Don Luce, the Sabres' director of amateur evaluation and development, approached Mogilny at the junior world championship in Anchorage, Alaska, in December 1988 and informed him that the Sabres had drafted him in the fifth round the previous June. "If we can ever be of service, don't hesitate to call," Luce told Mogilny. That call came on May 2 from Stockholm, where Mogilny had traveled with the Soviet national team to play in the world championships.
"Alexander Mogilny is prepared to defect, if you are interested," a voice on the telephone told Luce. Gerry Meehan, the general manager of the Sabres, called back several times and confirmed that the information was genuine. He and Luce were on their way within the hour.
Meehan met Mogilny in a Stockholm hotel. "I talked to him about how he felt about North America, and whether he realized the gravity of what he was doing," says Meehan. "He convinced me he understood." They were on a plane out of Stockholm the next day.
"Why did he do it?" says Meehan. "I think what he said when we cleared security at the airport and walked into the passengers-only area sums it up. He said, 'I am free now?' "
"When we drafted him, we had the usual rumor information that he was a different kind of Soviet player," says Meehan. "He was outspoken, he was aggressive, he favored western clothing, and he was having some problems with the constrictions of Soviet hockey. We felt if anyone might ever come out, he would be the most likely one."
Mogilny, who says he had been planning his defection for a year, became angry at Soviet hockey authorities because of a broken promise to give him his own apartment in Moscow. He chafed at his dormitory existence and the almost 11-months-a-year training camp conditions the national team players endure. "Like hospital," he says. Also, like most athletes who played for taskmaster coach Viktor Tikhonov on the army and national teams, he hated Tikhonov.
"Only his wife and his dog like him," says Mogilny. "And I do not understand how they do. I didn't want to wait 10 years of my life and destroy my health waiting to be released to play in the NHL. They play for garbage in the Soviet Union. You play for nothing, and what they give you won't buy anything anyway. You cannot get laundry detergent in the stores anymore. And because the people use sugar to make liquor, you cannot find sugar either. And they think things were changing. I did not see the changes."
Mogilny, an army officer, was tried in absentia in Moscow over the summer and found guilty of desertion. His parents were forced to attend the trial. "When they returned [home to Khabarovsk in eastern Siberia], someone had gone through their flat and made a mess, and some things were missing," he says. "My mother used to have a job in a store. I don't believe she has it anymore."
When Mogilny tried to call home, the operator said the number had been disconnected. His family did get a call through to him in early September at the suburban Buffalo townhouse he is temporarily sharing with the couple who accompanied him to Buffalo—Soviet émigré Sergei Fomichev and Lena, his Swedish wife. Mogilny says that his parents are not angry at him and that they believe they have already faced the worst of the reprisals. Asked if he considered what his family would endure when he defected, Mogilny says firmly, "I understand everything. Everything. My decision can show other people how to think. Nobody there would ever believe I would do this. They are all such a part of the system that they could never even think about something like that."
The Sabres are still waiting for Mogilny to be given a permanent U.S. visa, which will allow him to travel to and from Canada. They believe they have gained a player of superstar potential and call Mogilny's decision courageous. It might also be considered selfish: Like many other young athletes who have signed big contracts—Mogilny got a $150,000 bonus and will make about another $150,000 this season—he has already gone on a spending spree. Among his purchases has been a Corvette. Says Dudley, "I'd probably worry if I didn't see the quality people like [teammates] Christian Ruuttu and Phil Housley that he is spending time with."