The Immaturity Keeping Alexander Mogilny Out Of The Hockey Hall Of Fame - By Kevin Wong; December 1, 2019; @CambieKev on Twitter
Note: This is a career retrospective focusing on some of Alexander Mogilny's controversies as an NHL player, written for historical purposes and to remind readers about his reputation in the league. The "immaturity" that the title refers to is perhaps that of Mogilny while he was a player. Please feel free to discuss your memories of this player in the comments section and to debate the arguments for and against his induction into the HHOF.
Thirteen years have passed since Alexander Mogilny last played professional hockey, and yet another year has gone by without his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. His reputation as one of Russia's great hockey legends precedes him, and his myriad of personal accomplishments offer a strong case for his induction.
Mogilny was a prolific scorer and a wonderfully-gifted player whose name commands respect among hockey fans, even as memories of his controversies and struggles fade. In 990 NHL games, he scored 1032 points, including 473 goals and 559 assists. He is a six-time NHL All-Star (1992, 1993, 1994, 1996, 2001, 2003); he was also named to the Second All-Star Team twice (1993, 1996), achieved the equivalent of a Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL's goal-scoring leader with 76 goals in 1993, won the Stanley Cup in 2000, is a member of the Triple Gold Club, and earned the Lady Byng Trophy in 2003. These are some of his many accomplishments during his 19-year professional career (1986 with CSKA Moscow to 2006 with Albany of the AHL). Igor Larionov's nickname for Mogilny was "Magic," his explanation being that the "g" in Mogilny is intended to sound like the "g" in magic (MacIntyre 1995).
Sportsnet highlight reel of Mogilny (post date: June 2018, 9 min.):
Despite this very impressive list of personal achievements, Alexander Mogilny has not been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, although he has been eligible since 2009. Many of his greatest on-ice rivals and teammates have been inducted already, but his wait continues. There seems to be some mystery as to what barriers lay between him and the HHOF. A closer look at his career may unearth the answers to these critical questions.
Although he demonstrated periods of unbelievable dominance against his on-ice peers, his contemporary reputation was undermined by his motivations, degree of motivation, as well as other moments of great division between him and those in authority while he played in the National Hockey League. His defection from the USSR and the oppressive regime of Viktor Tikhonov are well-documented; he, along with Slava Fetisov and others, admirably fought for their freedom from Tikhonov. Among the reasons that pushed Mogilny to leave was a moment at the 1988 Calgary Olympics when Tikhonov "slugged" him in the stomach because of a minor penalty he had taken in a meaningless game; Team USSR had already clinched the gold medal (MacIntyre 1995). Unlike most of his CSKA Moscow peers, however, Mogilny's detached, rebellious behavior continued after leaving his homeland as he struggled with the transition to the North American lifestyle. During his time with CSKA Moscow, Larionov identified Mogilny as "a different guy -- listening, then doing his own thing" in spite of the coach's instructions (MacIntyre 1995). Team Canada coach Tom Webster noted some of the on-ice implications of this at the 1989 World Junior Championship in Anchorage: "for his age, he's a very talented player, but a lazy player... He doesn't come back in his own end, but that's a compliment to the players he plays with" (Kerr 1989). This confrontational behavior continued into his time in the NHL and led to numerous complications in the first few years of his tenure with the Buffalo Sabres.
In 1995, Mogilny spoke with Vancouver Sun reporter Iain MacIntyre about his internal conflicts as he uncomfortably tried to adapt to his new world. According to MacIntyre, he confessed that after his "honeymoon with freedom cooled, he struggled with his identity, feeling neither Russian nor American" (MacIntyre 1995). In the period between his defection from his homeland and his eventual return in 1994, he felt, in MacIntyre's words, "torturously isolated from his homeland;" he had been made a junior lieutenant by Tikhonov -- something he vehemently tried to refuse for fear of its military implications -- and was also "convicted in absentia of deserting the army" (MacIntyre 1995). His parents were ordered to testify regarding Mogilny's actions, causing significant grief to the young player; family friends abandoned them, and his medals were confiscated (MacIntyre 1995). Fellow Russian stars of that era, Fetisov and Pavel Bure, described the situation in these terms:
"I don't have enough words to describe Alex. He is an honest guy and unbelievable friend. I've got so much sympathy for him. I wish he was my (biological) brother... He wanted freedom and he got freedom... but he lost his homeland" - Slava Fetisov, 1995 (MacIntyre 1995).Feelings of fear, sorrow and confusion ultimately bled into his time as a Buffalo Sabre, and he exhibited erratic behavior.
