THE MEN WHO ‘STOLE’ MOGILNY

Howie Mooney
FiredUp Network Sports Writer

@HowieMooney

Tuesday, March 22, 2022


 

 

 

Photos-O-PeeChee Company/Upper Deck

 

I have no doubt that many of you already know how Alexander Mogilny came to play in the National Hockey League.  You probably know that he defected to the United States from the former Soviet Union in 1989 and that he joined the Buffalo Sabres and he became a star.  Some of you may know the entire story.  Some of you may know a little bit of how it all came to be and some of you may know none of it.

In any case, the story is much more complicated and convoluted than just a few words in one single paragraph.  Here, on these pages, I am going to try to tell you as much of the story of how Alex Mogilny came to become a Sabre and how he left the Soviet Hockey program, the Soviet Red Army, his family and his country behind to find a new life in America as I possibly can.

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If I asked you to describe Gerry Meehan and Don Luce to me, you might be hard pressed to do so.  They both look quiet and unassuming on their old hockey cards, but we all know that one cannot make it up the hockey ranks and play in the NHL if one was ‘quiet and unassuming’.  Looks can indeed be deceiving and career paths can also be circuitous.  For these two men, their career paths were somewhat interesting.

Meehan grew up in Toronto and attended Neil McNeil High School on Victoria Park Avenue down near Kingston Road on the old border of the borough of East York and Scarborough.  He was good enough to play for the Toronto Marlboros of the Ontario Hockey Association and he became Toronto Maple Leafs’ property when they took him in the draft.

His first season of professional hockey, 1967-68, was spent with the Tulsa Oilers of the Central League.  The following year, he played split time between the veteran-laden Leafs and the Phoenix Roadrunners of the Western League.  In March of 1969, Toronto traded him to the Philadelphia Flyers in a package for Forbes Kennedy and Brit Selby.  He finished the ’68-69 season with the Flyers and spent the next year with their Western League affiliate.

The Flyers left Meehan unprotected when the Sabres joined the league in the summer of 1970 and Buffalo snapped up the then 23-year-old centreman.  He played for them for four full years but was then traded to the Vancouver Canucks three games into the 1974-75 season.  He played with the Canucks and Atlanta Flames that year before joining Washington for parts of four seasons.  That was where his NHL career would end.  His playing career, anyway.

He would go back to school once his playing days were over and finish his degree.  He then went to law school and passed the bar exams and became a lawyer.  His first job was working for a firm investigating the possibility of the NHL expanding into Hamilton, Ontario, which would have violated the territorial rights of both the Sabres and Leafs.

Meehan then began working in the front office of the Sabres in 1984.  At that time, Scotty Bowman was their coach.  He was an excellent instructor and a great manager of people but was not so great on the administrative side.  That was where Meehan would come in as the assistant general manager.  He began by being the man who would negotiate the contracts for the Buffalo players and doing the jobs that Bowman didn’t really want to do.

Two years later, Bowman would step down as the GM and Meehan would assume those reins.  In 1993, he was named executive vice president of sports operations and would hold that position until 1996 when he left the Sabres.

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Don Luce was never a superstar as a Buffalo Sabre but he was a very good player who performed very admirably on a team that had the French Connection Line and a guy named Danny Gare.  He played an integral role and helped to get his team to a Stanley Cup final series and along the way, made people take notice of his abilities.

Luce started his NHL life in the New York Rangers’ system.  Back then, the pro teams controlled the teams in the OHA and so the young Luce would play for the Kitchener Rangers.  Upon graduation from the Junior A league, Luce played his first year of professional hockey, 1968-69, with the Omaha Knights, the Rangers’ Central League affiliate.  

The next year was spent mostly in Omaha but he managed to play a dozen games in New York with the Rangers during which Luce scored his first NHL goal.  Nine games into the 1970-71 season, he was dealt to the Detroit Red Wings and he spent the rest of that campaign in the Motor City.  After the year was done, in May of 1971, he was sent to Buffalo for goaltender Joe Daley.

The move was good for Luce.  He was 23 years old when the 1971-72 season got underway and he was beginning to find his stride.  He scored eleven goals that year, and each following season, he saw his point totals improve despite often playing on a checking line with Craig Ramsay and Danny Gare. 

His best season points-wise was also the best season ever for the Sabres to that point, 1974-75.  The team made a run all the way to the Stanley Cup final series against the Flyers.  Who can ever forget the Fog Game in which Jimmy Lorentz knocked a wayward bat out of the air with his hockey stick?  Anyway, that year, Luce scored 33 goals and added 43 assists for 76 points and he won the Masterton Trophy as well.

