A Flames’ franchise icon will be enshrined Monday in the Hockey Hall of Fame. That, in itself, is something to celebrate in this city.
What makes Mike Vernon’s induction extra special is that this is a made-in-Calgary success story.
Vernon cemented his status as a local legend when he backstopped the Flames to a Stanley Cup parade in 1989.
But before that, he starred for the Calgary Wranglers, twice saluted as the Western Hockey League’s MVP.
Before that, he stopped pucks for the Junior A-level Calgary Canucks.
Before that, Vernon was a regular on the South Calgary Community Association outdoor rinks. And before that even, this smiling tyke would knock on the door at a neighbouring house in Altadore and ask to face some shots.
“I was a goaltender too and I would come home from school and here was this kid who was, like, six or seven years old, and he would have all my equipment on and my mom would be shooting tennis balls at him in the basement,” said Bob Sinclair, who played youth hockey with some of Vernon’s older brothers, became his first netminding idol and has remained a lifelong friend. “That’s all he wanted to do, that kid. All he wanted to do was play goal.”
He turned out to be a darn good goaltender. One of the best ever.
“You know, the hockey rink was my playground,” Vernon said. “After school, I went to the hockey rink. On weekends, I was always at the hockey rink.”
He comes from a hockey family. Mike described his late parents, Martin and Lorraine, as “my biggest fans.” They would have been beaming with pride Monday as their son is honoured as part of a Hall of Fame class that also includes fellow goalkeepers Tom Barrasso and Henrik Lundqvist, standout skaters Caroline Ouellette and Pierre Turgeon, plus Ken Hitchcock and Pierre Lacroix in the builder category. The ceremony will be broadcast on TSN4 at 6 p.m. MT.
‘I never took the pads off’
“My mother was my first coach,” reminisced Vernon, who turned 60 earlier this year. “That was kind of diaper league, and when I put the pads on for the first time, I knew right then that I wanted to be a goalie. I never took the pads off after that.”
Throughout his minor hockey days, his pads were typically hand-me-downs from Sinclair, who was nearly eight years older and usually had Martin Vernon as his coach.
“I remember one time, I bought this new mask … ” said Sinclair, already chuckling at this memory. “We used to wear the cages back then, like a baseball catcher. So I bought this mask that was clear because I thought that I would be able to see the puck in my feet better.
“But when you were playing back then, you’re playing outside. The only time we got to play in an arena is when we made the playoffs. And playing outside, that stupid thing fogged up and I couldn’t see anything. So Mr. Vernon calls me over to the bench, grabs the mask and throws it away and he says, ‘Get your other mask on!’ Well, little Mike is there and he grabs that mask right away because he wanted all my equipment. And he’s smart, so he takes it home and paints it. And he wore it, too.”
Vernon will never forget that paint job… or the colour he selected. Because when he peeled off that lid for the first time, his face was stained green.
As most in Calgary would attest, he always looked best in red. In the Flaming C, in particular.
Sure, Vernon enjoyed some success in other cities, like a whirlwind with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks in the spring of 1983. In those days, teams that were competing in the Memorial Cup could add an extra netminder from elsewhere in their league. As tournament hosts, the Winterhawks picked up Vernon. He helped them hoist the trophy.
He had a stellar stint with the Detroit Red Wings, sipping from the Stanley Cup again in 1997. After posting a remarkable 16-4 record and a minuscule 1.76 goals-against average in the playoffs, he doubled up as Conn Smythe Trophy winner.
Vernon’s resume also includes stops with the San Jose Sharks and Florida Panthers before an unexpected trade allowed him to finish his career at the Saddledome. He retired in 2002 with 385 victories on NHL ice, including 262 on behalf of the Flames. His No. 30 jersey was raised to the rafters.
“To be drafted by ’em, to win a Stanley Cup with ’em … It’s unbelievable,” said Vernon, sharing what it was like to be a star puck-stopper in the city where he was born and raised. “Don’t get me wrong, there were some trying times in there too, the odd boos and things like that. But I think, in general, what it did was it pushed me to be a better player and to want to figure out this game, because it’s not easy. It gave me that extra push and the desire to want to play better and be a better goalie.”
Faith in a hometown kid paid off
While it wasn’t always a fairytale for this homegrown hero, Doug Sauter was confident that Vernon could handle the spotlight, the scrutiny, the potential distractions. In fact, he’d witnessed proof of it.
As head honcho for the WHL’s Wranglers, Sauter loaded up on locals, explaining: “I always thought it was a myth that players couldn’t play in their hometown. I was a believer they would play better in their hometown, because they’re playing in front of families and friends and that is enough pressure, right there, to make sure that you’re playing your best.”
In his role with the Wranglers, Sauter established a rapport with Cliff Fletcher and the rest of the Flames’ brain trust. Back before NHL organizations had an army of amateur scouts, they leaned on the local junior coach for intel on the up-and-comers. Like in 1981, when an 18-year-old Vernon led his team to the WHL Final.
“I was part of Calgary’s contingent at the draft that year, and I was very adamant they should draft Mike Vernon,” Sauter said. “They did, and it paid dividends for not only Mike but for the Flames franchise.”
It certainly did.
For proof, just look at the championship banner that hangs at the Saddledome.
