Two Minutes for Looking so Good: The Legend of Mike Vernon (Part 1)
While the 1980s NHL is mostly remembered for the vast amount of goal scorers the league contained, it was also a time where some of the greatest goalies ever were produced. We’re talking names like Patrick Roy, Gran Furh, Tom Barrasso, Andy Moog, Ron Hextall; hell as a Whalers fan I’ll even let you include Mike Liut in the conversation. But for my money, the best goalie no one talks about from the 1980s is one Mike Vernon. The son of a Calgary construction worker, Vernon was one of the most statistically impressive goaltenders of his time, only he has gone somewhat ignored since his contemporaries at the time where Roy and Furh. You know, the greatest goaltender not named Ken Dryden and the most successful goaltender not named Ken Dryden. You know you’re in trouble when you’re great yet getting overshadowed by two guys who are in the same conversation as the greatest goaltender to ever grace this mortal coil. But even in the shadow of Roy and Furh, Vernon managed to carve out one of the better NHL careers, becoming a legend in both Calgary and Detroit and the architect of such great moments that you’re going to read about over the next few days. Why the next few days? Because it takes more than one part to tell the legend of Mike Vernon.
Chapter 1: Calgary Born, Calgary Bred
Saying that Mike Vernon was always destined to be a Calgary Flames legend is like saying American Idiot is the best thing Green Day ever did; duh. Born and raised in Calgary, Vernon started playing hockey with his family at the age of four. As he told the Calgary Sun, his introduction to the goaltending position was simple; every time the Vernon family went out to play, Vernon’s three brothers would always nominate him to be the goalie. That’s either tough brotherly love paying off big time or the other three Vernon brothers had the foresight of The Red Woman. Vernon took naturally to the position (he considers his mother Lorraine to be the one to first teach him how to play goal) and by the age of 17 was in the Calgary junior hockey circuit, playing goal for the Calgary Canucks of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. His lone season with the Canucks was solid; 21-7 with a trip to the playoffs, good enough that Vernon moved on to the Calgary Wranglers of the Western Hockey League. The move put Vernon one step closer to the NHL, and he seemed to thrive under those terms, going 33-17-1 for the Wranglers and helping them come within one game of winning the WHL Championship. His performance over the season was so good that it attracted attention from the NHL, especially from his hometown Flames. The former Atlanta Flames (that’s right; the Atlanta Flames were a thing, even if you wish they weren’t) made a big splash in their first season in the prairies, making it all the way to the Western Conference Finals before losing to the Minnesota North Stars. Despite having a solid one two goaltending punch in Rejean Lemelin and Pat Riggin, Flames GM and hockey genius Cliff Fletcher saw some serious potential in Vernon and took him with the 14th pick in the third round. Between the Vernon pick and Fisher’s first round selection (some dude named Al MacInnis) I’d say Fletcher did a pretty damn fine job with that 1981 draft.
But being drafted didn’t send Vernon to the NHL right away. Instead he returned to the Wranglers for two more seasons, where he proceeded to win two consecutive WHL MVP awards and, due to a strange rule that allowed goalies to be loaned during the postseason, played in two straight Memorial Cups (the CHL Championship) with the Portland Winter Hawks. Though unsuccessful the first time, Vernon was instrumental in leading the Winter Hawks to their first ever Memorial Cup in 1983, a feat that made the Winter Hawks the first CHL team outside of Canada to win the championship. Oh, Vernon was also named top goalie of the Memorial Cup for his performance; you know, in case you didn’t think he was kind of a big deal. With his years of CHL service up, Vernon officially turned pro and, for one of the few times in his career, entered a dark period. You know how James Cameron’s filmography is littered with classics, only when you look close enough you see his first film was the forgettable and terrible Piranha 2: Survival Island? Well Vernon’s early pro career was his Survival Island. Vernon has actually played briefly for the Flames during the 82-83 season after injuries forced out Lemelin and Don Edwards, but was so abysmal (0-2 with a 6.60 GAA) that the Flames immediately sent him back to the Wranglers. It didn’t get better once he officially went pro; despite a 30-12 record for the Colorado Flames of the CHL in the 83-84 season, a second brief stint in Calgary was once again unsuccessful (0-1 with a 21.82 GAA) and his first season with the Moncton Golden Flames of the AHL was a disaster (10-20 with a 3.92 GAA). How bad was it? Vernon went from being considered the goaltender of the future for the Flames at the start of the 84-85 season (his first with Moncton) to entering the 85-86 season as the Flames fourth stringer behind Lemelin, Marc D’Amour and someone called Rick Costi. Not a great look for Vernon. Fortunately for him, things weren’t going well for the Flames either.
Remember how I said Calgary did really good in their first season since moving from Atlanta? Yeah, that lasted a grand total of one year; despite making the playoffs each year since, the Flames were at best a .500 regular season team (and often weren’t) before flaming out (pun fully intended) in the first or second round of the postseason. The most painful elimination occurred during the 84-85 playoffs, where the Flames, after posting their best record since moving to Calgary, fell in the first round to the original Winnipeg Jets in five games. The situation didn’t improve early in the 85-86 season; despite sporting a lineup featuring greats like Lanny McDonald, MacInnis, Gary Suter, Joel Otto, Dan Quinn and Hakan Loob, Calgary squandered a 15-8-3 start by losing eleven straight games between December 14th and January 7th. ELEVEN STRAIGHT GAMES! The modern day Buffalo Sabres dream of pulling that off and all they have is Jack Eichel. Now 15-19-3, the Flames were on the verge of total collapse when head coach Bob Johnson, after promising things would change, proceeded to call up Vernon for a game against the Vancouver Canucks. Vernon had actually minded the net for Calgary for the 1986 Super Series against Dynamo Moscow, which saw the Flames squeak out a 4-3 win. That was enough for Johnson and Fletcher to think he was ready and Vernon proved them right; for the first of many times to come, Vernon kept the Canucks at bay and the Flames ended their losing streak with a 5-4 win (Vernon’s first in the NHL). The game insured Vernon would stay with the team the rest of the season and, though he split time starting with Lemelin, Vernon was nearly unbeatable the rest of his starts, going 9-3 with a shutout and, most notably, three victories over the Winnipeg Jets. The Flames rallied to finish 40-31-9 and qualify for the playoffs and Johnson, after seeing how successful Vernon had been against the Jets (Calgary’s first round opponent) named the 23 year old starter. Have I mentioned yet how Johnson was a genius?
Off the back of Vernon (and two high scoring performances in Games 2 and 3) the Flames swept the Jets to set up a confrontation with the Edmonton Oilers. The Battle of Alberta was at this point one of the main attractions of the NHL, thanks to the Oilers budding dynasty and two heated, intense meetings between the two teams in the 82 and 84 postseasons. Edmonton had won both prior meetings and, having come off two straight Stanley Cups, looked poised to do so again. Instead the Flames would prevail in a tightly contested series (no game was decided by more than three goals) thanks to a new strategy by Johnson (known as the seven point plan), an infamous own goal by Edmonton’s Steve Smith and a sensation series from Vernon, who never allowed more than 2 goals in Calgary’s four wins. He continued his stellar play into the Conference Finals, where he helped the Flames defeat the St. Louis Blues in seven to send Calgary to the Stanley Cup for the first time. And this is where the hurdles got too high for Vernon and the Flames to jump over, as their opponent was the Montreal Canadiens, led by their own young wunderkind goaltender Patrick Roy. You may have heard of him. Despite Vernon’s best efforts, Roy was just a little bit better and the Canadiens as a whole were a whole lot better, taking the Stanley Cup in five games. In essence the 86 postseason served as a double edged sword for Vernon. He had indeed overcome his minor league struggles and cemented himself as Calgary’s goalie as the future. But though the Flames would reach the playoffs over the next two years (with Vernon posting records of 30-21-1 and 39-16-7 respectively), they were forced to either defeat the Oilers early in the playoffs and, if they did that, defeat the Canadiens in the Finals. As such, the Flames fell short for the next two years and looked like they were destined to be the NHL’s version of the Houston Rockets.
Chapter 2: The Saves that Won the Cup
Then the 1988-89 season happened and Vernon turned into the best goalie on the planet. When I say he was pretty much unbeatable, I mean it; when the season ended Vernon had compiled an astonishing 37-6-5 record and a career best 2.65 GAA, which, considering we were in one of the greatest scoring eras of NHL history, is a mouth watering stat. Vernon’s superb play, combined with a loaded roster of McDonald, MacInnis, Loob, Suter, Otto, Doug Gilmour, Joe Nieuwendyk, Joe Mullen and youngster Theo Fleury (amongst others), saw the Flames finish with the best record in the NHL for the second straight year (54-17-9) and, with Wayne Gretzky now spending his winters in Los Angeles, seemed to guarantee Calgary a trip to the finals. In the words of Lee Corso, NOT SO FAST MY FRIEND! Instead, the Flames found themselves in a highly competitive first round matchup with the Vancouver Canucks, who took Calgary to seven games. I’d say that would be a bad thing most of the time, but as it turns out Game 7 would go down as one of the most memorable games in Flames history and, without question, one of the two most defining games of Vernon’s career. The heroics began late in the third period with the game tied 3-3. As the Canucks charged into the Flames zone, Paul Reinhart sent a beautiful pass to Greg C. Adams in wide open ice. And then this happened.
Normally that’s the kind of save that goes down in the annals of history, only Vernon wasn’t yet done! The game went to Overtime and suddenly turned into a Mad Max: Fury Road style derby. We’re talking nonstop action, nonstop offense from both sides. One such occasion was when the Canucks charged the zone, leading to leading scorer Petri Skriko finding himself wide open for a one timer in the slot. And then this happened.
Watch that closely sports fans; that is Vernon saving the shot with his skate. HIS GORRAM SKATE! You know how often you see goalies make skate saves? About as often as a good DC Universe film is made. Just like that Vernon’s awesome glove save in the third was a distant memory and now it seemed there was no way Vernon could top himself again. Several sequence over the next few minutes showed he may not have too. While Vernon made would make another great save on a one timer and got an assist from the post on a Stan Smyl shot, it was Calgary who almost put the game away twice, first on a John Mullen attempt right in front of the net and a Jamie Macoun slap shot from the point. The latter (which actually went into the net) was called off after the net was knocked off its pegs. The former saw Canucks goaltender Kirk McLean make a save so good that, had this game gone the other way, it would’ve been remembered as the defining moment of the game. Alas, poor McLean’s thunder was stolen soon after when, following a bad Calgary line change, Reinhart found a wide open Smyl streaking from the right into the Calgary zone. Just like that the game had come down to a one on one battle between Smyl, the Canucks longtime captain and star (and a native of Alberta for those who want to know) and Vernon. As I can’t do what happened next justice, I advise you to just sit back and watch the clip.
Everything about this, from Smyl’s charge to Vernon’s snag to Vernon falling back in relief (while making sure to keep his glove out of the net) was perfect, and that’s without taking into context that the season of both teams was on the line. It’s so perfect and such a meaningful save that you can understand why it has become so huge in NHL lore. What’s ironic though is that, at least in my view, it wasn’t the best save Vernon made in the game! That distinction would go to either the skate save or the one that came just a few minutes after Vernon’s robbery of Smyl. After yet another Calgary mistake, the Canucks wound up in the Flames zone again, this time with the puck on Tony Tanti’s skate. The young Vancouver winger sent a rocket towards Vernon and why am I telling you about this when the pictures can speak for themselves?!
Look at that glove movement right there! That’s the third period save and the Smyl save all rolled into one bombastic, unbelievably awesome moment of speed and athleticism. It’s the Abbi sings “Edge of Glory” season of Mike Vernon’s career! It’s also the save that, if the Smyl save hadn’t already, crushed the Canucks spirit into tiny pieces and blasted them into oblivion. With the first OT running down, the Flames drove into the Vancouver zone and the puck found its way to forward Jim Peplinski, who fired a wrister towards the net. The puck would deflect off Joel Otto and past McLean, a mirror image of the goal Doug Lidster scored on Vernon to tie the game in the third. It was a cruel irony for the Canucks and McLean (who was just as good as Vernon was. A few different breaks and this column is about him); for Calgary and Vernon it was an exhausting and emotional series clincher to one of the greatest Game 7’s in NHL history.
Luckily for the Flames and their all world goalie, the Canucks turned out to be the most trying opponent they would face the rest of the way. Calgary would go on to win all but three games the rest of the postseason to win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Even sweeter was that they swept the Kings (containing old enemy Gretzky) and beat Montreal in six to do so, becoming the first (and only) team to beat the Canadiens for a Stanley Cup in the Montreal Forum. But while many plaudits were lauded at Al MacInnis for his Conn Smythe winning play and Lanny McDonald for winning his first Cup in his final game, many Flames were quick to point out they wouldn’t have made it without Vernon. His performance in Game 7 against the Canucks, already considered the finest moment of the postseason, officially became the stuff of NHL legend, and the Smyl save alone is now commonly referred to as “the save that won the Cup.” I guess in baseball terms that makes Vernon the Kirk Gibson and Smyl the Dennis Eckersley. More important was what Vernon did the rest of the way, as he sported a robust 16-5 with a 2.26 GAA and 3 shutouts. Combined with his awesome regular season, all that arguably made Vernon’s 88-89 campaign one of the greatest goaltending seasons in history, and certainly one of the greatest goaltending performances in the postseason to that point. Amazingly, by the end of his career, Vernon would not only have equaled his 89 playoff run, he would eclipse it and then some. Sadly, it was a performance that would not come with the Calgary Flames…but that’s for next time.