A couple of seasons after that Cup run, Luce went on a three-year tear in which he was in the top five among Selke Trophy nominees in each season.  Alas, all good things must come to an end and in the spring of 1981, at the deadline, Luce was traded to the Los Angeles Kings.  He played in their last ten games that year and finished his NHL career in 1981-82 in Toronto with the Leafs.

Luce was adored by the fans in Buffalo for his work ethic, his selflessness among his teammates, his work on the penalty kill over the course of his career and, of course, his association with the club when they were at their greatest heights.  In 1986, he was inducted into the Buffalo Sabres Hall of Fame.  

In 1986-87, he served as the team’s assistant coach.  After that, Luce was promoted to the position of the Sabres’ Director of Player Development and he performed that role until July of 2006 when owner Tom Golisano cleaned house.  Luce wasn’t unemployed for very long.  Later in 2006, he was hired by the Philadelphia Flyers for that same role in Player Development.

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The 1988 World Junior Hockey Championships took place in Moscow between December 26, 1987 and January 4, 1988.  Canada captured the gold medal and the championship with a 6-0-1 record in the round robin tournament.  The Soviet Union took the silver with a record of 6-1-0.  The tourney’s leading scorer was Alexander Mogilny of the USSR with nine goals and nine assists in his team’s seven games.  

He also played for the Soviets in the 1988 Olympic Games in Calgary in which his team won the gold medal.  Mogilny was the youngest player from that Russian group.

National Hockey League scouts were at both venues, of course, and many were drooling over the Soviets’ young line of Mogilny, Sergei Fedorov and Pavel Bure.  But, it was useless at that time to even think of drafting Soviet players given the fact that the country still maintained an iron grip on all the members of their hockey teams.  

By the beginning of 1988, there had been two Russian players in the NHL.  Viktor Nechaev had played with the Los Angeles Kings in the early 1980s but Nechaev had emigrated to the United States and had married an American woman.  He was never viewed as any kind of major level hockey player when he lived in the Soviet Union. 

The other Russian player in the NHL was Sergei Priakin.  He played with the Calgary Flames.  Priakin, like Nechaev, was never viewed as any kind of elite Soviet prospect.  Neither of the two men were considered a loss to the national program.  The players on the Soviet national teams were heavily monitored, guarded and kept under constant watch.  No Soviet athlete had defected to the West in 45 years.  No hockey player had ever left the USSR.

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Alexander Mogilny was born and raised in Khabarovsk in the USSR.  Khabarovsk is one of the farthest eastern cities in Russia.  It’s located about thirty kilometers from the border with China and is more than 8,000 kilometers or 5,000 miles from Moscow.  When he was 15 years old, Mogilny was recruited to play for CSKA Moscow, or as it is commonly referred to, the Red Army team.

By the time he was 17, Mogilny had become a full time member of the Red Army club.  He and Sergei Fedorov were the youngest players on the team.  Mogilny loved the hockey and he liked living as a member of the storied hockey team, but he did not like the feeling that CSKA was more like a factory under the control of a controlling taskmaster in Viktor Tikhonov than any kind of a cohesive group.

He admired veteran players like Vyacheslav Fetisov but hated what he saw as the mental and emotional torture of his heroes from the coach and the organization.  He saw those great hockey players turning into shells of themselves as a result of the degradation they were enduring.  

“I was among those players who had been treated like that,” Mogilny told an interviewer in the documentary Cold Wars: Russian Hockey.  “I was looking up to those players and I saw myself in their shoes in ten, fifteen years from then and I said ‘No, that’s not me’.  I can’t do that, I can’t go through that.  That’s a waste of life.”

There was one occasion when Mogilny’s mother had travelled the 5,000 miles from Khabarovsk to Moscow to see Alex but Tikhonov would not allow him to spend any time with her.  That specific incident always stayed in his mind throughout his time with Red Army.  His disaffection with life in a hockey machine was not necessarily his alone.

Sergei Fedorov told an interviewer for a SportsNet mini-documentary that “we trained eleven months out of twelve, especially the young guys”.  He continued, “It was a very hard system that you had to go through.  A lot of people came in but not many survived.  Sometimes, you have a nightmare that kind of work to really take a lot out of you.”

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The 1987-88 World Junior Hockey Tournament established that the top Russian line of Fedorov, Mogilny and Bure consisted of the three best young players in the world.  The problem for NHL scouts and general managers was that those players were completely off-limits for them.  The Soviet Union would never allow their players to leave the country in any manner, especially to run off to another country that had a professional league and paid players real money.

