This is part of a series of profiles on the 2016 inductees into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.
Name: Alexander Mogilny.
Hometown: Khabarovsk, Russia.
Born: Feb. 18, 1969.
Career overview: Pat LaFontaine played on teams with Wayne Gretzky, Mike Modano and Brett Hull, yet he never skated with a linemate who could match the skill of Alexander Mogilny.
“I’ve been lucky to play with some great players in my career, but I put Alex as the best player that I had a chance to see and play with talent-wise,” LaFontaine said recently of his Buffalo Sabres winger. “He was the rare combination of the speed, the skill and finesse, quickness. He was just the full package.”
Mogliny and LaFontaine etched their names in Sabres lore during the early 1990s as one of the most dominant duos the city has ever seen. During Mogilny’s six seasons in Buffalo, he lifted fans out of their seats by streaking down the ice, stickhandling through defenders and scoring at a pace that has rarely been topped in NHL history. Mogilny recorded 211 goals and 444 points in his 381 games with the Sabres, part of a 16-year career that featured 473 goals and 1,032 points.
“The fans were really excited to see him,” Don Luce, who was the Sabres’ director of player development when Mogilny arrived in 1989, said this week. “When you watched him play, the skill and the things he could do at high speed, very few players could have done what he did. He was exciting to watch. He could blow by really good players. He had that exceptional speed and could handle the puck at high speed, which was a rare trait. The fans appreciated that.”
Memorable moment: Actually, it was 76 memorable moments. That’s how many goals Mogilny scored during the 1992-93 season, making him one of only six NHL players to record more than 75 in one year.
Mogilny’s historic output gave him the Sabres’ single-season record by 20 goals over Danny Gare. With Mogilny finishing the plays, LaFontaine set the team’s single-season point mark with 148 – 35 more than the previous record held by Gilbert Perreault.
“There was a sixth sense,” LaFontaine said. “We just had an idea of where each other was going to be on the ice. One thing about Alex, he thinks the game at such a high level. His hockey sense and to be able to have the hands and the feet and the speed, he’s that rare combination of everything.”
The Defection: No story about Mogilny’s time in the NHL can be told without what he sacrificed to play in the league. He risked his life in May 1989 by becoming the first Soviet player to defect, leaving the communist country and his family behind in search of hockey freedom in a city he knew nothing about.
A representative of Mogilny, who had just helped the Soviets win the world championships in Sweden, contacted the Sabres to say the player had interest in leaving his country. Luce and Sabres General Manager Gerry Meehan flew to Stockholm and embarked on a clandestine assignment that included secret hotels, jittery nighttime drives and quiet dealings with the U.S. government.
Mogilny was only 20 years old.
“What I remember most about it is the drive of Alex to do what had to be done,” Luce said. “He’s a 20-year-old kid leaving the country, and no one has ever done it before in the hockey world. He’s putting a lot of things on the line. He’s going to a country where he didn’t know the language or anything, or how it even worked.
“He was so determined and almost calm about it. He probably was nervous, but he didn’t show it. He was very calm outwardly and determined to get it done.”
Luce knew what the Sabres were getting in the deal. The Soviets expected Mogilny to be the top superstar during their next generation of dominance. Instead, he chose the team that drafted him in the fifth round in 1988, a selection that was viewed as wasted because Russians showed few signs of coming to North America.
“I saw him play at the world championships in Moscow before his draft year, and there was no question in my mind he had the talent to do a lot of good things offensively in the National Hockey League,” Luce said.
Waiting on another hall call: While Buffalo and the Sabres have recognized his Hall of Fame ability, Mogilny is not yet in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He has the requisite credentials, including a Stanley Cup with New Jersey and gold medals in the Olympics, world championships and world juniors. He averaged 1.04 points per game during his NHL career, which ranks 37th all time.
Quotable: “I’m excited for Alex in going into the Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. Everything he’s meant to the Sabres and the community and myself as a former centerman of his, I couldn’t be happier for him.” – LaFontaine.
Post-career: Mogilny, who retired following the 2005-06 season, returned to Russia and began consulting for his hometown team, Amur Khabarovsk, in the Kontinental Hockey League. Admiral Vladivostok of the KHL hired him as its president in 2013. After two seasons with that club, he returned to Khabarovsk to become its president and still holds that title.
The GBSHOF induction dinner is Thursday in Buffalo Niagara Convention Center. Tickets can be purchased at www.gbshof.com.