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Mogilny joined the dominant Central Red Army team at 17, and two years later, at the 1988 Olympics, he became the youngest Soviet hockey player ever to win a gold medal. A free spirit from Khaborovsk, Siberia, he chafed under the authoritarian regime of coach Viktor Tikhonov. Upon hearing that the Sabres had made him their fifth-round pick in the '88 draft, Mogilny began to plan his escape.
Unlike every other Russian who has entered the NHL—before or after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991—Mogilny did not negotiate with the authorities to secure his release. At the 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 in touch with Sabre director of development Don Luce from Stockholm, where the Soviets had just won the world junior championships. Luce and Meehan quickly flew to Sweden, where they went into hiding with Mogilny. Four days later they boarded a commercial flight bound for the United States. Mogilny was ultimately convicted in absentia for desertion from the Red Army, in which he was nominally a junior lieutenant. "Any resemblance between Alex and a soldier was purely coincidental," says Meehan. "He was a hockey player."
The U.S.S.R. may be consigned 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 helped them financially. "There is no reason for me to go there and put myself in danger," he says. "1 still don't trust, really. There's also nothing to do there. There are no golf courses, for example. What the hell am I going to do there? Drink a bottle of vodka every day? No, thank you. It's safer here. I enjoy it here."
Mogilny wears number 89, to celebrate the year he banked his first $150,000. "Money was a big 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 or whatever back in Russia now? You go nowhere without money in this world."
Mogilny is earning $650,000 this season and could break into seven figures next year. He carries a classic-sports-car catalog with him on the road. "I'm just thinking of buying something," he says with a wink. "Something exciting. For myself. A little present. Maybe a Porsche." Not bad for a guy who grew up dreaming of being put on the list for a Lada.
Driving has always been his preferred mode of transportation. In February 1990, two thirds of the way 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't get on another plane for two months. The Sabres hired a driver to take him to road games, including one in St. Louis. The Buffalo News called this arrangement "Driving Mr. Mogilny." He didn't think it was funny.
The Sabres gave him a six-game leave of absence later that season and arranged for counseling, which ultimately eased his fears. "I wasn't used to traveling that much," says Mogilny, who now delights in identifying every golf course in Buffalo from the air. "And no matter what kind of weather, we're flying anyway. I couldn't handle it. It just freaked me out."
"Alex needed time away from all the attention, time to come to grips with what had happened to him," Meehan says. "He needed peace in his life."
And war in his heart. Now, at last, he has both.