Don Luce had been at that tournament in Moscow and he saw the Russians put on a show.  “In ’88, I went over to Moscow for the World Junior Championships,” Luce told SportsNet.  “Alex was playing at that time and that was when we first saw him.  He was a dominant player.”  Meehan thought Mogilny was the best player eligible for the 1988 draft.

In June of 1988, the NHL clubs and their braintrusts all assembled at the Forum in Montreal for their annual selection of 18-year-old amateurs.  It has been referred to as a ‘battle of wits’ or a ‘flip of the coin’.  And when you think back to past drafts, you can surmise why there are cynics who would think of the draft in that way.

Can you recall the 1993 draft when the Ottawa Senators made Alexandre Daigle their first selection overall?  How did that turn out for the Sens?  Do you remember who was taken second?  If you are reading this, then you probably do, but in case you’ve forgotten, it was Chris Pronger.  Paul Kariya was taken fourth and Rob Niedermayer was taken fifth.  Heck, Saku Koivu was taken 21st.

We can go back to the 1974 draft and see that Greg Joly was taken first overall that year by the Washington Capitals.  If you are saying “Greg Who?”, you’re not alone.  Especially when a player like Clark Gillies was chosen fourth, Pierre Larouche went eighth, Bryan Trottier was picked 22nd and Danny Gare went 29th.

In the 1988 draft, the Minnesota North Stars had the first selection and they chose Mike Modano.  He ended up playing 1,499 games in his NHL career.  He scored 561 goals, totalled 1,374 points and ended up a Hall of Famer.  The Vancouver Canucks were up next and they took Trevor Linden.  Linden played in 1,382 NHL games and accumulated 867 points in his distinguished 19-year career.

The Buffalo Sabres were in the 13th spot in the first round.  They stepped up and chose Joel Savage, a right winger, from the Victoria Cougars of the Western Hockey League.  His NHL career lasted three games.  The Sabres did not have a pick in the second round.  In the third round, they took Darcy Loewen, a left winger, from the Spokane Chiefs.  Loewen played twelve games over three seasons in Buffalo.  He was selected by the Senators in the 1992 expansion draft and got into 123 games over two seasons in Ottawa.

With their fourth-round choice, the Sabres took defenseman Keith Carney.  He got up to the big club in the 1991-92 campaign and over his first three years with Buffalo, he played a total of 51 contests before being traded to the Chicago Blackhawks.  His career took him to six different teams over 16 years.  He played a total of 1,018 NHL games and, though he was never a star, he was a reliable professional over the length of his career.

Between the 13th pick (Savage) and the 76th (Carney), the Sabres could have chosen players like Rob Blake, Tony Amonte, Mark Recchi, Steve Heinze or Tie Domi.  But in the fifth round, the team raised some eyebrows.  They had two picks in that round – their own, the 97th and the 89th selection that they got from the New York Rangers.

With their own pick, they chose Rob Ray, a feisty right winger, from the Cornwall Royals.  Ray played 14 seasons in Buffalo and participated in 889 games with the club.  He got into eleven more with the Senators to rack up an even 900 matches.  Over the course of his career, Ray became beloved in Buffalo.  When his playing days were done, he joined the Sabres Hockey Network and eventually replaced Harry Neale as the team’s colour commentator, working with the legendary play-by-play man, Rick Jeanneret.

With their other fifth round pick, the one they acquired from the Rangers, Meehan and his scouts debated about who they should take.  The scouts were naming players from the Western League, Ontario and Quebec, but Meehan had one player in mind.  He listened to his scouts but when he stepped up to the microphone, he announced that the Sabres would be selecting Alexander Mogilny from CSKA Moscow, the Red Army Team.

Immediately, innumerable hockey people looked at Meehan like he had completely lost his marbles.  Why would the Sabres waste a pick on a player they could never ever have?  But Meehan had a sense that the political winds might be shifting and he made his choice figuring that somehow, some way, he might be able to someday acquire the amazing player he claimed on that June day in Montreal.

“I didn’t think it was much of a gamble, but other people thought it was a huge gamble,” said Meehan in 2014.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Tom McMillan wrote about the Sabres and other clubs’ going out and choosing players from the Soviet Union.  

“The Soviet Union has yet to release one of its players to play in the NHL, but scouts keep hoping.  Seven teams took chances by drafting eleven Soviets in the middle to late rounds Saturday....

The New Jersey Devils took two highly skilled forwards from the Soviet national team: right wing Sergei Svetlov and Alexander Semak.  The Devils are already negotiating for two previous draft picks, all-world defenseman Vyacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov.

The Buffalo Sabres made some history by taking 19-year-old left wing Alexander Mogilny in the fifth round.  It is the highest a Soviet player has been drafted.”

