Two Minutes for Looking so Good: The Legend of Mike Vernon (Part 2)
I began a look at the career of Calgary Flames legend, and the man Stan Smyl still sees in his nightmares, Mike Vernon. Today the trek continues right where we left off, with Vernon helping the Flames to their first ever Stanley Cup after a heroic playoff run. Little did everyone know that the next big glory Vernon would experience would happen away from his hometown.
You can check out the first part of my retrospective here.
Chapter 3: Moving On, Fight Night at the Joe
Unfortunately, much like Gibson and the Dodgers, the 1988-89 season turned out to be a one hit wonder for Vernon and the Flames. Though Calgary would make the playoffs four out of the next five seasons, they were bounced from the first round each time and slowly saw key players both on the ice (Mullen, Loob, Suter, Gilmour) and off (Fletcher) leave the team. Throughout all the changes Vernon remained consistent, winning 23, 31, 24, 29 and 26 games respectively, though he was slowed by back problems and often the target of criticism from fans due to his occasional allowance of weak goals. But consistency wasn’t enough and by 1994 it became clear that Vernon and the Flames were on two different paths. What was Calgary’s path you may ask? You may want to avert your eyes because this is going to get ugly. As it turns out, the Flames were moving on from Vernon in favor of giving the goaltending job to Trevor Kidd. Trevor Bleeping Kidd.
Now in fairness to Trevor Bleeping Kidd and Calgary, at the time it seemed like a sound move. The incumbent Vernon was now 31 years old and hadn’t been the Mike Vernon of 1989 since, well, 1989. In contrast, Kidd was a 22 year old first round pick (taken 11th overall in the 1990 NHL Draft) who had spent the proceeding four years winning the Memorial Cup for the Spokane Chiefs and two gold medals for Canada in the 1990 and 1991 World Juniors tournament, all while racking up individual award after individual award. How was Calgary supposed to know that Kidd was the 1990’s version of Ty Conklin? In any event, it was determined that Calgary was to start looking towards the future and on June 29th, 1994 the Flames sent Vernon to the Detroit Red Wings, coincidentally the team he played against in his first NHL game back in 1982. Vernon would go on to lead every team he played for to the playoffs (at least) over the next six seasons while Kidd, after a decent first season as Calgary’s starter, would last only three campaigns as Flames starter before being traded to Carolina. That sound you hear is thousands of Calgary Flames fans banging their heads against a desk in unison.
Back to Vernon. The Wings, a perennial so close yet so far away team by this stage, had coveted Vernon for at least a year and had planned to use him as their starter while they groomed young Chris Osgood for the role. Vernon wasted no time proving the Red Wings brilliant for picking him up, going 19-6-4 with career best 2.52 GAA, leading the Red Wings to the best record in the NHL and their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance since 1966. Instead of victory however, Vernon and the Wings were stunned into submission by the upstart New Jersey, who stifled the Red Wings scoring behind a trap style defense and the brilliant goaltending of Martin Brodeur. The Wings only scored seven goals total that series and Vernon himself was off, allowing sixteen goals as the Devils cruised to a four game sweep. Vernon recovered nicely during the 95-96 season, going 21-7-2 and besting his career best GAA of last season with a 2.26 GAA. But the Wings flopped in the playoffs again, losing to the Colorado Avalanche in the Conference Finals while Vernon saw his starts go to Osgood. When Osgood was named starter for the 1996-97 season, it appeared Vernon’s time as a starter was done and he would have to transition into becoming a veteran backup.
