Thanks, Mogs

Imagine this: It's 1989. The Cold War is still "hot" while US-Soviet relations are, well, cold. You're a 20-year old hockey player who secretly flies to Buffalo, New York, because the year before some men in business suits took a wild chance on you. You fear for your life, for your parents' lives, you don't speak English and your #23 Russian Army hockey jersey seems more than half a globe away. You are Alexander Mogilny, the first Russian hockey player in the NHL.

We frequently think of our sports heros as brave for playing through pain, or for orchestrating come-from-behind victories, but we don't always associate sports with life-and-death decisions. 89 became Alex Mogilny's sweater number because it was the year he defected, ending up in Buffalo since the team had drafted him a year before. He established a precedent that brought other Soviet and Soviet bloc players to the NHL, showing that not only was it possible to play but to learn English, adapt culturally (Mogilny learned to play golf), and thrive. In 1993 he became the first Russian player named captain of an NHL team.

Mogs scored over 1,000 points in just under 1,000 games. A point a game is impressive over a few seasons, but he did it for more than 15 years. His name is on the Stanley Cup, won with the Devils in 99-00, and in 02-03 he was awarded the Lady Byng Trophy for the most gentlemanly play on the ice. Hockey is a contact sport, and Mogilny's hip had been flaring up on him, limiting his play the last few seasons.

Tonight the Devils put Mogilny on waivers. It's not a complete surprise as Mogs has been in the doghouse lately. Hopefully he'll be claimed by another team, allowing him to wrap up his NHL career on a high note, perhaps reaching 1,000 games or 500 goals -- both impressive milestones well within reach during this season. In the meantime, my somewhat authentic Russian army #89 and #23 jerseys, and my "Blue Streak" poster from his Maple Leafs days will sit quietly, awaiting a distinguished finish to a distinguished player's career.

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