A scheduled exhibition game between the Buffalo Sabres and a team from the Soviet Union is in jeopardy.
The Buffalo News learned Saturday the situation directly is attributable to the defection of Soviet hockey star Alexander Mogilny.
National Hockey League President John A. Ziegler Jr. declined comment Saturday, but according to a well-placed source with Hockey Canada, the administrative organization charged with presenting Soviet-NHL tours, the Soviets have expressed an unwillingness to play the Sabres.
"They want the money, but they let it be known they did not want to play the Sabres," the source said. "They made that very clear. They don't want to play Buffalo, they don't want to play in Buffalo and it's because of the Mogilny thing."
Mogilny, 20, once a rising star in Soviet hockey, is considered one of the finest young players in the world. Earlier this month, he left the Soviet National team in Sweden and defected to the United States in the company of Sabres General Manager Gerry Meehan and Don Luce, the club's director of amateur evaluation and development.
A Soviet team is scheduled to play in Buffalo next Jan. 3 as part of a four-team exhibition tour that calls for at least one team to play a game in all 21 NHL cities. A Sabres spokesman said Saturday only that the game was on the league's master schedule when it was released earlier this week. He said the Sabres would assume the game is to be played unless the league informs them otherwise.
The implications of the cancellation would be far-reaching, but not devastating. There had been rumors the Soviets, because of the public embarrassment of losing a top player, had considered canceling the entire tour and pulling back from an ever-growing presence in North American hockey markets.
But according to a well-placed NHL official, Viacheslav Koloskov, director of the Soviet Sports Federation, recently sent Ziegler a message indicating public posturing did not reflect the Soviets' true feelings and that the tour likely would go on.
Asked by The News if that were the case, and if he had met with Meehan or any other Sabres representatives, Ziegler said only that he would not address the Mogilny situation or any matter related to it.
"You can ask your questions but I will not answer them," he said. "It's a delicate matter and I'm not going to discuss it publicly."
There have been rumors here the NHL Board of Governors recently convened behind closed doors in New York to discuss the matter. Saturday's Stanley Cup luncheon, originally scheduled last Tuesday at Calgary, was shifted to Montreal on very short notice, allegedly because Ziegler was holding meetings in New York Tuesday.
A league representative confirmed there were meetings in New York, but declined to state their nature or why the luncheon was rescheduled for Montreal.
At the luncheon, Ziegler said if a player was good enough for the NHL, the NHL wanted him.
It was assumed he was dropping a hint Mogilny soon would be welcomed into the league, but Ziegler later said otherwise.
"No, no, it had nothing to do with that," he said. "There have been some statements by players about too many Europeans are coming into the league and that is extremely dangerous. If we started moving into nationalities, we would find very quickly that perhaps Canadian boys could not play in the United States and that U.S. players cannot play in Canada."
While the tour apparently will survive, deleting Buffalo from the schedule would cause seemingly minor economic ramifications for both the Sabres and the league.
Expected revenue from the exhibition contests never have been announced, but there are reports the Soviets expected to make some $600,000 off the upcoming tour.
Revenue lost because of a canceled game likely would have to be made up by the Sabres or absorbed by the other 20 NHL teams.
Economic considerations aside, Mogilny's status as a potential NHL player still is undecided. The league appears to be awaiting word of his status with U.S. Immigration officials before making a statement regarding his playing future. However, sentiment for Mogilny appears to be positive.
There are unconfirmed reports the league might put pressure on either Mogilny or the Sabres to have Mogilny arbitrarily change his mind and return home. Those rumors have cooled substantially in recent days and support for Mogilny is growing, even in non-traditional places.
"Considering what he has done to get here, he should be allowed to play," said Philadelphia Flyers President Jay Snider, a long-time critic of the league's position regarding games with the Soviet Union. "It would be a travesty were he not allowed to play."