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Instead, Mogilny, the first hockey player to defect from the former Soviet Union, became a prisoner of his own expectations. He was traumatized by culture shock and paralyzed by self-doubt. The Buffalo Sabres watched in frustration as Mogilny, a marvelous talent, withdrew deeply into himself.
"I'm a human being, not a robot," Mogilny says now. "I was 20 years old when I came here. New country, new language, new place. It takes a long time to feel comfortable. I guess it showed."
In his first three NHL seasons Mogilny showed increasingly frequent flashes of brilliance. His goals and assists went up each year, reaching 39 and 45, respectively, last season, but he was at best inconsistent and at worst moody. In early December of this season he was at his worst again, gliding through four consecutive games on automatic pilot. Veteran forward Dave Hannan decided to find out if peer pressure would work where heat from various coaches had not. "Alex, you have so much ability," Hannan said, using language that was slightly more colorful. "Try to push yourself. You never know what might happen."
Now we know. Mogilny lit the red light 23 times, including four hat tricks, in his next 13 games. At week's end he had a league-leading 46 goals in Buffalo's first 48 games. If not for a shoulder injury that sidelined him for six games in October, he would have had an even better chance to become the sixth player in NHL history to score 50 goals in his team's first 50 games, putting him in exclusive company. The 50-50 club was founded by Rocket Richard and includes Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull. Malingering Mogilny has finally become Alexander the Great.
"It's about time, man," says Mogilny, a slope-shouldered 23-year-old right wing, echoing the sentiments of his coaches and teammates. "This is the time for me to show what I'm capable of."
The Sabres have been 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 hockey team explodes in a tundra full of football fans, does anybody hear? "We're making a silent move," says coach John Muckler, whose damn-the-torpedoes style helped the Edmonton Oilers win the Stanley Cup three years ago.
Like his predecessor in Buffalo, Rick Dudley, who was fired in December 1991, Muckler waited impatiently for Mogilny to live up to the reputation he carried with him when 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 good as he wants to be, and right now he wants to be good very badly."
" Alex Mogilny can do things that I've never seen anybody else do," says Sabre center Pat LaFontaine, who has assisted on 23 of Mogilny's goals this season. "With his speed, with his quickness, with his hands, with his ability to be at top speed in three strides, it's scary. When a guy like that gets in a groove, you want to feed him every chance you get."
Sabre general manager Gerry Meehan, an attorney who has a background in immigration law, spearheaded the clandestine effort to bring Mogilny to Buffalo. "Everyone ignores 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 shy about his ability to wanting to express it every night."