Alexander Mogilny: Forgotten Trailblazer

Pro players
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Michael Caccamo
Pro players
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If you only have a few minutes to spare, here's what you should know:
Alexander Mogilny is the first Russian player to leave the USSR without permission from the government.
Through a third-party, Mogilny notified the Sabres that he wanted to come to America. To avoid the KGB and being labeled a “deserter,” he was driven around for days, never staying for more than a few hours in one place, until the American Embassy could clear him. 
Despite scoring 473 goals in 990 games in the NHL and being a trailblazer for future Russian stars, Mogilny continues to be passed over by the Hockey Hall Of Fame.

What More Does Mogilny Have To Prove?

The Hockey Hall of Fame prides itself on rewarding trailblazers, so fans of the sport can marvel at their accomplishments.

For a former player or builder to be selected to the Hall of Fame, fourteen out of the eighteen selection committee members have to be in agreement.

There is no follow up with the media, no questions taken, no reason for why they make the decisions they do – their choices are final and that’s that. Due to a confidentiality agreement, opposition from the outside is prohibited, allowing the committee to avoid accountability.

For many years, a resounding argument around the sport was that three-time coach-of-the-year Pat Burns deserved to be inducted into the Hall of Fame while he was still alive to accept the honor.

Consistently, the selection committee would deny Burns and his family to bask in his accomplishments, taking away a perfect bookend to a marvelous career. This became an ongoing saga.

When Burns’ health took a turn for the worst, there was a collective hope that the Hall would finally grant him his place. Alas, the committee passed yet again, and it wasn’t until after Burns passed away due to colon cancer that the Hall of Fame finally inducted the decorated coach.

Like Burns before him, Alexander Mogilny continues to be shunned by the Hall of Fame’s selection committee.

Tensions regarding the conflict between Russia and Ukraine notwithstanding, Mogilny has been passed on for far too long.

Here is a Stanley Cup champion who put up 473 goals – among them the 1992-93 season, where the sniper tallied 76 goals in 77 games on a middling Buffalo Sabres team.

Mogilny is one of six members of the 75-goal club and the Hall of Fame continues to say, “No, thank you, and we won’t be taking any questions.”

A great question might be: “How can the Hall of Fame ignore the very reason greats such as Sergei Fedorov, Pavel Bure, and Pavel Datsyuk were able to play in the NHL?”

Alexander Mogilny
A young Mogilny with Sergei Fedorov who would later defect the Soviet Union a year after Mogilny

Mission: Impossible...?

Mogilny made history in 1989 when he defected to North America.

The legend begins the night of May 3, as the Soviets were celebrating their World Championship win in Stockholm, Sweden. While the Soviet National team headed back to Moscow the day after, Mogilny – at only twenty years of age – hopped on a plane heading to JFK Airport in New York.

Accompanied by the Sabres’ then general manager Gerry Meehan, and Don Luce, who was the team’s Director of Amateur Evaluation and Development, their fifth-round draft pick shocked the hockey world.

To be fair, Mogilny wasn’t the first Soviet player to leave the USSR. That was Sergei Pryakhin, who had joined the Calgary Flames two months prior.

The difference?

Pryakhin was granted permission from the government, whereas Mogilny was not.

Meanwhile, the Cold War wouldn’t end for another two years. Despite being so young, Mogilny decided to leave during a most contentious time. In doing so, he started a movement of players from the East who followed his lead, abandoning the Soviet system that was slowly breaking down.

Mogilny leaving for New York had to be done very strategically and carefully.

Through a third-party, the winger notified the Sabres that he wanted to come to America. To avoid the KGB and being labeled a “deserter,” Mogilny was driven around for days, never staying for more than a few hours in one place, until the American Embassy could clear him.

Like something out of a heist film, the Sabres were successful in the extraction of Mogilny, but the harrowing story doesn’t end there.

His family was constantly under threat by the Russian government – a tale so horrifying, it left the Vancouver Canucks’ head coach Mike Keenan speechless.

After berating the Russian star, the usually quiet Mogilny had had enough and responded that after everything he and his family went through back in Russia, the intimidating coach didn’t scare him.

Center Sergei Fedorov defected the year after Mogilny and Pavel Bure followed suit the year after Federov.

In Bure’s case, it was more a matter of money than espionage. By that point, the Soviet Union was fully crumbling, which opened the floodgates for more Russians to play in the West.

Mogilny captaining the Buffalo Sabres - a leader both on and off the ice

Mogilny's Legacy

That all starts with a very young and scared Mogilny.

If Russian participation in the NHL is the chicken, Mogilny is undoubtedly the egg from which it grew.

Now 54 years old, Mogilny remains the fourth-highest Russian-born scorer in NHL history. He went on to captain the Sabres, the first Russian player to do so.  

Over 16 seasons, he acquired personal hardware and accolades, including a Lady Byng trophy for his play during the 2002-03 season. His stellar and commanding play lead to a remarkable career, which the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee continues to ignore.

Mogilny has been eligible for the Hall since 2009 – marking 14 years that the Hall has elected against his inclusion among their ranks.

There are players in the Hall of Fame who did not win a Stanley Cup or achieve personal accolades, so what makes Mogilny especially worthy to be counted alongside them?

While it’s important to consider how hockey can be made better for the future, it’s equally as important to recognize the trailblazers who brought the sport to where it is today.

Mogilny was vital in the changing landscape of the NHL.

For his entire career, Mogilny donned the number 89, in honor of the year he defected, as well as his draft position. Not only did he become a great player and leader, but his dramatic story played a crucial part in hockey history, forever altering the make-up of the NHL.

To ignore the backstory, awards, and statistics hinders the sport and denies its history.

Every category that is important for the Hall of Fame is checked off in his case and the time to give Mogilny his credit is long overdue. It took Pat Burns a very long time to be inducted – far longer than it should have.

One can only hope that Mogilny doesn’t suffer the same fate.

When it is time for Mogilny to be called to the Hall, hopefully he is able to relish in his glory once more, after all the sacrifices he made, both on and especially off the ice.

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