"I think everyone was shocked at the time... You couldn't come back; you had to leave the country forever" - Pavel Bure, 1995 (MacIntyre 1995).
Mogilny debuted in the NHL on October 5, 1989, but as early as February 1990 --- four months into his NHL career -- he told his Sabres teammates that he had "played his last game with the Sabres" (The Province, Feb. 1990). A sudden fear of flying caused him to miss the February 11, 1990 game against St. Louis, and he had reportedly told teammates "he was quitting" (The Province, Feb. 1990). He had already missed five games that January "because of what the team called a stomach virus which was complicated by his fear of flying" (The Province, Feb. 1990). Teammate Uwe Krupp noted that "you could see he was having problems adjusting... It has been hard for him. It's hard for most players who come over here, but it seemed really hard for him" (The Province, Feb. 1990). Sabres general manager Gerry Meehan reported, of Mogilny, that "he has a legitimate fear of flying" (The Province, Feb. 1990). Mogilny apparently went "to see his lawyer," according to an unidentified acquaintance who answered Mogilny's telephone (The Province, Feb. 1990). There were signs that this player was troubled, that demons were manifesting themselves in this young man's life.
Throughout this saga, he missed multiple games despite arriving via train to Chicago for a match against the Blackhawks and appearing in the subsequent pre-game warmup against Montreal (Shoalts 1990). David Shoalts of The Globe and Mail speculated that, as a result of Sabres coach Rick Dudley declaring him a healthy scratch against Chicago, Mogilny retaliated by being "deliberately late for a team meeting" the following Thursday (Shoalts 1990). Mogilny continued to represent the Sabres after this incident, but the subsequent year presented another challenge.
Contract issues became a topic of contention one year after his arrival in Buffalo. During his transition to life away from his homeland, Mogilny reportedly spent his earnings excessively on "everything from clothes to cars" -- behavior that "began to worry his Russian friends in the NHL" (MacIntyre 1995). He had, according to the NHL, chased the dream of "a chance to make a vast amount of dough in the best hockey league in the world" (MacIntyre 1995), culminating in a contract dispute in October 1991 (Fisher 1991) as well as a conversation about work ethic (Sicinski 1991). Mogilny, earning $140,000 that year, met with his agent Don Meehan, general manager Gerry Meehan, and Sabres director of hockey John Muckler; during the meeting, Mogilny reportedly fired his agent (Matheson 1991). Team management offered Mogilny an extension, but this contract amendment was declined (Fisher 1991).
Work ethic issues plagued Mogilny's time in Buffalo. Before the firing of Don Meehan, he was petitioned by Gerry Meehan and Muckler "to approach his client about his work ethic" (Sicinski 1991). According to Don Meehan, "they were concerned that he wasn't trying. It wasn't something he wanted to hear and he fired me... I thought we had a good professional relationship and friendship. I was always there when he needed help. I was very disappointed" (Sicinski 1991). Mogilny had apparently negotiated the original four-year-plus-option deal himself, and teammates claim "his eyes glazed over with the dollar signs" (Sicinski 1991). Among his immediate purchases with his newfound riches were a $60,000 Corvette, an apartment, luxurious clothes, and many other expenses (Sicinski 1991). Meehan was trying to renegotiate this deal for his client before he was fired (Sicinski 1991).
"He wasn't consistent. He'd have ups and downs and you never could get a good read on whether Alex would show up the night he was playing" - John Muckler, Sabres Director of Hockey, 1991 (Sicinski 1991).This was followed by a ten-game suspension in January 1992 in the aftermath of a match against the St. Louis Blues. Mogilny, in frustration, slapped on-ice official Dan Schachte on the side of the head after Schachte assessed a major penalty and game misconduct to Mogilny for slashing (The Globe and Mail 1992). These first few years established Mogilny as one of the NHL's frustration-worthy enigmas.
