plot of a James Bond thriller.
It all began with a phone call to Luce's home here in Western New York from someone purporting to be a representative of Alexander Mogilny. "He said Alex wanted to come over" remembers Luce. "I wasn't sure what I should do so I asked if I can talk with Alex. He put Alex on and I asked him a certain thing of when he met me." Convinced that Mogilny wanted to leave his team and country behind, Luce and then-Sabres General Manager Gerry Meehan boarded a plane for Sweden.
"First off, we have to make sure he really wants to come and is willing to take that risk." A risk that Luce says started to sink in the deeper they got into it. "We thought it was a risk at first to a certain level, but once we got to Stockholm and things started we knew it was more of a risk than we thought it was."
After they met with the agent, they were told that as a reward for winning the tournament, the Soviet team had been given a day off to go shopping at a local mall. That was where they would meet Mogilny. Their car pulled up, Mogilny came running to the car. Luce says he saw men, they assume to have been Soviet agents, running after them.
As Meehan (who is now an immigration attorney) worked with the U.S. Consulate to gain Mogilny's entry to the U.S., Luce and Alexander did what they had to to keep a step ahead of the KGB. "He was with us for a couple days where we had to, seemed like we had to switch hotels every 6 hours."
Mogilny was the first Soviet player to defect and the KGB was doing everything they could to try and prevent that. Even so, Luce says that the 20 year old did not come across as worried. "Alex wasn't worried at all, he was very confident, he knew what he wanted to do from the get-go and he was going to do it. He was probably the most calm of all of us." Luce says that they were aware that Mogilny was not the only one taking a big risk. "We were warned the first time Gerry went to the consulate that we were in serious danger."
Luce says that while they were taking a chance, nobody was taking more risk than Mogilny. He was about to leave his country, and his family with no guarantee he would ever see them again. He was also an officer in the Red Army, so he was now considered not only a defector, but also a deserter. "He was concerned for his family but he knew he had to do something and he wanted to do it."
They drove around the Swedish countryside for several days, using aliases at various hotels. Finally, Meehan was able to get clearance for Mogilny to enter the United States, Sabres brass, along with Alexander Mogilny landed at New York's LaGuardia Airport on May 7th. Two days later Mogilny announced he was applying for political asylum and planned to join the Sabres in training camp.
The politacl ripples continued for months and the criticism of Alex also continued in his home country. Maybe the defection was a sign of more unrest to come. 6 months later the Berlin Wall came down.
Alexander Mogilny spent the next 17 years continuing to break new ground. Mogilny was the first Russian NHL All-Star, the first European-born player to score 76 goals in a season and the first Euro to be named the captain of an NHL team.
For the Sabres and the NHL, it was a daring escape changed the face of hockey forever.