Indeed, it did seem that other teams seemed emboldened by what the Sabres had done in the fifth round.  The Washington Capitals selected Dmitri Kristich with the 120th pick overall.  The Quebec Nordiques pulled two Soviet players from the draft.  They picked Valery Kamensky 129th overall and then with the 213th selection, they took Alexei Gusarov.  Even with this bravado, there was absolutely no sign that any of these players would ever be released or permitted to play in the NHL.

It would take time for NHL teams to have the ability, legal or logistical, to test those political winds, however.  It also might take some kind of push from another direction to make things happen.

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The 1989 World Junior Hockey Tournament took place in Anchorage, Alaska from December 26, 1988 to January 4, 1989.  The top team in the round robin ended up being the team from the Soviet Union.  They concluded the tourney with a 6-1 record, which was the same as Sweden’s 6-1 finish.  The Soviets were awarded the gold based on their 3-2 victory over the Tre Kronor.  Czechoslovakia got the bronze.

Jeremy Roenick was the tournament’s leading point getter, having scored eight goals and eight assists for 16 points.  Mike Modano scored six goals and finished with 15 points.  Cumulatively, the big Russian line logged 19 goals and 38 total points.  Bure scored eight goals, Mogilny had seven and Fedorov notched four.  The Russians scored 51 times in their seven games – the most of any team in the tournament.

On a day near the end of the entire proceedings, the Sabres sent their head of player development, Don Luce, to Anchorage to introduce himself to the player they drafted 89th overall – Alexander Mogilny.  Luce happened upon Mogilny while he was walking with a couple of teammates.  

He presented his business card to the right winger and told him that Buffalo had drafted him and if he ever had any questions about the team or the league, that he could call at any time.  Mogilny accepted the card and continued on with his buddies.  And no one in the Sabres orbit thought much about it.

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The Buffalo Sabres had finished the 1987-88 season with a record of 37-32-11, which was good for 85 points in the Adams Division and it got them into the postseason.  Their reward was a first-round meeting with the Boston Bruins.  The Bruins ended up winning their first three playoff rounds before being swept in the 1988 Stanley Cup final series by the Edmonton Oilers.  

On January 4, 1989, the final day of the World Junior Tournament, the Sabres sat in third place in the Adams Division with a 16-19-4 mark.  They went 22-16-3 the rest of the way and finished with 83 points.  Once again, their first-round opponent was the Bruins.  Things looked great for Buffalo when they blanked Boston 6-0 in Game 1 in Boston!  But, the boys from Beantown took the next four games to win the series once again.  They would then lose to Montreal, who went on to the Stanley Cup final against Calgary.

The Sabres-Bruins first-round series finished up on April 11.  Nowadays, the regular season is still being played on that date.

Everyone knew that Mogilny was the crown jewel of the Soviet hockey organization.  He had the ability to be their star player for years to come.  Most of all, the Russians knew what they had in him and they selected him to play with the men in the World Championships in Stockholm in the spring of 1989.  Of course, they rolled to the gold medal.  That was Monday, May 1.

The next day, Tuesday, May 2, Don Luce received a phone call.  It was from a man named Sergei Fomitchev, who was calling from Stockholm and claiming to speak for Alexander Mogilny.  He told Luce that Alex wanted to “come out”.  He wanted to leave the Soviet Union and play hockey with the Sabres in the United States.  Immediately, Luce made a call to his general manager, Gerry Meehan.

Meehan’s first call was to the owner of the Sabres, Seymour Knox III.  He told Knox that “we need to go to Stockholm” to see if this was true.  Knox agreed.  Meehan knew, though, that this could become a very delicate situation.  He had Craig Ramsay, his assistant general manager, call the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization to find out how to go about proceeding on this very unique case.

Ramsay called the office of Ben Ferro.  Ferro was the District Director of the INS for Western New York at the time.  “We got a problem, we need your help,” Ferro quoted Ramsay as saying when he called.  He explained that there was a Soviet hockey player on the Red Army team that was talking about wanting to come to America and play for the Sabres.

Ferro appeared on a SportsNet documentary, Defector, in 2014 and told his interviewer, “It sounded very complex”.  He told Ramsay that he was just going out to a meeting but, because he and Ramsay lived on the same street, that he should come over to Ferro’s house after 8 pm that evening.  When they met later that night, Ramsay pointed out to Ferro that they could have a situation in which Mogilny wanted to defect to the West.  

Ferro further told the television crew, “It was one that I hadn’t faced in the past and one I know that Gerry and Don Luce hadn’t faced in the past and it was bigger than all of us realized.”

