The Shifts that Changed the Game: The Defection

In 1989, a fresh-faced Russian named Alexander Mogilny rewrote the NHL as we now know it.

The year was 1988. Stephen Hawking had just written his best-selling book A Brief History of Time. Gasoline was only .91 cents a gallon. Miami Sound Machine had recently released Dr. Beat and Gloria Estefan was in her sexual prime. Had I been a teenager in the mid-eighties, I would have done The Conga with Gloria on the regular. Life was good. Times were simple.

In 1988, Sergei Pryakhin was a fresh faced 25 year old trying to start anew in a strange and foreign country. Pryakhin you see, was a professional athlete. He was also the sole Russian to play hockey in the NHL that year.

The term "play hockey" in this case should be applied loosely as the act was performed sparingly; Pryakhin suited up only twice for the Calgary Flames throughout the season. By 1991, he was no more than an afterthought, amassing 46 games and marking a minuscule 11 points (3G, 8A) during that span. Only three years in the league, his career had been truncated.

Such was life for Russian hockey players in North America.

Before Pryakhin, Victor Nechayev was the NHL's most recent Russian, dressing in only 3 NHL games for the 1982-83 Los Angeles Kings. By the end of the 1983-84 season, he was out of hockey completely.

In the forty-two years between 1946 and 1988, Pryakhin and Nechayev were the only Eastern European Soviet born players to register game-play in the NHL.

With that being said, the leagues landscape was in for a drastic shift during the early 1990's. Over the next decade, the NHL saw the greatest infusion of talent in its longstanding history. Droves of Europeans -- predominantly from post-communist countries -- were lining up for the chance to become hockey's next superstar.

And it all started with one defection.

Despite what Sabres General Manager Gerry Meehan may lead you to believe, the Buffalo Sabres knew that drafting Alexander Mogilny in the 5th round (89th overall) of the1988 draft was a boom or bust type of risk. Up until that point, no Russian hockey player had ever been selected higher in an NHL Amateur Entry Draft. The pick was met with snide remarks and eye rolls across boardrooms league wide. Surely, this had to be some kind of joke. It was a move befittingly farce, coming from a team who selected the fictional Taro Tsujimoto at pick 183 of the 1974 draft. But as each of the other twenty NHL franchises were about to find out; Alexander Mogilny was the real deal.

Meehan stated years later that he would not have used the pick if he wasn't confident of Mogilny lighting up North American rinks only a few years later. However, the issue at hand for the Sabres was that since the Bolshevik Movement and the Russian Revolution led by Vladimir Lenin in 1917, Russia was governed under the veil of Communism. By 1922 the creation of the Soviet Union -- a single-party state run by communists -- had begun overtaking bordering countries throughout the majority of Eastern Europe, installing their governmental policies along the way.

While Communism did ultimately succumb in 1991, at the time of the 1988 draft, there were only two ways out of the Soviet Union; to defect -- which was extremely dangerous mission to accomplish -- or in a body bag. This was not a state that took kindly to the idea of it's citizens exercising their right to freedom. Nevertheless, regardless the uncertainly that lay ahead of him, on May 2, 1989, Alexander Mogilny made a phone call that changed the course of hockey history.

***

When Don Luce answered his phone that Tuesday morning, he wasn't quite sure what to make of the words coming through his receiver. The voice on the line was that of Sergei Fomitchev, claimed player agent of Mogilny, stating that his client was looking to escape the tyranny of the USSR and move to Buffalo, where he would play hockey for the Sabres.

After some coaxing and confirmation from Mogilny himself, it became evident this was no prank. Both Fomitchev and Mogilny were in Stockholm, Sweden with the national team as they participated in the 1989 World Championships. The Soviet team had been particularly strong over the previous years as Mogilny, along with Pavel Bure and Sergei Fedorov assembled what is still considered one of the most dominant lines in hockey. During the 1989 World Junior tournament, the trio combined for 38 points in seven games, leading the Soviet Union to their second of back-to-back gold medals. At the World Championships they put together another collaborative effort, scoring 18 points in ten games, again capturing gold for their country. But for Mogilny, this was not the life he envisioned. Unable to live on his own terms, Alexander Mogilny needed to escape.

For that to happen, a simple plan was hatched: Luce and Meehan were to hop on a plane to Sweden, where they would essentially abduct the talented Russian forward and bring him back to America. However, there were many issues the foursome overcame along the way to avoid being caught. Firstly, they were forced to drive along the Swedish countryside for days as not to compromise their local. This became more important once one of Mogilny's calls to his parents was cut off mid-sentence by the Soviet government. Only when they truly needed sleep did they check in at various hotels under different aliases.

