by John McGourty
In boxing, they have a highly laudatory phrase, "pound-for-pound, the best fighter in the world," a way of honoring the skills of fighters in the lower weight classes. Great champions like Sugar Ray Robinson, Dick Tiger, Marvin Hagler and Julio Cesar Chavez have earned that recognition.
The Calgary Flames Tuesday will retire the No. 30 of Mike Vernon, the great goalie who led them to the 1989 Stanley Cup and the 1986 Stanley Cup Final.
He won the Stanley Cup again in 1997 with the Detroit Red Wings, when he was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Stanley Cup Playoffs MVP.
Never has more talent and burning desire been packed into a 5-foot-9, 169-pound body. It's even more true if you believe his friends who say he's 5-foot-5.
We're not going to haul out the tape measure, but when Lanny McDonald, Joe Mullen, Al MacInnis, Doug Gilmour, Joe Nieuwendyk, Joel Otto, Hakan Loob and the rest of that team turned to congratulate Vernon, the top of his head was at the level of their logos. And, he looked like the happiest man on Planet Earth.
Many of those players will be back in Calgary Tuesday to honor Vernon and to a man they'll tell you they wouldn't be wearing Stanley Cup rings were it not for him. Not only did Vernon go 16-5 with a 2.26 goals-against average in the four rounds, he was "on" when they were "off" in the first round against the Vancouver Canucks and made three breath-taking saves in overtime of Game 7 before Otto scored on a deflection.
"That's the series I remember best when I think of Mike Vernon," said Minnesota Wild General Manager Doug Risebrough, then an assistant coach with the Flames.
"We were facing elimination at home in overtime in the first round after being the best team in the regular season," Risebrough said. "We got swarmed by them in the first five minutes, but Mike kept us in the game. He made two unbelievable saves on Stan Smyl and Petri Skriko and another good one on Tony Tanti. Ultimately, we turned it around and a shot went in off Joel Otto's foot. We wouldn't have won the Stanley Cup, obviously, if we couldn't get out of the first round.
"It would have been really bad if we had lost because we were the best team the year before and got knocked out in the first round. Mike single-handedly got us past Vancouver and that's when, I think, he really began to believe in himself. We got better and better after that. What happened to us happens a lot in the playoffs. Vancouver had a better team than their record indicates and they had nothing to lose. We were tight because so much was expected of us. There was no downside for them but we were nervous."
Leading scorer Joe Mullen, now a Philadelphia Phantoms assistant coach, shakes his head when he thinks about the close call with Vancouver.
"Mike was a competitor and I'm really happy because this is a great honor for him," Mullen said. "He was a big part of the winning team and did a great job for years, especially in getting us the Stanley Cup."
"It wasn't just the Stan Smyl save," said captain Lanny McDonald. "It was three different great saves early in overtime, a one-timer by Skriko that Mike blocked with his left toes, Tanti's one-timer from the slot and Smyl's breakaway. We gained a lot of confidence because of the way Mike played. He continued that play right through Los Angeles, Chicago and Montreal. The first round is tough because everyone is fresh and have all their horses ready. Then, the grind sets in. Mike got us through the grind and then everyone felt good about themselves."
Mike Vernon went 16-5 with a 2.26 goals-against average en route to winning the 1989 Stanley Cup with the Calgary Flames.
Vernon, 44 on Feb. 24, is only the second Flames player to have his number retired, joining McDonald, who was honored in 1990. "We consider this to be a pretty rare, special and incredible event," Flames President Ken King said. "It is the highest discretionary honor that a team can have for a player.""
Smyl, the 1978 Memorial Cup MVP who went on to post eight-consecutive NHL seasons of 20 goals or more, is perhaps best remembered for the series-winning shot that wasn't. There was no way Vernon could get his glove on that shot.
"It was a clear-cut breakaway," Smyl remembered. "Paul Reinhart sent me in. There was a history between Mike and I and on this shot, he gave me a little room up high on the glove side. That's where I elected to go and he made a great glove save."
Vernon had a big impact on the Memorial Cup, too, in more ways than one. He played three seasons of juniors with Calgary and in his final season, Lethbridge won the Western Hockey League title. The Portland Winter Hawks were hosting that year so the two WHL teams prepared to face Oshawa from the Ontario league and Verdun from Quebec. In those days, teams could add players from other teams in their league. Portland added Vernon, over Lethbridge's objection that they had first crack. Vernon and Cam Neely led the Winter Hawks to the Memorial Cup. Maybe it was anger that an American team had won for the first time but picking up "ringers" was banned after that.
The late 1980s history of the then-Clarence Campbell Conference revolves around the Edmonton Oilers-Calgary Flames rivalry, but the Canucks were fired up in 1989.