Immediately, Meehan and Luce had to get on a plane for the trip to Stockholm.  They left Ramsay to be their point man in Buffalo.  Ramsay worked with Ferro to try to help as best they could.  The GM and his colleague landed in Sweden at about 11 am on May 3.  The first thing they had to do was to set up a meeting with Mogilny.  

“We had arranged to meet him and his representatives that evening, but they arrived at our hotel unexpectedly and asked to see us then because apparently there was some kind of team meeting for the Soviet National team,” Meehan said in 2014.

Meehan had never met Mogilny and the first thing he wanted to do was to confirm that the man standing in front of him was, in fact, the Soviet right winger.  Luce had met him in Anchorage and he reiterated to Meehan that this was indeed Mogilny.  Accompanying Mogilny was Fomitchev, the man who had called Luce the day before.

Fomitchev was acting as the player’s translator and representative.  The four men spoke briefly and then agreed to meet that evening after the team meeting at an apartment.  Mogilny and his ‘agent’ then departed.  But then, soon after, Fomitchev called and said that he feared that he and Mogilny had been ‘identified’.

They feared they were being tracked and they wanted to change plans.  They feared that if Meehan and Luce went to the apartment, that they too would be tracked by certain authorities and they wanted to take no chances on having that happen.  Fomitchev suggested moving the meeting to a mall just a few minutes away.  

At around 7 pm, Meehan and Luce drove over to the mall.  Luce picks up the story.  “All of a sudden, the door bursts open.  Sergei and Alex came running out and jump in the car, and we...we take off.”

Very suddenly, everyone knew that this had gone from a conversation or an idea to a ‘situation’.  Meehan stated, “I knew that we were into something that we really had to be concerned about.”  Luce and his GM had the feeling that they were being followed or, at least, watched and they knew that the first thing they had to do was check into a different hotel.  

The perception among the Soviets, or at least the way they were presenting it, and what they were relating to the Swedish authorities, was that Mogilny had been kidnapped by two men from the United States.  In Meehan’s mind, he was now trying to think of how the three men could get out of Sweden and back to Buffalo.

Meehan was still wanting to be sure that Mogilny really wanted to leave the USSR.  He told him that he still had the time and the opportunity to go back to his team if he wanted.  Mogilny’s English was not great but he told the Buffalo GM, “No.  I go.”

The next thing they needed to do was to try to get Mogilny documents that would allow him to get on a plane and leave Sweden.  His passport had been confiscated by the team when they left the Soviet Union.  This was common practice back in those days.  The team and team officials would take away passports from all athletes making it near impossible for them to be able to leave on their own or defect to another country.

Meehan would have to go to the United States Embassy in Stockholm to get the proper paperwork so he could return with them back to Buffalo.  But they had to be very careful.  Soviet surveillance can be far reaching, especially around an American embassy and especially at a time like this.  

Meehan was well aware of that and he was instructed to go to the embassy later at night – 10:30 or 11 pm to attract the least suspicion.  Fortunately, Ben Ferro had been in touch with the State Department in Washington, D.C. to get things rolling.

“We did have the embassy in Stockholm working with us and with headquarters to get a piece of paper, a document that gave them permission to board with Mogilny on the plane,” said Ferro.

He was able to get the paperwork filed but it would take time to process.  It could possibly take as long as 24 to 48 hours.  And there was no guarantee that the document would be provided for Mogilny.  It was still to be determined if he qualified to be processed as a refugee or as an asylee.  Once Meehan had exited the embassy, he had to meet up with Luce and Mogilny at their pre-arranged location.

While Meehan was in the embassy, Luce was driving around Stockholm with Mogilny in tow.  The player had requested to be able to call his parents so Luce found a place that would allow Alex to make a phone call.  He got through on the first try but was cut off and when he tried again, he got a different operator.  That led to immediate concern.  Alex hung up immediately, came out and said “I think they know where we are”.

At this point, the three men were fully aware that their lives were in danger.  No Soviet hockey player had ever defected to the West before.  On one of Meehan’s calls back to Ferro’s office, he had mentioned Mogilny’s first name, saying “Alex is getting ready to come out” or “Alex is interested...”.  Ferro told Ramsay to make sure that Meehan knew NOT TO MENTION Mogilny by name at all over any international lines.  

As Ramsay told SportsNet in 2014, “Those guys you see on television with the long jackets...they’re real.  They’re listening and if they happen to pick up on that name and they can reference it to Alexander Mogilny, they’re gonna come looking!”

The tension of the situation was becoming apparent.  Don Luce has talked about how the situation felt at the time.  “You’re driving around a country you don’t know very well.  You’re always thinking that somebody’s looking at you or looking for you or trying to find you.  We didn’t want them to know where we were so we kept switching hotels.”

