When he got off the
plane at New York's Kennedy airport on May 4, 1989, Alexander Mogilny was eager
to embrace his destiny. He would be rich. He would be famous. And above all, he
would be free.
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
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.
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.
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."
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."