Of all the Maple Leafs’ opening nights I have watched as fan, there are two which stand out to me that I will always remember. The first and most recent comes from the beginning of this Centennial Season. Everything from being formally introduced to Auston Matthews to the long-awaited retirement of all the numbers hanging from the rafters was a spectacle to be seen. The second home opener which I will always cherish was the 2001-2002 season. These were the infamous days of the blue, white and silver. The unorthodox “TML” insignia on the shoulders was a look most fans are still trying to pretend never happened. This was also the year I got to watch my soon to be favourite player of my childhood play for the Leafs. Think of how excited young fans were to watch Auston take those first steps on the ice as they announce his name and number for the Leafs. That is how I felt when Andy Frost introduced Leafs Nation to Alexander Mogilny.
Today just happens to be his birthday, so I want to take a moment to pump his tires just a little bit. Mogilny was drafted 89th overall in the 1988 draft to the Buffalo Sabres. In 1989, he became the first countryman to defect from the former Soviet Union for a career in North America. Mogilny would slowly rise to stardom in Buffalo and became the first Russian captain in the NHL. Years later in 1992, Mogilny would find himself tied for the league lead in goals with seventy-six, tied with Jet’s rookie Teemu Selanne. Mogilny would later play for Vancouver and then New Jersey where he won his first and only Stanley Cup. He later signed with Toronto and in 2003 he became the first Maple Leaf to win the Lady Byng trophy since Dave Keon did so in 1963.
Since Mogilny left Toronto, there have not been many Russian-born players to come through the doors and have such a impact on the roster like he did. However this year things are starting to change. The new era of the Leafs’ Russian imports lies in the hands of Nikita Zaitsev and Nikita Soshnikov.
Zaitsev is a little difficult to compare as he plays an entirely different position on defence, but like Mogilny he is an effective player night in and night out. He plays big minutes for the squad and is often on the ice during crucial moments of the game. He is also quietly in the top ranks of points by rookie defencemen this year. Zaitsev’s experience playing with professionals as opposed to kids is a product of his time playing with CSKA Moscow, the same team which Mogilny played for. Zaitsev has been the Leafs’ biggest surprise this season and will remain one of the core pieces to the puzzle in the quest for the playoffs, and one day the Cup.
Soshnikov is positionally very similar to Mogilny in that they both have a left-handed shot and line up at the right wing. This allows their sticks to be on the inside of the ice which comes in crucial when attacking off the rush. You will not see Soshnikov line up on the first line powerplay unit like Mogilny often did with Sundin and Tucker but he is not relied on as a premier scorer anyway. He plays a much more hard-nosed, gritty style of hockey and is a great fit on the Leafs’ checking lines.
Alexander Mogilny will forever be one of the greatest Leafs of all time and a trailblazer for Russian hockey players in the NHL. He has provided me with great memories of watching the Leafs during my childhood and as a young fan at the time, he was my hero. In my past, I have received two pieces of Mogilny memorabilia which I hold close to my heart. The first being his jersey which was given to me at Christmas one year. It was the classic Leafs alternate jersey with the 1960s design, back when Koho was the official NHL jersey supplier. The other prized possession was an autographed photo which Mogilny sent me through the Maple Leafs’ Bud’s Club. I wrote to them asking for a life-size poster for a school project and they sent me a photo instead but signed by him in blue marker. He was nice enough to make me the happiest fan in the world so the least I can do is wish him a Happy Birthday.
S dnem rozhdeniya Alexander.