It’s never easy leaving home to go out into the world and make something of yourself. Imagine running away from your country, with special agents hot on your tail to track you down, for the slim chance of making something for yourself. That’s what it was like for Russian hockey players on their journey to the NHL after defecting from their hometowns.
Alexander Mogilny was born in 1969, raised in the Soviet Union’s “Red Army Team”, now called the CSKA Moscow, as few “lucky” Soviet children were. Mogilny was made a professional CSKA player in 1986 at the age of 17. In his first 3 seasons with the CSKA, he appeared in 98 games with 38 goals and 20 assists. In his time with the USSR, Mogilny went on to play on the international stage as well, winning 3 gold medals and 1 silver for his country. He was even named the “Best Forward” in the 1988 World Junior Championship, a title that would give him even more attention across the ocean in a world away.
Even though there was pride to be taken in playing for the USSR national team, Mogilny dreamed of a better life in the NHL. In the NHL’s 1988 Entry Draft, Mogilny was selected 98th overall to the Buffalo Sabre. It was finally his opening to a life he had been dreaming of, there was only one problem.
Defecting, or abandoning the team, was illegal and the KGB was not someone to be messed with.
The players’ passports were handed out right before they needed to be check and collected right after the plane landed, there was next to no chance to flee. The KGB took their jobs very seriously.
When Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov said he didn’t want to play for Coach Viktor Tikhonov (KGB owned) anymore, he was grabbed outside of a hotel, dragged to the front of a police station and beaten by the KGB. Fetisov described the incident as:
“They grabbed me in front of a hotel, threw me into a car, drove me over to the police station, tied me, and beat me up. Then, a few hours later an assistant coach came and they released me. Then, I went public the next day and said, “What’s going on here?” They never thought I’d fight the system. I went straight to the newspaper and said, “I’m not going to play for Tikhonov anymore.” (x)
This effected more than just hockey. People would stop taking to any players thinking of defecting, in fear of their lives. It was a risk that very few were willing to take, in fear of being at odds with the Russian Machine.
But Alexander Mogilny broke the system and got out, the first to do so.
At the time, Mogilny was playing in the 1989 World Juniors in Stockholm, Sweden, when he disappeared one night and fled to North America. Mogilny defected to the Buffalo Sabre, the team that drafted him a year prior.
“Today I feel nothing but happiness. Perhaps this season was a rough one for me. I wouldn’t wish what I went through on my worst enemy. The conflict with the players cost me a lot. I’m not made of steel, you know” (x)
Mogilny would go on to win a Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 2000. He was also the first Russian player to be named to the All-Star Team.
Mogilny opened the flood gates for other Russian players that wanted to come over to the NHL. He was a pioneer and the reason that years later, a future Hall-of-Famer was able to lave his home country for a shot in the NHL.
Evgeni “Geno” Malkin is one of the most well-known names in hockey. When I think of the word “penguins”, that 6’3, 195 lbs. force of nature, whose hockey is gorgeous, pops into my head. Malkin is an absolute superstar who has accomplished so much already in his 13 seasons with the NHL. Malkin has 3 Stanley Cups, the Calder, the Hart, Smythe, Ross, Pearson, and was a 3 time All-Star.
Geno’s story starts a lot like Alexander Mogilny’s. Geno was drafted by his hometown team, the Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Russian Superleague, later called the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), in 2003 as a 17-year-old. A year later, Malkin was drafted 2nd Overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Level Draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The problem being the Metallurg Magnitogorsk had pressured Malkin to sign an extension with them. Malkin said they used “psychological pressures” (family, friends, and Motherland) to make Geno sign an extension but when training camp hit, he quickly realized that he didn’t feel like he belonged.
He knew what he wanted and he didn’t care how scary it seemed.
So when Metallurg was playing in a preseason tournament in Finland, Geno picked up a hockey bag and a small bag of close and followed his dream. He spent a few day holed up in a Finnish apartment, letting the hockey world wonder “How do you lose a 6’3″, 19-year-old?”.
After getting a visa cleared, Geno was on a plane and headed for Pittsburgh in a whole new world he knew next to nothing about. Geno later said:
“I was not scared to come to America. I was scared what my friends would think of me. I love Russia. It is my country, my home. It was a tough time. But I had a dream, and that was to play for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL.” (x)
And the rest is history, but the page is definitely bookmarked because Malkin is not done yet.
It takes guts to leave behind all you know on the fleeting hope of a dream. These two players, and all the others who went with them, have the biggest heart in the game. They not only have the skill to play but the courage to change the world and compete.