At first, that’s exactly what happened during 96-97, as Vernon only appeared in 33 games, posting a solid, if unspectacular 13-11-8 record. But as Osgood struggled towards the end of the season, Vernon began to gain more and more playing time, most notably starting a March 26th, 1997 game where the Ring Wings took on the Avalanche. Why am I bringing up an ordinary game? Because this was no ordinary game. In fact, the Red Wings and Avalanche had morphed into the NHL’s premiere rivalry after an intense Conference Finals match up in 1996, highlighted by Colorado star Claude Lemieux slamming Kris Draper into the boards so hard that Draper suffered a broken jaw and a shattered cheek and orbital bone. Shockingly the Wings took this poorly, and though the two teams behaved in two earlier games in the 96-97 season, the March 26th game would see Detroit finally go for revenge. They got it; in a game that has become known as Bloody Wednesday, Brawl in Hockeytown and, my personal favorite, Fight Night at the Joe, the Wings and Avalanche engaged in nine separate brawls, with Detroit emerging victorious almost every time. The most legendary fight however was between Vernon and Roy; that’s right, GOALIE FIGHT! The two goalies would throw down in a delightful scrap that saw Vernon beat his fellow goalie great to the delight of the Joe Louis Arena. Along with the Smyl save, Vernon’s fight with Roy became one of the most iconic moments of his career. Even better, the Wings won the game 6-5, with the victory earning Vernon his 300th career win. Though I guess it would’ve been his 301st if you count the Roy fight.
More importantly, the victory unified the Red Wings in a way their previous defeats hadn’t, and also served as a catalyst for legendary head coach Scotty Bowman to realize that maybe, just maybe, Osgood wasn’t quite ready to carry the load. Just like that Vernon was named the starter in the postseason for Detroit and he proceeded to turn back into 1989 Vernon in the blink of an eye. Though the highlight reel wasn’t as gaudy as it was during that Stanley Cup run, Vernon’s stats were far more impressive; 16-4 record and an ungodly 1.76 GAA, the best number Vernon would post in either the regular or postseason. All in all, he was the best player on a loaded Red Wings team that steamrolled through the Blues, the Mighty Ducks and their archrival Avalanche before sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers to win their first Stanley Cup since 1955. For his efforts, Vernon was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner and, much like he did with the Flames, forever endeared himself into Red Wings lore. There was only one downside; though he remained solid going forward, the 1996 postseason represented the last time we would ever see peak Mike Vernon. It happens to everyone, but when it happens after you turn into the goaltending version of Godzilla and the Iron Giant from The Iron Giant, you can’t help but feel sad.
Chapter 4: San Jose, Florida and Riding Off Into the Calgary Sunset
Not only did the game serve as the last time Vernon was in peak form, it was also the last time he suited up for the Red Wings. This wasn’t too surprising; contract negotiations between Vernon and the Wings during the 1995 offseason had been difficult, and despite his struggles at the end of the 97 season, Chris Osgood has established himself as Detroit’s goalie of the future. So on August 18th, 1997, with no other alternative, the Wings shipped Vernon off to the San Jose Sharks. Talk about going from the penthouse to that place in Metropolis where all the poor workers hung out. At the time only six years old, the Sharks had experienced minor playoff success in 1994 and 1995, ironically against Vernon’s two old teams (though Vernon wasn’t playing for Detroit or Calgary at the time of the upsets). Besides that, they were your typical expansion team, finishing last in four out of their six seasons while going through four different coaches. The arrival of Vernon, coupled with Daryl Sutter being named head coach and an influx of new players like Patrick Marleau, Jeff Friesen and Owen Nolan was intended to turn the Sharks from also-rans into permanent playoff fixture.
As it turns out the plan succeeded beyond what anyone running San Jose at the time could’ve imagined. Vernon immediately stabilized the goaltending position, going 30-22-8 with a 2.46 GAA, and his performance was the primary reason the Sharks made it back to the postseason, where they were promptly eliminated by the Dallas Stars in six games. The next season went even better; while Vernon’s win-loss record (16-22-10) was disappointing, his 2.27 GAA would wind up being the best of his career, and once again the Sharks made the playoffs, only to be ousted in six games yet again (this time by the Colorado Avalanche). More importantly than all that was Vernon’s influence in the locker room. It bears repeating; the Sharks were really, REALLY bad for the most part before Vernon got there. Thus, even though is better days were behind him when he arrived, Vernon brought both a consistent presence in net and a superstar pedigree and leadership due to his Stanley Cup winning history. It wasn’t the only aspect in turning San Jose around (the great drafting and the presence of Sutter, an all time great head coach, certainly didn’t hurt), but Vernon’s leadership and experience no doubt played a part in turning the Sharks into a respectable franchise. It’s no coincidence that the Sharks have made the playoffs all but two seasons since the Vernon trade.