Jan-Olof Bengtsson is a Swedish journalist and he, like many Swedes at the time, was tuned right into what was going on with Alexander Mogilny, Meehan and Luce.  “You have to hide out.  The travels around the countryside, the secret hotel rooms.  It was like a spy novel!”

Just after midnight on Thursday, May 4, the group of three checked into the Hotel Prince Philip. A Google check shows that it’s a three-star hotel.  At this point, the quieter, the better.  Meehan kept reiterating to Mogilny that it wasn’t too late for him to return to his team, but Mogilny was adamant.  He was not going to exist in that system any longer.

The reality of the situation, though, was that if they were found, if the Russians discovered Mogilny, they would physically take him and who knows what they would have done to Luce and Meehan.  In the words of Ben Ferro, the consequences for the two men would have been “not good”.

At this point, it was difficult to understand what the three must have been feeling.  Bengtsson has said that there was a lot of talk throughout Sweden about what might have happened.  Had Mogilny been kidnapped?  Had he been offered a contract?  Was he even still alive?  Meehan was aware of the chatter.  “There was some accusation floating around that we had kidnapped him!”

What also added thorns to the situation was the fact that Mogilny was an army officer.  Each player on CSKA, or the Red Army team, had a designated military rank.  Mogilny was a lieutenant.  When he left the national team, he was charged with desertion and treason and was eventually convicted in absentia with these crimes.  If the Soviets were to find him, there would be consequences for that.

At this moment , for Gerry Meehan, there were three priorities.  He had to get that travel document from the American Embassy, he had to figure out a contract with his new player, assuming that Mogilny was able to leave Sweden and they also had to make some kind of arrangement for airplane tickets to get out of the country and back to the United States and they had to do all of that as soon as was humanly possible.

A little after 9 a.m., on May 4, the plane carrying the Soviet hockey team left Stockholm for Moscow.  Obviously, Mogilny was not on the flight.  Shortly after that, Meehan got notification that Mogilny’s travel document was ready at the American Embassy.  That allowed Meehan the ability to set up a flight out of Stockholm.  

Of course, the embassies and consulates are always watched by certain unsavory parties.  This time, the three were able to drive through the gate at the embassy and enter the building through the back entrance.  They got their hands on the document that would allow Mogilny to travel to the United States.  One of their tasks was done.

Meehan was able to book seats on a flight leaving Stockholm at 7 am the next day, Friday, May 5.  Before they left though, they had to figure out what remuneration Mogilny would receive as a player for the Sabres.  He had been under the impression, based on what Fomitchev, his friends and associates had told him over time, that he was worth $1 million per season.  Meehan thought ‘no’, but wanted to be able to back that up with real numbers.

He wired his assistant and had her send him a list of all the Sabres’ players’ salaries.  The team’s highest paid player was making $400,000 per year at that time.  Meehan explained that it would be impossible to pay Mogilny a million dollars per season when their highest paid player, a seasoned veteran, was making less than half of that.

Mogilny then asked how much he could expect.  Meehan pointed to Pierre Turgeon’s name on the list and he explained that Alex would get the same contract as the man he would be playing with and that would be a five-year deal worth $1 million in total and a $500,000 signing bonus.  Mogilny paused for a second and said “I sign”.

So they now had their travel papers, their flight booked and they had an agreement with this amazing player.  Now they just had to wait a few short hours before they headed out to the airport.  

Meehan had some concerns about how things might go once they got there.  With the Soviets having left the previous day, had they left orders with the Swedish authorities to take Mogilny and the two Sabres’ executives into custody once they arrived?  Would the travel documents be honoured?  Would KGB agents be there?  Would they be following them in order to stop them while in transit?  Anxiety and stress were certainly high at this time.

Don Luce explained what was going through his mind at that moment.  “The scariest part was when we were on our way to the airport.  You start seeing things that aren’t there.  I don’t know.   You think maybe cars are not supposed to be there or you start looking for things.”

They arrived at the airport at approximately 5:30 am.  Meehan had been concerned about whether or not there might be any complications getting through security.  He went through first.  There was no problem.  Then it was Mogilny’s turn.  Meehan watched anxiously.  The travel documents were sufficient and he was allowed through.  Then Luce made it successfully as well.  

Once they were in and waiting to board, Luce saw a newsstand.  He tapped Meehan and pointed to one of the Stockholm dailies.  On the front page were stories about the three men which included the hotels they had stayed at and the allegation that Mogilny had been kidnapped.  Fortunately for the group, no one had seen the paper yet.  No one had said a word to them about anything.

