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Mike Harrington

Sabres brass came to Stockholm in 1989 and left with Alexander Mogilny

Mike Harrington

STOCKHOLM – When talking about the Buffalo Sabres' 50th anniversary, we're spending the season reliving great moments on the ice. The games, the goals, the players, the Aud, the broadcasters. All of it.

Of course, there are plenty of back stories. Most of the acquisitions have to do with a draft or a great trade. But there is one story that could only be searched out here, some 4,000 miles from home on a sunny and chilly Tuesday morning in Sweden a few days before the Sabres play their two games in the NHL Global Series.

It was just more than 30 years ago that the Sabres were involved a real-life spy novel, getting Alexander Mogilny to defect from the Soviet Red Army team after it won the World Championships in Stockholm.

Sabres alumni Gerry Meehan (then the general manager) and Don Luce (director of player personnel) orchestrated the defection. Another key alum, Craig Ramsay, was the assistant GM and worked on things back in Buffalo.

It started on a square known as Brunkebergstorg.

The Scandic Downtown Camper on the square is a plain-looking, boxy hotel, not the kind of postcard scenes you see from Sweden. It was here where the Sabres had their first meeting with Mogilny in May 1989.

Back then, it was known as the Scandic Sergel Plaza. No one here Tuesday knew the story of Mogilny, although front desk supervisor Axel Zarkisson said he remembered the name as a good hockey player.

The hotel was renovated and rebranded in 2017 with an outdoors theme. Bicycles, which are everywhere in Sweden even in cold weather, are parked in the atrium leading to the lobby. A display of skateboards and some kayaks hang from the ceiling.

"This is the nature landscape setting leveraged in an urban area," marketing director Mette Van Schaak told me. "This is a little oasis where nature finds its way into the city."

A little oasis. She couldn't have known the irony there. Mogilny sought Buffalo as his oasis from the throes of the Russian Army and dictatorial hockey coach Viktor Tikhonov.

The Scandic Downtown Camper hotel in Stockholm, then known as the Scandic Sergel Plaza, was the site of Alexander Mogilny's first meeting with the Sabres prior to his defection in 1989. (Mike Harrington/Buffalo News)

Meehan, now 73, was the general manager of the Sabres from 1986-1993 and is best known for orchestrating some of the greatest trades in franchise history, acquiring Dale Hawerchuk (1990), Pat LaFontaine (1991) and Dominik Hasek (1992) in consecutive years.

Meehan took a big risk in the 1988 draft by taking Mogilny in the fifth round. Mogilny was known to every NHL team but most figured there was no way to get him out of Russia and passed on the opportunity. Meehan pushed past the skepticism of his own scouts, took the chance and made the pick. Six months later, he dispatched Luce to Anchorage, Alaska, to see Mogilny in the World Junior Championships.

"I remember it vividly," Luce said last week in KeyBank Center when he joined Meehan at the Sabres' special '70s Night celebration. "I gave Alex my business card and told him the Sabres had drafted him. They were walking the halls of the arena and he hadn't scored the game before. So I said to him, 'You play Canada next, right? It's going to be tough.' I was just hoping he understood.

"He looks at me and says in clear English, 'I score three.' And that's what he did. Pretty amazing."

That meeting set the stage for what happened five months later when Luce got a call from Sergei Fomitchev, a representative working for Mogilny, that the player was interested in coming to North America.

Forging a plan

Stunned by Fomitchev's call, Luce immediately called Meehan and the GM took the news to Sabres owner Seymour H. Knox III, who agreed a trip to Stockholm was worthwhile.

When Luce and Meehan saw Mogilny in the hotel room here, Meehan first made sure Luce confirmed the player was in fact the same person Luce had seen in Alaska.

"Sergei spoke English. Back then, Alex understood English more than he let on like I saw in Alaska," Luce said. "That was typical of most Russians who were playing. Communication was difficult and the answers sometimes had to go through Sergei."

The group moved forward with plans and agreed to meet again in a nearby apartment later that night.

But Meehan and Luce then received another call from Fomitchev that Mogilny was being followed and the apartment was not going to work. They were told to meet at a nearby shopping mall, the Gallerian.

"The Russian players had been given a couple days to unwind after they won the World Championships," Meehan recalled. "They went shopping but we got a call that said Alex suspected they were being tracked by you know who."

Meehan never said the letters. Didn't need to. He was talking KGB.

The mall sat quiet Tuesday. It was just another day. Reindeer, which are ubiquitous symbols in Sweden, stood guard in front of the mall's entrance as the holiday season approaches.

The reindeer outside the Stockholm Gallerian. (Mike Harrington/Buffalo News)

A large sign inside proclaimed, "Stockholm's Sjakvklara Shoppingdestation Sedan 1976" meaning the premier destination since '76. There are little stands all over town and through the mall, and every one of them seems to have pastries and paninis. There was a man in a Swedish national team jersey sitting at a table eating and I interrupted his danish with the story of the mall, the hotel and Mogilny.

