Alexander Mogilny, "Mogs" as he was known to many of his teammates, was known as a happy-go-lucky, carefree spirit. He has a world of talent but on some nights a thimble of execution. On any given night he could dance all over the rink, wow the crowd and make the opposition drool. He was just that good.
Yet on many other nights he was simply invisible - floating across the ice, not doing much of anything. On those nights you just hoped he did not wake up if you were a fan of the opposition.
Alexander Mogilny represented the best of two worlds, almost literally. He was born in Khabarovsk USSR, and was raised in the old Soviet hockey system. Based on his skating and puck handling skills, he could rank among the very elite in Russia's hockey history. Based on talent alone he is in the top 1 or 2 per cent of all hockey players ever.
Even though the walls of communism were literally on the verge of falling in 1989, Mogilny desperately wanted out of the Soviet Union. At that time Soviet hockey veterans such as Viacheslav Fetisov and Sergei Makarov were finally being freed to play outside of the Motherland. It was a reward for their years of service, they were publicly told.
Yet for a young star like Mogilny, who was named as the best forward at the 1988 World Junior Championships in 1988, it meant little. It still appeared he would have to go through several years with Red Army and the Soviet national teams. Little did he know that in just a couple of years he too would have been allowed to go anywhere he pleased.
But Mogilny, who was drafted in 1988 by the Buffalo Sabres, was impatient. He wanted to go to the United States as badly as he wanted to get away from Viktor Tikhonov.
Tikhonov was a mercilessly tough coach, particularly on his star players. It was his way of pushing his players to perform even better. Tikhonov was tough on Mogs, and his linemates Sergei Federov and Pavel Bure. The last straw for Mogs was in February 1989. He was struck in the face by the stick of Spartak defenseman Yuri Yaschin. Mogilny felt the blow was deliberate, and immediately dropped his gloves and stormed over to Yaschin, and belted him. Such an act of undiscipline landed him a 10 game suspension and his beloved title of "Merited Master of Sport For The Soviet Union" was stripped from him. He earned that while playing with the Red Army as a junior aged player at the 1988 winter Olympics.
Rather than expose himself to what he thought would be years of such degradation like so many before him, Mogilny decided to defect his beloved mother country. Mogilny vanished into the night during the 1989 World Junior championships in Stockholm, Sweden. Tikhonov, in the meantime, boarded the plane to go home, and was shocked to see an empty seat where his star of the future was supposed to be.
"Today I feel nothing but happiness," he said shortly after defecting. "Perhaps this season was a rough one for me. I wouldn't wish what I went through on my worst enemy. The conflict with the players cost me a lot. I'm not made of steel, you know"
Years later, Mogilny looked back on his decision.
"I've always had an independent streak, and that was not tolerated by the Soviet authorities. I came to the NHL when I couldn't see any future in the Russian League. So many things were happening politically. Hockey officials could control many aspects of my life beyond the ice rink, from what rank I could hold in the army to what kind of apartment I could live in. I thought I had to defect to maintain any hope of extending my hockey career."
Initially it was feared that Mogilny's defection would have adverse consequences for Soviet players trying to get to North America or western European club teams. Russian hockey officials cried foul and threaten to cancel any further allowances. However that proved to be empty threats as "Glastnost" could not be stopped.
When Mogilny arrived in the NHL with the Buffalo Sabres, he had a special present awaiting him.
"Buffalo Sabres owner Seymour H. Knox gave me sweater number 89 when I joined his team. I was the 89th pick in the draft, and I came to North America in 1989. Wearing 89 on my back is special to me; it's more than just a number."
For a 20 year old rookie, Mogilny had an okay season in year one. He scored 16 times and had 43 points. At times he showed brilliance that no other rookie and few other NHLers could display, but at other times he was obviously having a tough time adjusting to life in North America.
"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."
Alex gradually became a steady 30+ goal threat, but it wasn't until the Sabres traded star center Pierre Turgeon to the New York Islanders in exchange for Pat Lafontaine in 1992 that Mogilny blossomed. Lafontaine and Mogilny worked like clockwork. The result - Mogilny exploded to share the NHL lead with 76 goals (with Teemu Selanne) in 77 games! He added 51 assists for 127 points. With Lafontaine Mogilny was almost scoring at will. Finally Mogilny was living up to this highest potential.