"We were the underdog, but we did have a pretty decent, all-around team with a little bit of everything, especially in that series," Smyl said. "Each game that we won put more pressure on them."
The Kings made the mistake of trying to outmuscle the Flames, fighting from the opening faceoff of the second round and were swept as the Flames improved with every game. The Blackhawks got shut out in Game 1, upset Calgary at home in Game 2, got slapped, 5-2, at home in Game 3 and lost an overtime heartbreaker, 2-1, in Game 4. Calgary wrapped it up, 3-1, in Game 5 and waited for the Canadiens to dispatch Philadelphia in six games.
Ryan Walter helped lead Montreal over Calgary to win the 1986 Stanley Cup and was in the process of doing it again in 1989 when he made what he considers one of the biggest mistakes of his career.
"We were up, two games to one, and tied in Game 4 when I got pushed into Mike Vernon," Walter recalled. "He pushed me away and said something normal, like, "get off me," or something. I really regret what I said next, one, because I hope I'm a better person than that, and two, because of the effect it had on Mike: 'You're a loser and you're gonna lose again!'
"The fire in Mike's eyes told me we were in trouble," said Walter, now a popular motivational speaker and author. "I do a bunch of stuff on feeding the hungry spirit: At the end of the day, it's not talent that wins games. Everyone has talent. It's not education. We're all smart. It's how much hungry spirit we can sustain. Mike and I played a lot of games against each other and I know what a great goalie Mike Vernon was."
After going on to play for the Red Wings, Sharks and Panthers, Mike Vernon returned to the Calgary Flames from 2000-2002.
Smyl had never heard Walter's story. "That's a perfect incident if you want to understand Vernon," Smyl said. "He was a great goalie, even more so in the bigger games. He always found ways to make big saves on me. He was a guy who battled through everything and he was very consistent."
"It's always interesting when a player gets challenged, regardless of how that challenge comes," McDonald said. "Vernon responded in a very positive way. That happened so many times in big games. Even if he let in a goal, he'd say, "Don't worry boys, there won't be another and I'll find a way to win.'"
Glenn Hall, a Hockey Hall of Fame goalie and hero of the 1961 Stanley Cup, worked with Vernon early in his career, but downplayed his influence.
"The good ones are going to make it anyway," Hall demurred. "We talked about goals that went in and the positioning he had at that time and related it to the saves he made. A lot of times goals are related to the positioning. I just offered encouragement.
"Mike was a competitor. He liked the position and he liked playing the game. You have to enjoy your job and Mike did. He had a history of being great in the playoffs, as do all great goalies. He was great against Montreal in 1986, as well, and great again in 1997. The Smyl save is the one I, and everyone else, remember. He went on to have a great playoffs. He won the Conn Smythe in 1997 and was runner-up in 1989. That says it all.
"Mike improved as he went on. What he did well was keep his balance and he was able to stay erect to handle the rebounds. A lot of goalies slide through the play on a save and aren't positioned for the rebound. Mike could stand up for the rebound or butterfly with his body upright. He had to learn to butterfly. First, he used to kneel and then he learned to throw the toes out (the Skriko save)."
McDonald loved Vernon's easy-going way off the ice. He said the goalie was never a distraction.
"Mike was loosey-goosey and sometimes people thought he had a carefree attitude," McDonald said. "First, he was a goaltender, so that should tell you something. How cool was it that he grew up here in Calgary, played his minor hockey here and came back to play in the NHL? The fans were tough on him sometimes but it seems wherever you go, they're harder on the home town boys. He survived that and won the Stanley Cup for Calgary.
"He won here and Detroit and he had a phenomenal career. He's still in the Top Ten in playoff wins. Six are in the Hockey Hall of Fame and three, Martin Brodeur, Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour, are still playing. So, Mike is in some very nice company."
Vernon holds the Flames' goaltending records for most games, most minutes and most wins, in both the regular seasons and playoffs. He retired in 2002 after playing twice for Calgary, the Red Wings, San Jose Sharks and Florida Panthers.
Vernon went 385-273-92 in 781 games with a 2.98 GAA. He went 77-56 in 138 Stanley Cup Playoff games, with a 2.68 GAA, proof he got better as the stakes went higher. Among goalies, only Patrick Roy, Belfour, Brodeur and Grant Fuhr have played in more Stanley Cup Playoff games.
Vernon and several past and present NHL players invested in the Jack Nicklaus-designed Bear Mountain Golf and Country Club in Victoria, British Columbia, a stunning course with view of the Strait of Juan De Fuca. Vernon and Len Barrie are the managing partners. McDonald said it is an outstanding course and a reflection on Vernon.
"It's phenomenal," he said. "Mike has done exceptionally well and should be very proud of what he has accomplished in life. What you learn from the hockey wars, being part of a team, learning what it takes, all the hard work, it sets you up for the rest of your life."