The Flames had a stacked roster in 1989, but every guy on that powerhouse squad — including Doug Gilmour, Al MacInnis, Lanny McDonald, Joe Mullen and Joe Nieuwendyk, all previously welcomed to the Hockey Hall of Fame — will tell you that Vernon is the reason they were able to survive an opening-round scare from the Vancouver Canucks.
“We don’t even make it to the final if Vernie doesn’t play as well as he did against Vancouver,” McDonald said. “Especially the three saves he made in overtime in Game 7, the two one-timers from Petri Skriko and Tony Tanti and the breakaway from Stan Smyl … If he doesn’t make those saves, it’s over before it began.”
Rick Wamsley, who was Vernon’s backup from 1988-92, can describe one of those highlight-reel stops in such vivid detail that you’d swear it happened last week.
“I had the best seat in the house for Skriko’s one-timer and I’m telling you, we’re within a big toe — we are within Mike Vernon’s big toe — of not winning the Stanley Cup,” Wamsley said during an interview on Flames Talk on Sportsnet 960 The Fan. “I can see it. As I’m talking about it, I can see it right now. It comes over to Skriko, left-hand shot, right-wing side of the ice, somewhere around the top of the circle, and he gets all of it and it’s almost the perfect height. It’s over pad height, so it’s going over the pad, under the hand, perfect. And it hit the toe-cap. Honest to God, it hit the toe cap of Vernie’s skate.
“When that puck is released, I’m going, ‘That’s it. We’re done. It’s over.’ And then, ‘Oh my God, it didn’t go in! We’re OK here!’ And then we go down the ice and Ott kicks one in.”
Ah yes, it’s true that Joel Otto’s sudden-death series-winner was hardly a thing of beauty.
‘The best small goalie to ever play’
Maybe Vernon was due to benefit from a lucky bounce. Because the way Sauter tells it, it was a wacky one that decided the WHL’s championship showdown in 1981, a duel between two guys who would be trading saves for years to come.
“Grant Fuhr played for the Victoria Cougars and Mike Vernon played for Calgary Wranglers, and it was a tremendous, tremendous series,” recalled Sauter, himself a former netminder. “It went seven games, and the winning goal was scored off a fluke off a guy’s knee. Terry Sydoryk, I still remember him. If I ever see him hitchhiking, I’ll swerve at him.
“That whole situation, that series, was absolutely phenomenal. Two of the best goalies that I think ever played in the National Hockey League were matched up against each other, and it came down to a lucky bounce.”
Vernon now joins two of his famed adversaries, Fuhr and Patrick Roy, in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He and Fuhr squared off in countless instalments of the Battle of Alberta, and Roy was at the opposite end of the rink in the Stanley Cup final in both 1986 and 1989.
MacInnis and McDonald agreed that Vernon’s induction is “long overdue.” Wamsley described his friend and former crease counterpart — generously listed at 5-foot-9 — as “inch-for-inch, pound-for-pound, the best small goalie to ever play in the National Hockey League.”
“No pun intended, but you talk about a goaltender standing tall … ” McDonald said. “Regardless of his actual size, Vernie played big. And especially in those big games.”
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“At the end of the day, the guy is a winner,” added MacInnis, who edged Vernon in the playoff MVP vote in 1989. “He’s won two Stanley Cups. He’s won a Conn Smythe Trophy, could have won two.
“There are a lot of goalies that played a long time in the league and with good teams and couldn’t get the job done. Mike got the job done, and that’s the highest praise.”
MacInnis was Calgary’s first-round draft choice in 1981. He recalled that on the opening day of his first training camp with the Flames, the phone rang in his hotel room in the late afternoon. It was Vernon, who was selected in the third round that same summer, wondering if he had plans for dinner. He didn’t.
“Sure enough, he says, ‘I’ll pick you up in about an hour,’ ” MacInnis said. “He picked me up and we went to Nick’s Steakhouse, just down the road, for dinner and we’ve been friends ever since.
“So we go back a long way, and I was so thrilled to hear when he got inducted. It was a happy day, for sure.”
A lot of longtime Calgary residents would echo that.
Teammates, coaches, old friends to be there for Vernon
It speaks volumes that eight or nine alumni from the 1989 Flames — that’s nearly half a hockey lineup — were in Toronto for the induction festivities.
A couple of Vernon’s minor hockey coaches were planning to attend Monday’s ceremony.
Sinclair, his way-back-when neighbour and provider of hand-me-down pads, promised he “wouldn’t miss it.”
“Mike was an easy kid to pull for,” said Russ Farwell, who was behind the bench for Vernon’s single season with the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s Canucks. “I guess I can’t call him a kid anymore, but it was fun to see him progress because he was so likeable. He was so competitive and feisty and always smiling.
“Nothing was handed to him. Some guys are highly-touted and they’re kind of anointed and they just follow through. Mike had to push his way in, all the way along, but always had success. He just showed up, played his best, loved doing it. And you were always happy when he was successful because he earned it. He was a good teammate, a good part of your team and a real competitive player. And ultimately, to do what he did and win what he won, it’s a good story.”
A great story.
A made-in-Calgary success story.
“I phoned my mom (Sheila) about a week ago and said, ‘You know, Mike is getting inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame,’ ” Sinclair said. “She said, ‘Oh, make sure he remembers when I used to shoot tennis balls at him.’
“That’s kind of the way it all started.”
Wes Gilbertson and Danny Austin have been covering the Flames for years and know what makes the team tick. Have questions? They have the answers – or the contacts to track them down. Send your questions to email@example.com