Larry Sicinski of the Hamilton Spectator noted that Mogilny "has done little to ingratiate himself with Sabres' management, teammates and the media since his arrival... [He] has established himself as a moody megalomaniac who plays only when the spirit moves him" (Sicinski 1991). When one considers the stresses of his sudden lifestyle change, the isolation, as well as the plethora of fears and anxieties that harmed Mogilny's psyche during this period, one might begin to reconcile the problems that loomed over him at this time.
Extraordinarily, regardless of the various challenges that he faced during this period, Mogilny thereafter elevated his play and in 1992-93 established new records with his awe-inspiring 76-goal, 127-point regular season performance; his transcendent season, unfortunately, ended with a broken leg in the second round of the playoffs against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens. Nonetheless, he gained the respect of the entire hockey world with this career season of his. The next season, he was named the captain of the Sabres as a replacement for the injured Pat Lafontaine. He became the first Russian captain in NHL history, a bold move by then-GM and coach John Muckler not for the historical precedent but for his stark change of opinion about the young player; in Muckler's words:
"Alex is the best man for the job. It's time for him to step forward because he is the franchise player... By accepting the C, I think he's going to become a better player... He's just done an outstanding job so far... He's played much more physically, he's playing better defensively. He's got a lot of respect from the other players, he's a real sincere guy, competitive, emotional... He is certainly not the same person now that I met when I first walked into the dressing room" - John Muckler, 1993 (Mayoh 1993).Mogilny performed admirably for the remainder of his time with the Sabres. This newfound focus, even in the face of an extortion threat from a former associate who assisted in his defection (The Gazette 1994), resulted in a salary raise with Mogilny earning $3.2 million as of 1995; however, the Sabres needed to clear salary from their payroll and thus made "a deal... based on economics," according to Mogilny's new agent Mike Barnett (Hickey 1995). He was traded at the 1995 NHL Entry Draft with a fifth-round pick to Vancouver in exchange for Michael Peca, Mike Wilson, and a first-round pick.
"I learned a lot the last seven years -- about people and myself and life in general. I've learned to protect myself from some things. The higher you go up, the harder you fall, so you keep your feet on the ground as much as possible" - Alexander Mogilny, 1995 (MacIntyre 1995).Mogilny left Buffalo with an apparent sense of dignity and grace, and his discussion with Iain MacIntyre in December 1995 explores many of the personal struggles that he faced during his time in Buffalo. He debuted in Vancouver with great success, establishing the second-highest all-time goal and point-scoring totals in Canucks franchise history at the time with 55 goals and 107 points. However, he and Pavel Bure did not play together, especially once Bure's career-altering knee injury in November 1995 resulted in the premature end of his season. Injuries and distractions kept these two former-junior linemates from reuniting optimally during this period. Mogilny succeeded in Bure's absence that year, but failed to recapture that same remarkable level of performance in 1996-97, his second year with the Canucks. Bure suffered from severe neck pain from whiplash that season, while Mogilny clashed with rookie Canucks coach Tom Renney.
In his second season with Vancouver, Alexander Mogilny lapsed back into his old, haphazard ways, albeit while producing at a respectable level. Public opinion was that "Mogilny's apathetic play deserved a benching" and rumors swirled about potential trades involving him; Mogilny denied that he had asked for a trade, although he had publicly requested that the Canucks try to acquire a top centre: "That's a bunch of crap... Yes, I said to get over the hump, we needed a centre. I'd love to stay here... I just can't sit back and shut my mouth. That's not my nature. It's not easy to shut up and say nothing. What can I do? This is the way it is" (MacIntyre, Feb. 1997). His performance dipped to a total of 31 goals and 73 points, but at the season's end it was Tom Renney who admitted mistakes; Mogilny vouched for Renney, stating that "it was his first year... and you've got to realize the first year for anybody is tough.... I thought he came around quite a bit toward the end" (MacIntyre, Apr. 1997). Mogilny, a pending restricted free agent, decided to remain with the Canucks, claiming that "I've got enough money to last me the rest of my life... Money is an issue, but I want to be happy. I want to win something. That's the No. 1 priority for me right now" (MacIntyre, Apr. 1997).