"He was a great player," said John Andersson, 52, a local construction worker. "I never knew the story of how he got to NHL because Soviets usually didn't go back then. That's amazing."

Luce and Meehan pulled up to the mall late that afternoon more than 30 years ago and didn't know what to expect – until Mogilny and Fomitchev burst through a door and ran to the car. They got in and the Buffalo contingent sped them away.

From there, it was a whirlwind for Meehan and Luce. There were late-night visits to the U.S. Embassy to secure travel documents for Mogilny – because the Russians confiscated players' passports when they went to international tournaments.

Back home in Buffalo, retired Immigration and Naturalization Service head Benjamin Ferro was Meehan's key contact. Knox went right to the White House, asking a college friend named George Bush to help the process along.

"We got into a routine and followed a plan. We kept pushing ahead," Meehan said. "We had a plan, got good support from the government locally. Ben Ferro in immigration was fantastic. We had a timeline. Our plan was good, we stuck to it and it felt great, but it was difficult."

The Buffalo contingent changed hotels with Mogilny in tow every few hours. Luce and Mogilny spent hours driving through the Swedish countryside when Meehan was working at the Embassy. The danger element didn't strike Meehan and Luce when they left for Stockholm. But Luce said it became real once Mogilny was with them.

"It's a funny feeling, really. You were like, 'Is that person watching me? What about him? Or him?' '' Luce said. "You're just looking around and you realize somebody is staring your way an extra second and you're thinking, 'Who are they?' You get that paranoia. 'What are they doing? Are they following me?' You were always looking over your shoulder, always looking behind the car, too. And back then it was way different. You get through it and realize later how much danger you were in."

Over the next 48 hours, Meehan orchestrated the travel documents, arranged for flights to New York's John F. Kennedy Airport and even got Mogilny to agree to a five-year, $1 million contract – after the player first insisted he was worth $1 million a year, or more than any Sabre was making at the time.

"We kept moving from hotel to hotel. It was the way you had to do it because they were looking for him," Meehan said. "When we were in the car, we had no accidents, no speeding tickets, didn't get tracked down. You can say Don Luce must have been a pretty good driver."

"We drove all over. We got to see a lot of Stockholm and the outskirts," said Luce, who can laugh about the episode now. "We spent a lot of time in the car just driving around."

A fabulous career

That October, Mogilny suited up for the Sabres wearing No. 89. He scored a goal 20 seconds into the first shift of his first NHL game, a win over the Quebec Nordiques in Memorial Auditorium. By 1993, he was a 76-goal scorer, a record that still stands for the Sabres and might never be broken given how hockey is a much more defense-oriented game than in those days.

Mogilny's 76 goals remain the most by a Russian and his 127 points that season were also a record until Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov piled up 128 last year. In 1993-94, Mogilny served as Sabres captain for part of the season, also a first for a Russian.

Mogilny was traded to Vancouver in 1995 in a deal that set the Sabres for the future by acquiring eventual captain Michael Peca and a first-round pick that became Jay McKee. Mogilny also played for New Jersey and Toronto, winning a Stanley Cup with the Devils in 2000. He retired with 473 regular-season goals and 39 more in the playoffs.

The one bit of unfinished business to Mogilny's career is why he's not in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur stumped for Mogilny prior to his own induction last year and the men who brought the Russian to the NHL certainly agree.

"There's absolutely no doubt to me," Meehan said. "Five-hundred goals, 1,000 points, Stanley Cup, international play. Leading goal scorer in the league. Why is he not in? It's hard to understand."

"What he could do at high speed," Luce said. "I don't know that there was anybody who could touch him."

In his post-playing days, Mogilny is as reclusive as he was at times when he was one of the NHL's stars. He turned 50 in February and has been president of Amur Khabarovsk of the KHL in Russia. Emails to the club seeking an interview were not answered.

"You could see he had the talent. People didn't realize what a huge adjustment it was for the kid at that time," Luce said. "Teams have a lot more to help young players now. You could see him mature as a player and also as a person understanding a new society, a different way of doing things. That was difficult for him at times."

Mogilny last returned to Buffalo to be inducted into the Sabres Hall of Fame in 2011 but did not do media interviews that day. He did not appear for his induction into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 2016.

The Sabres have an open invitation to Mogilny for 50th anniversary celebrations this season, but he politely declined to appear for Captains Night at the season opener. He has been invited for '90s Night on Jan. 4 but the team has not yet heard from him.

When the Sabres play here this week, they'll be focused on the four points they're trying to get. Luce and Meehan will both think back to the last time the Sabres had something big going in Stockholm.

"When I heard that it brought back memories right away," Luce said. "It's a great city and I got to see a lot of it. It will be a great experience for the players for sure – and the only guys chasing them will be on the ice."

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