When he got off theplane at New York's Kennedy airport on May 4, 1989, Alexander Mogilny was eagerto embrace his destiny. He would be rich. He would be famous. And above all, hewould be free.
Instead, Mogilny,the first hockey player to defect from the former Soviet Union, became aprisoner of his own expectations. He was traumatized by culture shock andparalyzed by self-doubt. The Buffalo Sabres watched in frustration as Mogilny,a marvelous talent, withdrew deeply into himself.
"I'm a humanbeing, not a robot," Mogilny says now. "I was 20 years old when I camehere. New country, new language, new place. It takes a long time to feelcomfortable. I guess it showed."
In his first threeNHL seasons Mogilny showed increasingly frequent flashes of brilliance. Hisgoals and assists went up each year, reaching 39 and 45, respectively, lastseason, but he was at best inconsistent and at worst moody. In early Decemberof this season he was at his worst again, gliding through four consecutivegames on automatic pilot. Veteran forward Dave Hannan decided to find out ifpeer pressure would work where heat from various coaches had not. "Alex,you have so much ability," Hannan said, using language that was slightlymore colorful. "Try to push yourself. You never know what mighthappen."
Now we know.Mogilny lit the red light 23 times, including four hat tricks, in his next 13games. At week's end he had a league-leading 46 goals in Buffalo's first 48games. If not for a shoulder injury that sidelined him for six games inOctober, he would have had an even better chance to become the sixth player inNHL history to score 50 goals in his team's first 50 games, putting him inexclusive company. The 50-50 club was founded by Rocket Richard and includesMike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull. Malingering Mogilnyhas finally become Alexander the Great.
"It's abouttime, man," says Mogilny, a slope-shouldered 23-year-old right wing,echoing the sentiments of his coaches and teammates. "This is the time forme to show what I'm capable of."
The Sabres havebeen streaking along with Mogilny, going 13-6-1 in their last 20 games.Unfortunately, almost no one in Bill-crazy Buffalo has noticed. If a hockeyteam explodes in a tundra full of football fans, does anybody hear? "We'remaking a silent move," says coach John Muckler, whose damn-the-torpedoesstyle helped the Edmonton Oilers win the Stanley Cup three years ago.
Like hispredecessor in Buffalo, Rick Dudley, who was fired in December 1991, Mucklerwaited impatiently for Mogilny to live up to the reputation he carried with himwhen he skipped out on the Soviet National Team to sign with the Sabres."It comes down to desire," Muckler says. "He's going to be as goodas he wants to be, and right now he wants to be good very badly."
"Alex Mogilnycan do things that I've never seen anybody else do," says Sabre center PatLaFontaine, who has assisted on 23 of Mogilny's goals this season. "Withhis speed, with his quickness, with his hands, with his ability to be at topspeed in three strides, it's scary. When a guy like that gets in a groove, youwant to feed him every chance you get."
Sabre generalmanager Gerry Meehan, an attorney who has a background in immigration law,spearheaded the clandestine effort to bring Mogilny to Buffalo. "Everyoneignores the fact that when Alex came here he was basically a stateless,homeless person," Meehan says. "He made a big decision at a young age,and at first he shied away from the attention. Now he's gone from being shyabout his ability to wanting to express it every night."
Mogilny joined thedominant Central Red Army team at 17, and two years later, at the 1988Olympics, he became the youngest Soviet hockey player ever to win a gold medal.A free spirit from Khaborovsk, Siberia, he chafed under the authoritarianregime of coach Viktor Tikhonov. Upon hearing that the Sabres had made himtheir fifth-round pick in the '88 draft, Mogilny began to plan his escape.
Unlike every otherRussian who has entered the NHL—before or after the Soviet Union imploded in1991—Mogilny did not negotiate with the authorities to secure his release. Atthe time, only older Soviet stars were allowed to jump to the NHL. "What,you think I was going to waste my best years?" he says. "No way,man."
Mogilny got intouch with Sabre director of development Don Luce from Stockholm, where theSoviets had just won the world junior championships. Luce and Meehan quicklyflew to Sweden, where they went into hiding with Mogilny. Four days later theyboarded a commercial flight bound for the United States. Mogilny was ultimatelyconvicted in absentia for desertion from the Red Army, in which he wasnominally a junior lieutenant. "Any resemblance between Alex and a soldierwas purely coincidental," says Meehan. "He was a hockeyplayer."
The U.S.S.R. may beconsigned to the dustbin of history, but Mogilny still isn't sure when, or if,he'll ever go home again. His parents have visited him twice, and he has helpedthem financially. "There is no reason for me to go there and put myself indanger," he says. "1 still don't trust, really. There's also nothing todo there. There are no golf courses, for example. What the hell am I going todo there? Drink a bottle of vodka every day? No, thank you. It's safer here. Ienjoy it here."
Mogilny wearsnumber 89, to celebrate the year he banked his first $150,000. "Money was abig part of it [the defection]," he says. "Let's not kid ourselves.What, you think I want to play for 500 rubles [less than $100] a month orwhatever back in Russia now? You go nowhere without money in thisworld."
Mogilny is earning$650,000 this season and could break into seven figures next year. He carries aclassic-sports-car catalog with him on the road. "I'm just thinking ofbuying something," he says with a wink. "Something exciting. Formyself. A little present. Maybe a Porsche." Not bad for a guy who grew updreaming of being put on the list for a Lada.
Driving has alwaysbeen his preferred mode of transportation. In February 1990, two thirds of theway through his rookie season, he suddenly was overwhelmed by a fear of flying.He walked off a team charter that was about to depart from Toronto and didn'tget on another plane for two months. The Sabres hired a driver to take him toroad games, including one in St. Louis. The Buffalo News called thisarrangement "Driving Mr. Mogilny." He didn't think it was funny.
The Sabres gave hima six-game leave of absence later that season and arranged for counseling,which ultimately eased his fears. "I wasn't used to traveling thatmuch," says Mogilny, who now delights in identifying every golf course inBuffalo from the air. "And no matter what kind of weather, we're flyinganyway. I couldn't handle it. It just freaked me out."
"Alex neededtime away from all the attention, time to come to grips with what had happenedto him," Meehan says. "He needed peace in his life."
And war in hisheart. Now, at last, he has both.