Alas, while Vernon’s time in San Jose was influential, it was also brief. Originally acquired to be his backup, former Buffalo Sabres goalie Steve Shields had supplanted Vernon early in the 99-00 season. Back to the trade machine Vernon went, and on December 30th he found himself going from sunny San Jose to even sunnier Florida to play with the Florida Panthers. The hilarity was strong in this one, as Florida only pursued Vernon due to an injury to their starting goaltender. The name of said goaltender; Trevor Kidd. Yes, the same Trevor Kidd who the Calgary Flames had determined was their future starter over Vernon just six seasons earlier and oh my Grodd I can hear Flames fans slamming their heads against desks again. In Kidd’s defense, he was actually having a pretty solid season before the Vernon trade. The good news ended there for him as, upon returning from injury, Kidd was so mediocre that he ended up losing the starting job to Vernon, who proceeded to have his last above average season with an 18-13-2 record and a 2.47 GAA. So yes, for those keeping score at home, the guy who once was tapped to replace Vernon would later go on to be replaced by Vernon. You gotta love hockey. The Panthers would reach the playoffs for the first time since their Stanley Cup Finals run of 1996, but were ultimately swept out in round one by eventual Stanley Cup Champions, the New Jersey Devils. It was the last time Vernon would experience playoff hockey his career.
Vernon’s time with Florida only lasted one season, as the Panthers chose to leave him unprotected going into the 2000 Expansion Draft. In other words, the Panthers became the second team to choose Trevor Kidd over Vernon and ultimately the second team to choose poorly, as Kidd would go on to have two losing seasons before disappearing to Toronto. Vernon was selected by the Minnesota Wild, but the Wild had no intentions of keeping him; instead they sent Vernon back home, trading him to the Calgary Flames for minor leaguer Dan Cavanaugh and an eighth round pick in the 2001 NHL Draft. Not only would this allow the 37 year old Vernon to finish his career for his hometown team and the team he had the most success for, but it also gave Calgary something they hadn’t had since trading Vernon; a legitimate starting goaltender. And the risk of giving more Flames fans concussions, here’s the list of just some of the goalies Calgary started after the Vernon trade; Kidd, Rick Tabaracci, an over the hill Ken Wregget, Tyler Moss, an over the hill Grant Furh and Freddy Brathwaite. In Calgary’s defense, they did also start guys named Dwayne Roloson and Jean-Sébastien Giguère during this time; of course they also let both of those men go (with Giguère almost immediately transforming into one of the best goaltenders alive after being traded), so in essence it doesn’t really matter beyond the fact that the Flames chose FREDDY BRATHWAITE OVER THE LORD JEAN-SEBASTIEN GIGUERE! Sure Brathwaite wasn’t that terrible, but when the other guy is J.S. Giguère?! All together now Calgary.
The point is, aside from Roloson (who was now gone) and Giguère (who was now gone), Calgary had basically flat lined following Vernon’s departure and his return not only was huge from an emotional standpoint but was hoped to be huge from a play standpoint. Sadly it turned out to not be the case, as Vernon’s retirement tour consisted of him going a combined 14-31 with a 2.99 GAA, the worst run of his entire career. The only solace Vernon could take during this time was that Brathwaite and Brathwaite’s successor Roman Turek weren’t much better, which probably offered only limited comfort considering the Flames, despite containing a roster that included star players like Jerome Iginla, Marc Savard, Craig Conroy and Robyn Regher, got nowhere close to the postseason. The writing was without question on the wall at this point, and Vernon officially decided it was time to call it quits on September 13, 2002. Vernon retired as the all time Flames leader in every statistical category, and while Mikka Kiprusoff would eventually shatter most of those records, Vernon remains the the all time leader in Flames playoff appearances (81) and victories (43). To this day, he ranks seventh in NHL history for wins (385) and fifth in postseason history for wins (77).