A holdout ensued, concluding in November 1997. Mogilny, his wife, newborn daughter and dog stayed in Malibu while the contract negotiations took place. When the Vancouver media contacted Mogilny by telephone in September 1997, he offered these words:
"I don't want to sound like I haven't been thinking about it... But I'm enjoying my life down here more than ever. There is life without hockey... I'm not the kind of person who's going to be thinking about this [contract] and losing sleep. To be honest with you, I don't even think about it now. I'm not going to die tomorrow. Or go broke" - Alexander Mogilny, Sept. 1997 (MacIntyre, Sept. 1997).This lack of urgency prompted another response from Mogilny two years later, as he increasingly became defined as a Canuck by his lack of effort:
"Hockey is everything in my life... Because of hockey I am where I am, you know. I live a comfortable life and it's because of hockey. I'm not some entrepreneur or businessman. Hockey got me where I am" - Alexander Mogilny, 1999 (Rud 1999).During this time, Pat Quinn speculated that "high-profile restricted free agents like Mogilny conspired months ago to hold out as long as possible in an attempt to further inflate the market" (MacIntyre, Sept. 1997). Mogilny's response:
"I'm not really surprised... Vancouver has been known to drag things out for a while. I'm just enjoying it here day by day, seeing what's going to happen... It feels a little funny [missing training camp]. But I feel like I made the right decision for my family. And I understand the Canucks; it's all about business... I made a decision and I'm standing by it. I always believe in intuition. I believe in myself and believe everything will be resolved sooner or later. In the meantime, I'm loving my life" - Alexander Mogilny, Sept. 1997 (MacIntyre, Sept. 1997).Mogilny, 28 years old, finally returned in November of that year, but under-performed considerably. When the next season's training camp began, Mark Messier, team captain, remarked, "Last year, he missed camp, joined the team late and he never got himself organized... I think he's had a whole summer now to get himself ready to play this year. He knows the position he's going to be in and it's up to him to respond to the challenge" (Pap 1998). Mogilny, when asked about the absence of Pavel Bure, was dismissive about Bure's decision not to join the team that year:
"I've got enough to worry about -- kids, a wife, dogs -- so I can't worry about Pavel... I didn't follow anything after the season ended. I try to stay as far away from it as I can. I don't think about these things and I don't even care. I have to focus on my game, get in shape and worry about my own performance. I want to try and help the team as much as I can. What other guys do with their contracts, that's their thing" - Alexander Mogilny, Sept. 1998 (Pap 1998).A knee sprain and an abdominal strain sidelined Alexander Mogilny at various points during the next two seasons, but most notably, Mogilny suffered a sudden, sharp decline in production. Grant Kerr, writing for The Globe and Mail, proclaimed that "Mogilny has lost his scoring touch," that his "confidence appears shot," and that "he'd rather pass than shoot" (Kerr, 1999). Among his commentary, he remarked that "it's unlikely he'll collect on many of [his bonuses] because the 30-year-old right winger has only six goals in 36 games" (Kerr 1999); he also noted that "there are games, far too many in fact, when you swear Alexander Mogilny couldn't possibly need a postgame shower. A sponge bath would do because Mogilny often gives the appearance of someone just going through the motions... In games against Los Angeles and the Edmonton Oilers, he was reluctant to make plays for others, often trying one more fancy move when a simple pass would have done the job" (Kerr 1998). The urgency required from Mogilny was not present on the ice. Journalist Jeff Rud explained the two sides of this player at the time:
"If you ask just about anyone who deals with the Canucks on a regular basis, Mogilny is a genuinely nice guy. He is funny, refreshingly honest and a pleasure to deal with. That is the side some of us see. The other side, the side that is most public, is of a hockey player who it seems sometimes can't be bothered to expend the effort to help his team. If there is a single player who has been the lightning rod for criticism of this team during the past few sorry years it has been Mogilny... What's worse is the feeling that Mogilny often appears to play as though he no longer cares about the game... Others say Mogilny approaches hockey like most people approach their jobs. It's important, but not that important. When asked about this perception yesterday, Mogilny denied that's how he feels" - Jeff Rud, Sept. 1999 (Rud 1999).Confusion was Mogilny's reaction to his poor play. When asked about his decline, "the cryptic Mogilny merely shrugs his shoulders when asked" -- according to Mogilny, "I'm just trying to do the little things, what the coach wants, trying to play the system... If the goals come, it's a bonus. It's nice. I've been as frustrated as anybody on this team. Things haven't been going well. This is my 10th year [in the NHL]. It's very hard. I just want to be part of the solution, hopefully a brighter future for this organization" (Kerr 1999).