It was a long few days, especially for the 20 year old Mogilny who had the weight of the world on his shoulders. Would his family be safe? Would life in Buffalo be more rewarding than what was forced on him by his Soviet superiors? Not to mention the fact that his reputation in his homeland would be forever tarnished. Ed. Note: After his defection, Mogilny only played for his country once, during the 1996 World Championships of Hockey. Choosing "freedom" as Mogilny termed it was a gutsy decision for someone of his youth and required a great level of maturity to execute. For his part, Mogilny lives life with no regrets and is now President of a KHL team in his hometown of Khabarovsk.

The Sabres integrated Mogilny into their line-up to start the 1989-90 season. He scored in his first regular season game, a 4-3 win over the Quebec Nordiques. He finished the season by playing in 65 games, totalling 43 points in the process. While the stats were modest in relation to the hype surrounding Mogilny, it was a different Russian who stole the league's spotlight that year.

***

After Mogilny's escape, other USSR players were grumbling about coming overseas to play in the NHL. Defenesman Viacheslav Fetisov was the first to request his release from the Red Army team and was met with resistance from Soviet officials. Aided by the Glasnost policy (created to force government transparency), Fetisov along with Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov (all three members of the KLM line) and several other Soviet players were able to obtain their release, making their NHL debuts for the start of the 1989-90 season. Makarov went on to score 86 points for the Calgary Flames (who also still employed Sergei Pryakhin at this point) and was the first Europeen to be awarded the Calder Trophy for the leagues most outstanding rookie in the spring of 1990.

By the 1990-91 season, Sergei Fedorov had now been signed by the Detroit Red Wings. He scored 79 points, but finished second to Ed Belfour in the Calder Calder race. The trophy was reclaimed by a Russian the following season, when Pavel Bure -- the final member of the trio leave Russia -- marked 60 points for the Vancouver Canucks.

By 1992-93, Alexander Mogilny was now one of the NHL's greatest superstars. Not only was he co-captain of the Buffalo Sabres, but he also scored a league high 76 goals (tied with Teemu Selanne). Mogilny finished his career with over 1000 points and a 1.04 point per game career average, winning one Stanley Cup as a member of the 2000 New Jersey Devils. Despite his great accomplishments, he was not the only of his former line mates to etch their names across the NHL's record books. Fedorov went on to win the 1994 Hart Trophy (League MVP) and 1994 Lester B. Pearson Award (MVP as voted by players) for his 120 point performance, beating out the great Wayne Gretzky in voting. He was the first European born player to win either award. He also collected Stanley Cup Championships in 1996 1997, 1998 and 2002 with the Red Wings. And while a Stanley Cup would ultimately elude Bure, he did win back-to-back Rocket Richard awards in 2000 and 2001, scoring 58 and 59 goals respectively for the Florida Panthers before injuries cut his playing career short.

By the mid-nineties, Russian hockey players now contributed for 7.3% (59) of the league. In only a matter of years, Russian hockey had exploded onthe NHL scene. And it wasn't that they were just playing in the NHL (see: Pryakhin), they were reshaping the game with their speed and skill while racking up multiple awards in the process.

The influx of Russian-born players reached it's peak at 7.7% in 1999-00. But it wasn't just Russians that had made their way onto NHL rosters. Throughout the mid to late 90's, the leagues European content pinnacled, as players of Swedish, Finish, Czech, Slovakian, Belarusian, Ukrainian and Polish decent were being drafted by General Managers who would wring their hands in joy, hoping they were getting their hands on the next Peter Forsberg, Teemu Selanne, Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, or Sergei Fedorov.

But everything came full circle, back to Mogilny. Though it could be debated that Russian hockey players could have made their way to the NHL after the abolition of Communism at the same frequency, the fact remains that Mogilny had the wherewithal and the intestinal fortitude to make a life-altering decision which culminated in a plethora of skilled athletes who, because of Mogliny, grew the courage to do the same. Without Mogilny's defection, Makarov and Fetisov -- both 31 upon their arrival to America -- may have never played in the NHL. No Calder Trophies, no Stanley Cups.

Moreover, the possibility remains that hockey fans could have been robbed of the prime years of Sergei Fedorov and Pavel Bure sans Mogilny. Had they decided to sign NHL contracts into their late twenties, some of the greatest on-ice theatrics ever displayed would have gone unseen. Despite all the talk of these players being enigmas, fans still yearned to watch them as they honed their on-ice craft.

In fact, Game 4 of the 1998 Western Conference Finals between the Dallas Stars and Detroit Red Wings -- a game which contained 10 European born players (26.3% of the combined rosters) -- still ranks seventh among the most watched hockey games in the past fifteen years, rating an overnight of 2.5.

Vyacheslav Kozlov scored the game winner.

One defection was all it took.

Ed. Note: Resources include Ken Campbell's "The Historic Defection", www.quanthockey.com, www.hockey-reference.com and www.puckthemedia.wordpress.com. Photo courtesy of http://gmbass.files.wordpress.com.

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