Despite those stats, Vernon’s subpar final two seasons and mostly quiet retirement to Calgary with his wife and four kids has led to some hockey pundits overlooking him in comparison to contemporaries Patrick Roy and Grant Furh. It doesn’t help that, as of today, he has yet to have been elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame (though he is a member of the Alberta Hall of Fame, having been inducted in 2010). But despite not being in the public spotlight, Vernon has kept busy. He became involved in real estate development Windermere, British Columbia following his playing career, and was an initial investor in the British Columbia resort Bear Mountain, a golf resort best known for having two 36 combined hole courses designed by the legendary Jack Nicklaus. No wonder Vernon wanted in on that. He’s also kept close to hockey, briefly working for the Tampa Bay Lightning as a special assistant to the GM from 2008-2010, serving as an assistant coach for the CHL Prospect Game in 2014 and, of course, remains an avid fan of his hometown Flames, who retired his #30 Jersey in 2007 (Vernon would also lace up the pads one last time for the alumni game at the 2011 Heritage Classic, which the Flames lost to Montreal 5-3). But perhaps the closest connection Vernon has to the game today is via his son, Matt Vernon. The 19 year old is currently playing for the American Junior League team the Aberdeen Wings out of South Dakota, where he’s posting a 7-2 record with 2.30 GAA and a .910 Save Percentage. Provided he keeps those stats up, it’s very possible Matt will get a shot in the NHL himself one of these days.
The genius of Mike Vernon is that he succeeded at a position that you’d figure he had no chance of succeeding in, if for nothing else due to his physical build. From the 1985-86 season (Vernon’s first semi-full season in the NHL) to 2015-16, the average size of an NHL goalie has gone from 5’8, 176 lbs to 6’2, 201 lbs. In this year alone, Vernon, at his listed build of 5’9, 167 lbs, would be the smallest goaltender to start a game in the NHL and it’s frankly not even close. What Vernon lacked in size he made up for with great speed, athleticism, impeccable reflexes/awareness and an aggressive style of play. Beyond all that, Vernon’s ability to somehow get better the bigger the game was was truly Michael Jordan esq. The Game7 duel with Kirk McLean in the first round of the 1989 playoffs is the prime example of that. How many other goalies would’ve seen what McLean was doing on the other end and just folded? Instead Vernon stood his ground and the result was four of the greatest saves in the history of the Calgary Flames (and arguably the NHL itself). If ever a game could sum up a career that game sums up Mike Vernon to a T.
And yet perhaps the greatest feat of Vernon’s career is how every team he went too seemed to improve once he stepped into net. The Calgary Flames were a solid, unspectacular playoff team before Vernon’s arrival; they would go onto become a Stanley Cup contender/winner and a perennial playoff team afterwards. The Detroit Red Wings were a team that couldn’t get over the hump without Vernon; with him, they won their first Stanley Cup in decades. The San Jose Sharks were an inexperienced expansion team with a history of losing; then Vernon came along and they became a team that has hardly missed the playoffs since. Even his short stint with the Florida Panthers saw vast improvement and a playoff appearance for the first time in several seasons. That’s the sort of thing you can’t measure with any sort of stat, intangible, whatever you want to call it. It’s the key to Mike Vernon’s brilliance, aside from his amazing ability and it’s such a shame that he remains an afterthought compared to Patrick Roy and Grant Fuhr, despite being arguably just as good if not better than both men (well at least Fuhr). I’m hopeful that one day the tide will change and Vernon will get his just due with a Hockey Hall of Fame induction, but even if he doesn’t, he’ll remain one of the most underrated heroes in NHL lore and an icon in Calgary Flames history. There’s a reason he’s one of the only two Flames players to have his number hanging from the Saddledome rafters. When I think of the best players to ever lace it up for the C of Red, these five men come to mind; Jerome Iginla, Lanny MacDonald, Al MacInnis, Mikka Kiprusoff, Mike Vernon. He is, without question, a true NHL legend.