"Offensive hockey is my game, and Pat and I explored a lot of ways to put the puck in the net. It was so enjoyable to play with him. He's such a talent hockey player that he made my job easier," recalls Mogilny fondly.
He also credits his coach for his success that season.
"John Muckler didn't hold us back. He told us to play hard and do whatever worked for us."
Unfortunately for Mogilny, the Sabres, hockey fans everywhere and especially Lafontaine, the star center got hurt in 1993-94. He only participated in 16 games, and Mogs production fell big time. He put up respectable numbers with 32 goals and 79 points in 66 games, but clearly it was disappointing to have your goal production dip by 44 goals!
After the lockout shortened season of 1995, Mogilny was traded, largely due to financial reasons. The Sabres quite frankly couldn't afford the contract that both he and Lafontaine commanded. And since Mogilny's production fell off drastically when Lafontaine wasn't there, he was the first to go. He was traded to the Vancouver Canucks for a spunky young center named Mike Peca. Also going to Buffalo was gigantic defenseman Mike Wilson and a 1st round pick which turned out to be another big blueliner in Jay McKee.
Hockey experts immediately claimed the deal was a landslide for Vancouver. Wilson was a decent prospect, and the 1st round pick was 14th overall, and everyone knew Mike Peca was going to be a good player, although no one probably knew he'd be as good as he became. But it was a very small price to pay to get one of the most skilled players in the league. In addition, the Canucks already had Pavel Bure, Mogs old junior linemate. Reuniting those two would be a most certain unstoppable force!
Things never did work out that way for the Canucks though. In that first year Pavel tore ligaments in his knee and missed the entire season. Mogilny, playing with creative smurf Cliff Ronning, picked up the slack with a big 55 goal season. It was a huge season for Mogilny, as he silenced many of his most vocal critics.
"I'm paid to score goals and make plays. That's what I do best. I was saddened to see Pavel miss most of the 1995-96 season due to injury, but it was nice to show some of my critics that I could still rack up some points without Pat Lafontaine or Pavel. I proved them wrong. That was the best part of the season for me. We had a lot of injuries on the team, so it was a poor year for the club, but it was a good year, a rebound year for me."
Unfortunately that good year was never followed up in Vancouver. He dipped to 31 goals the following year. Pavel had returned and took up a lot of his ice time. By 1997-98 Pavel had returned to his usual form and had 50+ goals. Mogilny only had 18 in an injury shortened year. With Pavel sitting out the 1998-99 season in a contract dispute, Mogs only scored 14 times.
Clearly Mogilny had become a huge disappointment in Vancouver. In the meanwhile Jay McKee and especially Mike Peca developed into big parts of a strong Buffalo Sabres organization that went to the Cup finals in 1999. Five years after the traded that was supposed to be lopsided in Vancouver's favor had taken place, you would be hard pressed to find someone who would trade Peca for Mogilny straight up.
The Canucks finally gave up on Mogilny in 1999-2000. He was traded to the New Jersey Devils for Brendan Morrison and Denis Pederson. There was no doubting that Mogilny was the most talented player on the team, perhaps more so than Pavel Bure ever was even, but he was too inconsistent. Many nights he was simply invisible. Not helping matters was an array of injuries and a good playmaking center which he publicly begged for.
Mogilny was acquired by the Devils to be the game breaking scorer in the playoffs that they have always lacked. Though he did not immediately provide offense, he did help the Devils win the 2000 Stanley Cup. Mogilny only scored 4 goals in 24 games.
Mogilny did find his game the following year, notching 43 goals and leading the Devils on another long playoff run, just falling short in successfully defending the Stanley Cup championship.
A free agent in the summer of 2001, Mogilny signed on with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Mogilny would put in seasons of 24 and 33 goals, but the Leafs never did find post-season magic they so greatly craved.
The 2003-04 season was the beginning of the end for Mogilny. A chronic hip injury limited him to just 37 games and eventually would force him into retirement. The New Jersey Devils did give him another shot following the lockout, but when it was clear his injuries greatly hampered his ability, he was waived to the minor leagues, albeit in large part due to salary cap considerations with Patrik Elias return from long term illness. For Mogilny, it was a sad ending for a great hockey player.
Mogilny was an extremely popular player. He has a zest for life, perhaps because he grew up in the old Soviet Union. He appreciates freedom more than us who take it for granted. So it's hard to knock him for being a bit carefree.
Here's some highlight reel goals by Alexander Mogilny: