The Buffalo Sabres are celebrating their 40th anniversary next season and Die by the Blade will take a look back through the history of the franchise throughout the summer. One of the features will be a weekly feature entitled What If Wednesday. A couple of months ago I read a book entitled "What If the Babe Had Kept His Red Sox?" by Bill Gutman. It inspired me to do this feature with a Buffalo Sabres flavor.
This is the sixth week in the What If Wednesday's feature. After a week off we are back with the story that first came to mind when I decided to do this feature. This is the story of the Alexander Mogilny and his defection from the Soviet Union in 1989.
The defection of Alexander Mogilny will forever be known as one of the most important moments in Buffalo Sabres and probably NHL history. We will probably never know the entire story of his defection but the details have become more clear throughout the years.
Imagine being Don Luce when the call comes to tell you that Alexander Mogilny wants to defect to the United States. Luce thought it was a joke and who could blame him?
Luce received the call from Sergei Fomitchev, who claimed to be Mogilny's agent. Thinking it was a ruse, Luce told Mogilny, through Fomitchev, to repeat the English phrase Mogilny said to him during their conversation in Anchorage. Luce pointed out to Mogilny that he hadn't played particularly well and in broken English, Mogilny said, "I show you next game." The next game was against Canada and the Soviets clinched the gold medal on the strength of a Mogilny hat trick.
When Mogilny repeated the phrase, Luce called Meehan and they were on a plane to Stockholm three hours later.
Don Luce and Gerry Meehan deserve a lot of credit for helping Mogilny in his voyage to the United States but it was the persistence and bravery of Mogilny himself that made the whole thing possible. Sabres history would be altered forever if not for the bravery of everyone involved.
There are some that believe Mogilny would have been allowed to come play in the NHL within a couple of years and the defections was unnecessary, while others believe the defection of Mogilny and later Sergei Federov opened the door for the players who were later allowed to leave. The Soviets watched their players defect and play in the NHL for free and instead they created a transfer agreement that allowed them to earn money for the players they would probably lose anyway.
It is amazing to think how much a young kids life was altered for an opportunity at freedom and to play hockey. Mogilny was never shy about how grateful he was for everything that happened to him. Mogilny wore number 14 while playing for the Soviets but Sabres owner Seymour Knox gave Mogilny the number 89 when he came to Buffalo. That number was significant because was the year he came to America and he was drafted #89 overall by the Sabres in 1988.
"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."
Changing Sabres History
There was plenty of hoopla surrounding the debut of Mogilny in 1989 and he didn't disappoint. He had respectable numbers as a rookie but he had trouble adjusting to the North American culture. The next season he became a 30 goal scorer and started to show glimpses of what he would become.
In 1991 the Sabres made one of the most important trades in franchise history when they traded Pierre Turgeon to the New York Islanders for Pat LaFontaine. This is a trade that probably would not have happened if the Sabres didn't need a player to play alongside Mogilny. The pair quickly gelled and Sabres fans were treated to one of the most incredible seasons in franchise history. Mogilny scored 76 goals in 77 games alongside LaFontaine who had an incredible 148 points.
The End in Buffalo
The 1994-1995 season was a difficult season for hockey fans and a difficult season for Mogilny. With LaFontaine injured for most of the season, Mogilny struggled to find his game and finished with only 19 goals in 44 games and he showed his displeasure on the ice. Mogilny was always known as a strong willed, selfish player and it was never more evident than it was in 1995.
The Sabres shipped him off in the summer for a first round draft pick and prospects Mike Peca and Mike Wilson. At the time it appeared the Sabres were robbed in the deal but we all know how good Peca became.
Mogilny will forever be one of the most dynamic players to ever wear a Sabres uniform despite his abrupt departure because of what was believed to be a lack of maturity. Mogilny left Buffalo for the same reason he came to town in the first place, he did things on his own terms and didn't like to be told what to do. That is also what made him such a great player.