"It's been hard... the last couple of years because the team has been dismantled... It's been hard, but it's our job to get motivated for every game" - Alexander Mogilny, Sept. 1999 (Rud 1999).A trade followed. Mogilny was sent to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for Brendan Morrison and Denis Pederson. In response to this, Mogilny admitted that he was not prepared to be the offensive leader of a less-established team like the rebuilding Canucks; in joining New Jersey, Mogilny said, "I'm coming into an established, solid hockey club... That's probably what I needed a little more. I can loosen up and go play hockey and have fun. That's exactly what I needed" (Alaska Highway News 2000).
Mogilny experienced a regular season resurgence with the Devils in 2000-01, although was sometimes criticized during both of his postseason campaigns with the team for his lengthy scoring droughts. His lack of production was pardoned by Devils manager Lou Lamoriello, who defended his new acquisition: "when we got him we told him we weren't going to depend on him to score... But we knew we were getting a guy who can break a game open at any time" (Willes 2000). He won the Stanley Cup nearly immediately upon joining the Devils, although he provided his team with a mere 4 goals, 7 points in 23 playoff games. In 2000-01, he scored 43 goals, 83 points in 75 games, but in the playoffs scored just 5 goals, 16 points in 25 games.
"Last year, I scored four goals in the playoffs and no one had a question about it... This year, they're saying something is wrong. It's a different year... If I score or not, there's a lot of ways to contribute" - Alexander Mogilny, May 2001 (The Expositor 2001).The New Jersey Devils reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 2001 but a second consecutive championship was not to be. Additionally, Mogilny was slated to become a free agent that summer.
"What makes me proudest of him... is that all through it, he never once... not once... stopped working... All through it, he never stopped trying to be better. Not once during it did he do anything or say anything to affect adversely any of the other players in the room. He took a lot of heat from a lot of people all through it, but not once did he complain" - Lou Lamoriello, June 2001 (Fisher 2001).
Alexander Mogilny, now 32 years old, chose Toronto and a four-year, $22 million contract, expounding that the Maple Leafs offered a higher bid while New Jersey, in spite of discussions with agent Mike Barnett, made no formal offer: "I knew it wouldn't be easy to go back [to New Jersey]... I know how [general manager] Lou [Lamoriello] negotiates contracts.... It was difficult to accept. I wanted to stay there. I won't lie to you. But it didn't work out... The numbers were what we were looking at -- I wasn't ready to sacrifice that amount of change" (Standard-Freeholder 2001).
During his tenure with the Leafs, both teammate Mats Sundin and coach Pat Quinn were very complimentary of Mogilny as a player:
"He's one of the more talented players I've ever had the privilege of coaching" - Pat Quinn, 2001 (Nanaimo Daily News 2001).Elite talent is often wasted when not utilized effectively. Complacency is the common foil of those too self-aware about their abilities, perhaps because they overestimate the degree to which they can compensate for their lack of effort with skill. The apathy and inconsistency within his game while he represented Vancouver continued to reveal themselves while he donned the Leafs' colors (Campbell 2001). These were, at least, the observations of the Toronto Star's Ken Campbell, who wrote, "Mogilny is exhibiting some of the same traits that made him so difficult to figure out when he played for the Canucks. His penchant for being dominant one game and invisible the next has emerged early in his tenure with the Leafs. Mogilny still leads the team in goals with four, but that total was amassed in two games. He was brilliant in his two-goal performance against the Mighty Ducks last week, but has just four shots in three games since" (Campbell 2001).
