In 1989, Soviet hockey star Alexander Mogilny made headlines when he defected to North America to play in the NHL. He played for the Buffalo Sabres, Vancouver Canucks, Toronto Maple Leafs, and New Jersey Devils during his career. (Mike Cassess/Reuters)
Hockey, like any other sport, has evolved and grown over the years. But few sports have been as heavily influenced by international politics, particularly by the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
In his new book Breakaway, hockey writer Tal Pinchevsky chronicles the fascinating history of Eastern Bloc players who, behind the Iron Curtain, fiercely loved the game, but dreamed of coming to North America. Some players even risked imprisonment to defect and join the NHL. Peter Stastny and his brother Anton were among the first Eastern Bloc hockey stars to join the NHL. They defected from Czechoslovakia in 1980 to Canada, signing with the Quebec Nordiques. Their watershed actions paved the way for players like Alexander Mogilny, who had helped the 1988 senior Soviet hockey squad win Olympic gold. A year later, Mogilny, at the tender age of 20, made the painful decision to leave his friends and family behind to become the first Soviet player to defect to the U.S. to play in the NHL.
"The thought of a Soviet hockey player defecting at any point was absolutely unthinkable," Pinchevsky said during a recent interview with Daybreak. "These players were just a huge asset to their national team and their country and were literally [seen as] a living testament to the superiority of their communist system."
By this point in time, some older Soviet players, like Sergei Priakin, were being granted permission by the government to leave for the NHL. But young stars like Mogilny were seen as the cornerstones of their future hockey success and were heavily protected. The story of how Mogilny made it to U.S. soil wouldn't be out of place in a spy novel. The young hockey player and his agent were in Stockholm, Sweden with the national team for the 1989 World Championships. Mogilny's agent made contact with Buffalo Sabre's head scout Don Luce, a former NHL player born in London, Ont. After hearing them out, Luce travelled to Sweden to bring the undeniably talented young forward back with him. Both Luce and Mogilny had to move under the radar, meeting up at a mall, and then driving through the Swedish countryside, using aliases at different hotels. When Mogilny finally made it to the U.S., it was a huge international story.
"For him, to be in the U.S., this capitalist enemy, and learning the language and the culture and about shopping and chequing accounts and credit cards and things that he had never experienced before ... The whole story is just fascinating," Pinchevsky said.
Mogilny's defection was part of an incredibly transformative period in time which saw the fall of the Berlin Wall that same year and the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the recognition of Russia as its legal successor in the world. The effect on hockey was massive, as the early 1990s saw the influx of many talented players from Eastern European countries. In fact, the 1997 Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings famously utilized the "Russian Five" lineup, comprised of former Soviet team and CSKA Moscow stars. They played a different style of game, and would go onto to influence how it's played today.
"The Czechs and Slovaks and Russians have undeniably had a huge impact on the game," Pinchevsky said. "The perception during the Cold War was there were two different kinds of games of hockey: one was in the NHL, which was North American, Western, tough Canadian.
The international game was more balletic, more graceful, bigger rinks, so there was more space for skating, aesthetically a bit more pleasing. Now, 20 years later, you can see what I consider a perfect combination of the two. I think the NHL game today is skilled and fast as it's ever been, but it still has that physical element that a lot of other people like, so that influence is there."