“Somebody was doing something to know where we had been,” Luce told SportsNet in 2014.  Meehan added, “I don’t know how that ever got out because we weren’t even on the plane yet and there was the speculation that we were leaving with Mogilny to go to the United States.”  The GM later related that “I know for a fact that if it had been one more day, we wouldn’t have got out of the country.”

As soon as they got past security, Mogilny looked at Meehan and asked “ I am free?”  Meehan looked back and nodded that yes, he was now essentially in the United States.  That was the first time that they had seen the young man smile and it seemed that he had felt liberated for the first time in a long time.

At 7 am, the plane did get into the air and the three men were on their way to New York.  The worst part of the odyssey was over.  They were now at the point of no return, though.  Mogilny was on his way to America.  Ben Ferro said “When that plane took off, that was the first time that they could breathe, that they were on their way because I think had the Soviets known he was going to get on that plane, they would have stopped it.”

When the plane arrived at Kennedy, as it taxied, there was an announcement.  The passengers were being asked not to leave their seats yet.  An FBI agent had to board the plane to speak to a couple of passengers.  There was no emergency but everyone was asked to remain seated.  A man in a suit and two state troopers then came on to the plane and went straight to Gerry Meehan.

Apparently, there was a problem in the airport.  There were scores of media inside waiting for Mogilny.  The story, evidently, had leaked and there were more press, radio and television people at JFK than there ever had been previously.  Someone had to come out and address these people.  Meehan said he would and he answered the questions as well as he could without giving too much away.  Meanwhile, Mogilny was taken over to Immigration to begin his processing.

Just as there was an incredible number of media members at Kennedy Airport in New York when Mogilny’s plane arrived, the scene was similar at Buffalo Niagara International when he made the flight from the Big Apple to Buffalo.  The media didn’t get to talk to Mogilny that day but there was a huge throng there nonetheless.

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As Craig Ramsay said very well, “This wasn’t about the Buffalo Sabres getting a hockey player.  This was a world...event!”  Indeed, it was huge.  A couple of days after the group had arrived from Stockholm, on Sunday, May 7, to be exact, Mogilny appeared before the assembled media to answer their questions.  He seemed impassive for the most part.

When asked about criticisms from the Soviet media about his defection, he replied through an interpreter, “I’ve heard that they write that I only think about myself, but who was thinking of me when I’m finished playing hockey in the Soviet Union.  They don’t think about that.  I have to think about the future, the time when I will no longer be playing hockey.  I’m doing what I need to do now when I am young and strong.”

He did show a glimpse of emotion when a question came about his mother crying when she learned that he had left Russia.  “I hadn’t heard about this.  I’m very grown up now and have to make my own decisions with my life.”  He said that in the three years he had lived in Moscow and played with CSKA, he had only been allowed to see his mother once.  He hoped that some day he would be able to see her again.

At that moment, Mogilny was on a seven-day advance parole with no employment authorization.  The Sabres were working with Ferro and the INS, as well as the State Department to try to expedite the entire process.  The Sabres’ owner, Seymour Knox, had gone to Yale and there is a story that he reached out to his old college chum, George H. W. Bush, who just happened to be the President of the United States at that time.

Bush made sure that Knox knew there were people working on Mogilny’s case, but that there were a lot of people in the world who were in the queue ahead of their star player and that they would be given priority.  He did tell Knox that he believed that Mogilny would be cleared to play by the start of the season but that the process was not a speedy one.  Privately, there are those who say that Bush found Mogilny’s case compelling, but he could not give Knox any really special treatment.  Not yet.

The league was looking into the entire transaction as well, to be sure that everything was done in a manner that did not violate any agreements or league rules.  NHL President John Ziegler has demanded a report from Meehan and the Sabres’ GM complied with that demand.  He had been making copious notes throughout the entire time he was in Stockholm and while on the plane ride back to New York as well.

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Even though Mogilny, Meehan and Luce were on American soil and everything gave the appearance of normalcy, there was still an immense concern for Mogilny’s safety.  It was agreed that he would stay with Don Luce and his wife Diane.  A picture of Meehan’s home had been splashed across the front page of at least one Swedish daily newspaper, so it was determined that his place was not safe.

Even at Luce’s house though, it seemed that word had gotten out about Mogilny’s whereabouts.  There was one day when a man knocked on Luce’s door.  He spoke with a Russian accent and had apparently been asking questions around the neighbourhood.  He knew that Alex was living there and wanted to speak with him.  When Diane Luce told Mogilny about the man at the door, he simply replied “Nyet”.  The suspicion was that the man was KGB.

