I don’t know man, it seems like these days there’s just not a lot of love for Mike Vernon. Personally, I’ve never understood the sentiment, I’ve always been a Mike Vernon guy, but I do think I know where the disdain comes from.
It’s Al MacInnis. And well mostly Ken King. I believe fans were miffed back in 2007 when it was announced that Mike Vernon would be the first player to have his jersey number retired by your Calgary Flames since Lanny McDonald. I don’t believe the average Flame zealot necessarily felt like the honour was undeserving, more that on the hierarchy of worthy retirings, Vernon was a few pegs down on the totem pole.
And they were right.
I was at the game where Vernon had his number sent to the rafters (Calgary blew the lead in the third, Kristian Huselius sucked, Marty Havlat iced the winner in the extra frame). The pre-game ceremony involved an appearance by the Stanley Cup, followed by an orgasm inducing parade of our favourite Calgary Flames, all within fawning distance, and all without the proper honours that should have by that point been bequeathed upon them. MacInnis was there. So was Theo, and Roberts and Nieuwy too, and then HEY WAIT WHY THE HELL ARE WE PUTTING VERNON’S JERSEY UP THERE FIRST?
Then of course Ken King and the Flames front office went and ruined it all forever by making it impossible to retire jerseys ever again, opting to unveil the "Forever A Flame" program, preferring to half honour Flames greats by borrowing the tradition of the Toronto Maple Leafs (and all the success that comes with that…). Meaning, the only truly retired Flames jerseys ever to be Lanny and Mike Vernon. No Nieuwy. No Chopper. No Theo. No IGGY?!?!
But this is not Mike Vernon’s fault, and we should remember who he was. Let’s talk about it, because in Mikey’s day, Mikey was pretty great.
The above snapshot is a picture of Mike Vernon posing for his World Junior Championship hockey card in 1983. I just wanted to post that picture, because, well, look at it.
Mike Vernon will always be remembered as a Calgary Flame (because admit it, you forgot that he even ever played for Florida or San Jose), but beyond that, Mike Vernon is just a Calgarian through and through. A local boy, Vernon excelled in junior hockey right here in Calgary, starring in both the AJHL with the Calgary Canucks, and then in the WHL with something called the Calgary Wranglers (because obviously this is not a city prone to playing up commonly believed stereotypes).
In fact, Vernon crushed it so hard in junior that even when his team was bad, he was good enough to have other teams crave him. Despite winning the MVP, Top Goalie award, and named a League All-Star in 1981-82, his Wranglers managed to rope themselves an early golf season. But not Vernon. Due to junior rules that somehow existed at the time, teams could loan players to the champion team going off to play in the Memorial Cup tournament.
The Portland Winterhawks did this twice, bringing Vernon in in 1982, and also 1983, where Vernon led the ‘Hawks to that sweet sip of whatever it is you can drink out of the Cup. When you win it. Which they did.
All this endeared the Calgary boy to the big time Calgary team. The Flames, still new hotness in 1981, wanted to draft a face the fans could get behind. The Cowtown kid was the perfect pick (in the second round, after some guy named Al MacSomething)
Thanks to what is now 2, count ’em 2 lockouts, Miikka Kiprusoff doesn’t quite yet own the all time games played and wins records for the Calgary Flames yet, despite being tantalizingly close. Vernon still owns these records, largely because he was a strong line of defense for a strong offensive hockey team. The perfect storm. But all this could have been for not if Vernon hadn’t learned to stop playing like garbage and the Flames having a dearth of quality goaltending on the big club.
Mikey moved his way up the ranks in Calgary’s system, but stalled when he made it to the AHL, playing for the Flames affiliate in Moncton. Like most things Maritime, success eluded Vernon, winning only 10 games in 41, causing him to spend the next season out of Calgary, splitting his days between Moncton and the even lesser Salt Lake of the IHL, which would be hilarious if he were, say, Andrei Trefilov, and not Calgary’s heir apparent to the crease.
But he got his act together in perfect time, as injuries and overall terribleness forced Flames incumbent tenders Reggie Lemelin and Marc "Shakey" D’Amour (a truly great nickname you’d like to have bestowed upon your professional hockey goaltender) out of the lineup in favour of the diminuitive Calgary kid.
