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37 FOR 37: TO THE RAFTERS

As his jersey was officially retired and raised to the Saddledome roof, Mike Vernon heaped praise on his mom for the massive impact she had on him - and the fans that sat near her at games

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / calgaryflames.com

The air that night was thick with nostalgia.

Teeming with memories.

With images of a feisty little goaltender doing improbable things, making incredible saves. Of OT heroics off Stan Smyl and Petri Skrko when that championship dream hung uneasily in the balance.

Of arms raised to the skies at Northlands Coliseum in '86 after slaying the unbeatable Oilers and at the game's shrine, the Montreal Forum, three years later, having accomplished the ultimate.

Everyone had a favourite Mike Vernon yarn to spin.

But on such a very special occasion the honouree's thoughts kept drifting back to someone behind the scenes.

Someone gone. Someone irreplaceable.

"My mom,'' said the little goaltender, five years retired, trying to hold his emotions together in front of 19,000 plus, "was a huge part of my life. She meant the world to me. She was a hockey mom. My first coach. She did everything for me.

"She used to come over and clean the house, pick stuff up, make sure everything was OK and I'd say: 'Mom, you've got to stop doing this!' I was 26 then and playing in the National Hockey League.

"I cherish the time we had together. I think about her every day.

"She probably loved the game more than I did. I know she made more saves than me. The people sitting beside her at my games had bruised shins because she was always trying to make that kick save for me."

Lorraine Vernon had died of cancer five years earlier. She didn't get to see her son have his jersey, No. 30, retired and raised into the rafters of the Scotiabank Saddledome, joining Lanny McDonald and his iconic No. 9.

"I am a Calgarian,'' said Vernon that night, Feb. 6, 2007, to resounding cheers.

In 526 games, nearly 30,000 minutes of duty, 262 wins over two stints modelling the Flaming C, culminating in, naturally, the '89 Stanley Cup triumph, he left his mark.

"I honestly don't think he got the recognition in this city that he deserved," reckoned left-winger Colin Patterson, Vernon's longtime roommate on the road. "People were jealous. They had no concept of how good he really was until he left, until all of a sudden they didn't have a goalie they could count on for the big save at the key moment."

Not until an unheralded Finn from Turku by way of San Jose name of Kiprusoff arrived, anyway.

Never forget, though, that it was Mike Vernon who set the standards to follow.

On jersey retirement night they gathered to share in the moment. His nearest and dearest, of course - dad Martin, brothers and sisters, wife Jane and their four young children.

And his old pals: GM Cliff Fletcher and Al Coates and McDonald and Joe Nieuwendyk and Al MacInnis and Ric Nattress and Patterson and Joel Otto and so many more.

"Without Vernie," said Theoren Fleury in tribute, speaking for all, "I'm just a regular guy.

"I may have a thousand points and a thousand games but he made me a winner. I don't have my name on the Stanley Cup without him.

"And the Stanley Cup is what matters."

A decade after that ceremony, stroll into the Dome, down the tunnel, gaze upwards and the No. 30 and the No. 9 remain the only Calgary Flames' jersey numbers officially retired.

"I couldn't,'' said Vernon proudly on the night of his honouring, "be in better company.''

Truth be told, neither could Lanny.

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