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Flames Top-10 individual seasons: Number 9

by George Johnson / Calgary Flames

Joe Nieuwendyk’s silky-soft set of mitts. Miikka Kiprusoff’s utter aplomb in the face of a tempest. Theo Fleury’s in-your-face indomitability.

From Kent Nilsson to Johnny Gaudreau, Lanny McDonald to Sean Monahan, Al MacInnis to T.J. Brodie, Joe Mullen to Jarome Iginla, over the course of over three and a half decades in this town, there have been no end of stellar turns in aid of the Flaming C cause.

So wrestling selection a Top-10 individual seasons is a chore. Many factors come into play.

Historical ramification. Sheer volume. Significance to the organization.

You’re spoiled for choice, naturally.

Some are non-negotiable.

Others calls are hellish.

The very fine Calder Trophy-calibre campaigns of Gary Suter and Sergei Makarov are absent, for instance. A sprinkling of stellar 50-goal and/or 100-point performances, as well.

More regrettable yet is the omission of the prolific yet edgy 53-goal (second highest seasonal total in franchise history), 207-PIM 1991-92 turn put in by truculent left winger Gary Roberts. A season as dynamic as this could’ve slipped in anywhere in the bottom half of the Top 10 without a word of complaint, and on many such lists would’ve.

But, well, competition being what it is …

Here, then, over the next 10 days, is one list of the 10 Calgary Flames’ seasons to most savour, that best stand the test of time, presented in descending order:

No. 9, Mike Vernon, G, 1988-89.
52 GP, 36-6-5 W, 2.65 GAA, Second NHL All Star Team berth.

In the aftermath of the closest of shaves, that nearest of sorrows, Game 7 against the Vancouver Canucks early spring of ‘89, Hakan Loob was demanding recognition be paid to an ally. In full.

“Save your breath,’’ scolded the elfin Swede admonishingly, post-survival, to a cluster of shaggy media mongrels. “I know the question. Mike Vernon can’t do it in the playoffs, right? He chokes, right?

“OK, so who saved our ass in OT? Vernie. He gave us the chance to win. Without him, we’re finished. That reputation - one he’s never deserved - rub it out.

“Now.”

Done.

The entire playoff march of ’89, the Vernon thefts off Stan Smyl and Petri Skriko that Loob alluded to during that first-round gut-check against a wildly unfancied collection of Canucks, are now loving preserved in the pantheon of unforgettable Flames moments.

Yet his playoff form only continued what had been stellar regular-season from Vernon, the finest, inarguably, of his long career.

Yes, he did log more on-ice minutes in other years, did post more W's (backed up by that most able of relievers, Rick Wamsley, the Flames were able to keep their No. 1 fresh and rested).

And granted, he was backstopping a carefully-constructed juggernaut.

But the regular-season record - 37-6-5 - is astonishing on any level.

Only six losses.

As well, the goals-against-average, 2.65, wasn’t shoddy, either, not in context of the laser-light-show offensive time (second among the league’s Top 25 goalies, actually, trailing only Patrick Roy’s 2.47).

“People,’’ says an older version Loob now, over a quarter-century following his in Montreal, “never gave Vernie the credit he deserved back then. He’s Calgary kid, right, and everyone just expected more and more from him, which wasn’t fair. Whatever he did, for some people, wasn’t enough.

“But he was the guy who stood tall when we needed him.”

Yet taken in conjunction with the playoff run, Vernon’s seasonal record wound up at 53-11-3.

Insanely good.

Yet until those post-season heroics, he’d been pretty much taken for granted as the Flames rolled to a second President's Trophy.

Odd, given that his elevation to the big team and ability to slay the apparently-unbeatable Edmonton Oilers were instrumental in the organization’s first journey to the Stanley Cup final three years earlier.

GM Cliff Fletcher and coach Bob Johnson, at wit’s end as to how to at long last get the better of Gretzky, Kurri, Coffey and Co., had rolled the dice on the local kid, and it paid off, handsomely.

By the time the 1988-89 season rolled around, perceptions and expectations had changed, been amped up. And as the victims of a four-game sweep by the Oilers the year before in Round One, the Flames - hockey’s best September through April team for the second time running - found themselves squarely in the crosshairs.

“Talk about pressure,’’ whistles defenceman Al MacInnis. “How'd you like to be a guy in your hometown, where you grew up playing, your whole life, and have everyone's Stanley Cup hopes riding on you?

“I can't imagine.’’

“I very proudly wear the Stanley Cup ring we won in '89,'' chimed in Fletcher a few years ago when the subject of his ’89 goaltender entered the conversation, "and without Mike Vernon's heroics in overtime of that game, I wouldn't have this ring and Calgary wouldn't have a Stanley Cup to look back on.

"We'd finished 45 points or something ahead of Vancouver that year, we'd won back-to-back President's Trophies and by the time we got to overtime in that game, we were tight.

"We easily could have folded. Mike Vernon wouldn't let us.''

When the sum total the little fella’s 1989-90 contribution is broken down and assessed, by even the most demanding of criteria it remains a defining season in his career and the history of a franchise.

Capped - as so very rarely happens - in the most perfect way possible.

"Some people told me," said Vernon with more than a bit of self-satisfaction on the night of May 25th, 1989, amidst the bedlam inside the cramped visiting dressing quarters at the old Montreal Forum, “that I wasn't a playoff goaltender.

“Well, I think I proved them wrong.’’

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