After stone walling all those dirty communists from the Soviet Union in an exhibition super series in 1986, the Flames went back to real life, where they were mired in an 11 game losing streak, which, come on, really? This was the 80’s, you guys were supposed to be good.
Oh, and they got good. Thanks to Mike Vernon.
Vernon was brought in, he beat the Canucks in overtime in his first game, ending the losing streak, and then went on to lead the team all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals (kinda like Miikka Kiprusoff, but also more like the goalie who beat him in the finals that year, some guy named Patrick Roy, who came in as a rookie, and stunned the hockey world by leading the Habs to the 1986 Stanley Cup before returning to obscurity and never doing anything of note ever again)
Suddenly, the Flames had all the pieces. They had the scoring. They had the toughness. They had the leadership, and the stars, and the defense. Now they had the goaltending.
All they needed to do was wait for the Oilers to trade Wayne Gretzky and then there was nowhere to go but up.
Mikey Likes It
We as Flames fans tend to overvalue players who took the team to the Stanley Cup and overlook the rest of their body of work, but it’s understandable, because a good chunk of the rest of Flames history mostly revolves around flubbed potential or terrible, terrible teams.
So being that Mike Vernon was the goaltender that brought it home in 1989 for Calgary, he automatically goes down in Flames fable as one of the greats (his career numbers with the Flaming C notwithstanding).
And hockey legends are born in the playoffs. Rocket Richard’s most famous goals were in the playoffs. The most defining play of Steve Yzerman’s career is his OT marker where he shot a puck harder than any puck ever has ever been shot that killed Jon Casey and eliminated the St. Louis Blues. Similarly, hockey folklore dictates that the Calgary Flames, stacked as they were, would have never won the Stanley Cup in 1989 without the stellar puckstopping of Little Mikey Vernon.
And you know what, it’s true, okay? Rick Wamsley? Please. Vernon was lights out against the Canucks in the first round as the Flames took time to find their Lanny McDonald, Hakan Loob game. Stan Smyl agrees (some of you might be too young to know what a Stan Smyl is, but that’s okay).
This time around, Vernon, who lost to Patrick Roy in Vezina voting, outlasted his Montreal nemesis to win hockey’s ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup, going 16-5 in 22 games, allowing only 52 goals against (which was pretty good for the 80’s), while notching three pretty impressive shutouts.
All while wearing that awful looking Cooper helmet that I also wore the first couple of years I was a goalie.
Mike Vernon: Justified
Despite being the ultimate Calgary kid, a franchise leading goaltender, a Stanley Cup winner, and the little guy who could like he’s Rudy or something, I don’t think Vernon gets the respect he deserves from Calgary Flames fans.
Outside of Miikka Kiprusoff, if you look at the men who have suited up for the team and allegedly played goal for them, I just can’t understand the sentiment. Especially since he’s the best puck stopper the team has ever drafted (and kept) right Trevor Kidd?
Vernon akways came across as aloof and cocky, and gave the impression that he didn’t care. I get that, but Miikka Kiprusoff does the exact same thing, except he has a funny Finnish accent, so we think it’s adorable and love him forever. And honestly, that kind of calm demeanour is a characteristic you WANT in your goaltender, and it served Vernon well for the better part of his career.
There is an underlying and purely speculative theory that Mike Vernon is mainly the reason why Doug Gilmour left Calgary, as some extra curricular activities between Killer and Vernon’s wife were widely reported, although that’s never been proved and probably isn’tt true (even though it actually probably is). But hey, Vernon continued to do well in Calgary for a couple of more seasons and Doug Gilmour had to suffer the hell of being a Toronto Maple Leaf, so that all comes out in the wash.
Mike Vernon was overshadowed his whole term in Calgary by Patrick Roy and Grant Fuhr. His goaltending coach, the legendary Glenn Hall once said playing against those guys made him as good as he was. That might be true. But Grant Fuhr was a mediocre goalie with a coke habit on a great team, so I don’t know about that. But Fuhr, who faltered for the better part of his career after leaving Edmonton is a Hall of Famer while Vernon, who continued to excel once he went to Detroit and won another Stanley Cup, all while having similar career numbers to Fuhr, remains on the outside looking in.
But at least he’s got his retired jersey, which I will argue to the death, is richly deserved.
Also, you’ll notice that I never mentioned Mike Vernon’s return to Calgary in the early 2000’s. Yup.