"He's absolutely at the top of the league in terms of skills... He may be the best I've played with, and I've played with some great players like Sakic and Forsberg and all these guys... When he's out there... he'll find you if you find a hole for him" - Mats Sundin, 2003 (Fitz-Gerald 2003).
Once more, inconsistency plagued Mogilny's tenure with his team, and by 2004 the Toronto media were all aware of Mogilny's witty, aloof, inaccessible personality whenever hockey was the topic of discussion. A hip injury required major surgery and certainly had an effect on his performance, but his chapter in Toronto was a story that had been written about him in several different cities by different groups of people.
"What frustration?... I don't have a frustration... I'm smiling. I'm real happy. We are a very happy bunch in here. Everything is great... [Last year] was just a couple lucky goals here and there, an empty-net goal -- a good hip -- that helped... my quickness was gone a long time ago... Why blame the hip?... I mean goals, they are not everything in the world... You just go out there and work hard... There are a lots of things you can do to help this team" - Alexander Mogilny, 2004 (O'Connor 2004).Joe O'Connor of the National Post reiterated what so many others had said about Mogilny in the past, that "everything isn't great for Mogilny. His hands, which can be as quick as his tongue when he is in a position to score, have been deadly silent for the Leafs... his offence has all but abandoned him now. The winger has just one goal... and one assist to show for nine playoff games" (O'Connor 2004). It was at this point, however, that there would be no on-ice rejuvenation. An arthritic hip spelled the end of Mogilny's career; he missed 45 games in 2002-03 due to hip complications, then played only 37 regular season games in 2003-04 and underwent two surgeries that year (Woods 2004). A brief comeback in 2005-06 with the New Jersey Devils was cut short by Lou Lamoriello's decision to healthy scratch Mogilny and then waive him -- the move was determined to be "strictly a personnel decision;" Mogilny had signed a two-year, $7 million deal with the team (The Globe and Mail, Jan. 2006). He finished his career in the AHL that season, and then was deemed unable to continue his career the following September as a result of his arthritic hip (The Globe and Mail, Sept. 2006).
Alexander Mogilny became eligible for induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009, three years after his retirement. His career, defined by great heights and successes, was also marred by a cloud of inconsistency and an underwhelming level of intensity. Substandard performances were the norm between moments of astonishing excellence. His rebellious behavior and later his sense of self-awareness sometimes posed challenges for those around him. Although he was a star, he was as high-maintenance a player as any; only his rare, otherworldly talent and intimidating presence in a fraction of his games kept him from being dismissed as quickly as anybody else may have been had they tried to behave as he did. He had high peaks with each of his teams -- 76 goals, 127 point with Buffalo (1992-93); 55 goals, 107 points with Vancouver (1995-96); 43 goals, 83 points with New Jersey (2000-01); 33 goals, 79 points with Toronto (2002-03). There may be executives and figures of influence in important hockey circles who do not respect Mogilny in spite of his individual accolades. Politics may be at play here, as his unconventional, confrontational, juvenile personality certainly generated friction at times; there is an opposite end to this dynamic, however, as those who currently deny him a place in the Hall may similarly be considered immature for potentially neglecting him out of spite. As was once the case with Lindros, perhaps his behavior as a young man remains the blockade between him as an older gentleman and his enshrinement in the Hall. Time reconciles differences and frequently leads to forgiveness over youthful inexperience and misguided behavior. Neither a young man's lack of wisdom, nor his personal struggles should be the hurdles that prevent him from being bestowed the honors that he deserves for his achievements. He is now 50 years old, yet his wait continues. Alexander Mogilny, a six-time NHL All-Star, Triple Gold Club member, Stanley Cup champion, NHL goal-scoring leader and Lady Byng Trophy winner, and scorer of 473 goals, 1032 points in the NHL, has probably done enough to be considered for a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The only regret is that he could have done far more with his gifts. Immaturity, in one form or another, has pushed him to the fringes, keeping him on the outside when he was talented enough and capable enough to be in.
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