Mogilny had applied for political asylum in the United States.  The length of time for the entire process generally runs about four to six months.  Given that Mogilny was a lieutenant in the Soviet Army and he left his position and his country, he was convicted in absentia for desertion and treason.  If he was brought back to the Soviet Union, he would surely be sentenced to seven years of hard labour and certain death.

It took several months but eventually Mogilny was granted asylum in the United States.  He would have been deported otherwise.  Upon being granted asylum, Mogilny asked Meehan, “Am I free now?”  Meehan was finally able to answer with a definitive “Yes”.

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There are several post-scripts in this story.  Yes, Mogilny played 990 NHL games for the Buffalo Sabres, Vancouver Canucks, New Jersey Devils and Toronto Maple Leafs from 1998 to 2006.  He scored 473 goals and amassed 1032 points in his career.  He won the Lady Byng Trophy while with the Leafs after the 2002-03 season.  He won a Stanley Cup with New Jersey in the spring of 2000, giving him a World Junior gold, a World Championship gold, Olympic gold and a Cup ring!

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A number of months after Mogilny arrived in Buffalo, Ben Ferro was assigned to the office in Rome, Italy.  His job there was to oversee the processing of Russian citizens who wanted to move to the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union.  As part of his role as director of that office, he had to accompany the then-Attorney General to Moscow for a conference.

While there, one of the Russian members of the delegation approached Ferro as he was seated at a table and asked Ferro to convey his best wishes to Alex Mogilny.  When asked years after, how the Russians knew that Ferro had anything to do with Mogilny, Ferro replied, “I guess they do their homework.”

*

Four years after Mogilny’s arrival in Buffalo, he was invited out to lunch by his old acquaintance, Sergei Fomitchev.  While sitting at the restaurant in Amherst, a Buffalo suburb, Fomitchev pulled a gun on Mogilny and demanded $100,000.  He said that if he did not get the money by that night, Mogilny and his family could be harmed.

Mogilny managed to get out of the restaurant but he called Meehan right away.  Meehan instructed him to get down to the rink as soon as possible.  Meehan called NHL Security and they sent a couple of their top people to Buffalo to help out.  The league’s director of security, Dennis Cunningham flew into Buffalo as well. 

They told Mogilny to call Fomitchev back and tell him that he would have the money for him that night.  They told him to tell Fomitchev to meet him at the back entrance to the players’ area.  That was where the fans waited for the players to come out in order to meet them and get autographs.  When Fomitchev showed up there after the game, there were four FBI agents waiting there to take him away. 

*

Don Beebe was the Buffalo Bills’ third pick in the 1989 National Football League draft.  He had gone to a small college in Nebraska.  He and his wife were flying into Buffalo on May 5, 1989 to join the Bills.  When he arrived at the airport in Buffalo, he saw a huge group of media and he and his wife thought it was very cool that so many members of the press would show up at his arrival.  

As he got closer, he saw the media contingent all get up and move to a different area of the airport.  They were there to cover the arrival of Alex Mogilny.  Beebe was left with a couple of representatives from the Bills who brought a car to pick him up and take him to the Bills’ facility.

*

The reason that Mogilny was given the jersey number 89 was twofold.  First, he left the Soviet Union and went to America in 1989.  Second, he was drafted 89th overall in the 1988 draft.  

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Greg Peterson was a Buffalo area attorney and was at a conference in Moscow commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials in 2016.  As things were winding down on one day there, a Russian member of their group approached Peterson and they began talking.  The Russian man asked Peterson where he came from and he Peterson replied “Buffalo”.  The Russian man’s eyes got big and he said “You!  You stole Mogilny!!”

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What Mogilny’s defection did was it opened the eyes of all Soviet hockey players to what might be possible for them.  In the summer of 1990, the second Goodwill Games took place in the Pacific Northwest.  The main group of competitions took place in Seattle, but the hockey games were shared by Tacoma and Kennewick, Washington.

Before the first puck was dropped for any of the games though, Sergei Fedorov had defected to the United States.  The year after that, the Vancouver Canucks drafted Pavel Bure.  All three of the crown jewels of hockey from the Soviet era were now on their way to the NHL.  

After that, the Russians allowed their players to play as long as the NHL teams paid a transfer payment.  This eliminated the need for players to defect and the subsequent stress, anxiety and fear that accompanied that.

Today, it’s commonplace to have players of any nationality in the NHL.  If a player is good enough, regardless of where they come from, they can participate in the best league in the world.  It wasn’t always that way though.  It took a courageous move by a young man and the help of a couple of old hockey executives to make that possible.

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You can listen to Howie and his co-host Shawn Lavigne on The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast, right here on the FiredUp Network, or on 182 different platforms wherever you find your podcasts, including Alexa.