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Kings Legend Vachon Reflects on his Time as a King

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
The first "face'' of the Los Angeles Kings didn't even get to show his face on the ice.

Rogie Vachon joined the Kings in 1971, after being traded from the Montreal Canadiens, and he joined an organization starting its fifth NHL season, an organization that had enjoyed some early success but that lacked a draw, an established star.

The Kings, no doubt, hoped Vachon would be that star. The masked goalie was that, and more.

Vachon remains revered, by a generation of fans, as one of the best and most popular Kings of all-time. He spent seven seasons with the Kings and holds the franchise goalie records for all-time games (389), wins (171) and shutouts (32).

Fittingly, Vachon will be the first player honored as part of the Kings’ "Legends Night" series. Vachon will be recognized in a ceremony before Saturday’s game against Edmonton, and the Kings will wear their Vachon-era purple-and-gold jerseys for the game.

Few wore those colors with more distinction than Vachon, who had already established himself as a solid NHL goalie by the time he joined the Kings in 1971, at age 26.

Vachon had joined the storied Canadiens five years earlier, stepping into the role as backup to future Hall of Fame goalie Gump Worsley. Vachon filled that role for three seasons, sharing the Vezina Trophy with Worsley in 1968 -- a season in which Vachon won 23 of 39 starts -- and took over for Worsley in 1969-70.

Montreal had an uncharacteristically poor season that year, missing the playoffs, but were back on top in 1970-71. That’s the year, though, that a young goalie named Ken Dryden went on a remarkable playoff run and led the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup.

With Dryden, only 24, as the reigning hero, Vachon saw the writing on the wall.

"I wanted to be a No. 1 goalie," Vachon said recently. "When Ken Dryden came to Montreal, he ended up being the MVP of the playoffs in his first year. So I could have stayed as a No. 2 goalie, and played 20 or 25 games a year, but I didn't want to do that, so I asked to be traded. I said, `I don't care where I go, as long as I end up as a No. 1 goalie.' So I ended up in L.A.

"It was a culture shock. I was in Montreal for four years, and we won three Cups. Then, all of a sudden I came here and we had a lousy team. It was not good. ... My first year, I hurt my knee, so I was out for the rest of the year, and it took two or three years before we had a decent team."

Over the first three years, Vachon on the Kings grew together. In his first full season after recovering from knee injury -- Bob Pulford’s first season as Kings coach -- Vachon finished 14th in the NHL in goals-against average and the Kings missed the playoffs.

In 1973-74, Vachon finished eighth in the NHL in goals-against average (2.80) and the Kings made the playoffs, losing in the first round. Then came 1974-75.

In what still stands as the best regular season in team history, the Kings had 105 points in 80 games. Vachon was fantastic, with a 2.24 goals-against average that ranked second in the NHL, and the Kings allowed the fewest goals in the Wales Conference.

Vachon ended up as the runner-up for the Hart Memorial Trophy -- signifying the NHL’s MVP -- as the award was given to Bobby Clarke of the Philadelphia Flyers.

"We had a phenomenal year," Vachon said. "Don't forget that, in those years, we traveled commercial all the time. We had to go back East and, if I recall correctly, Montreal was in our division, which is really crazy when you think about it.

"So Montreal is sitting there, basically in a bus league, playing in their area, and we were traveling all over the country. And we went toe-to-toe with them, all the way until the end, and I think it ended up with them at 113 points and we had 105 points. It was a heck of a year, but it was disappointing because we lost in the first round of the playoffs."

That season ended in disappointment -- the Kings lost a best-of-three series to Toronto in the first round -- but Vachon had won the hearts of Kings fans, and his strong play helped the Kings reach the playoffs in each of the next three seasons as well.

Any reservations Vachon had about leaving hockey-crazy Montreal had subsided.

"It became fun," Vachon said. "When Bob Pulford came in as coach, he put in a totally different system, and that system was working really well with the players we had. That system put a lot of pressure on the goalie, because I had to stop the first shot, all the time. It ended up that I was getting a lot of shots per night, and the fans liked that."

Did Vachon enjoying facing that many shots, though?

"As long as we kept winning, it was pretty good," Vachon said with a laugh.

Before signing with Detroit in the summer of 1978, Vachon represented the Kings in three NHL All-Star Games and, as a member of Team Canada, was named MVP of the Canada Cup tournament in 1976.

After an additional stop in Boston, Vachon retired after the 1981-82 season, having played 795 NHL games, and his first post-playing move was to rejoin the Kings.

Vachon came aboard in 1982 as an assistant coach in change of goalies, and in 1984, he became the team’s general manager, a job he held until after the 1991-92 season. Vachon was the first King to have his number -- No. 30 -- retired, in 1985, and also filled in as a short-term interim coach a few times.

Thus, in his post-playing days, Vachon had a much more visible face. Vachon was one of the first generation of goalies to start wearing a mask during games. Even with a mask, goalies of Vachon’s era had little protection. The skimpy pads and equipment make the position almost unrecognizable compared to how today’s goalies take the ice.

"For goaltenders, it's a completely different game right now," Vachon said.

"I grew up playing without a mask, and I didn't start wearing a mask until I was 22, 23 years old. The equipment was very, very light, with no protection. But we didn't know any better. Everyone was in the same boat, so we all did the same thing. But looking back, we were crazy.

"The old masks, to make them they would just put a mold to your face. It was fiberglass, but there was no protection inside, no cushion. So that mask was pressed directly to your face, and then when you got hit by a puck or stick or something, it would just smack you. The impact was unbelievable. You saved a few stitches, but you could end up with a concussion."

There’s one chapter of the Vachon story that hasn’t yet been written. Despite some strong credentials, Vachon has not been selected for the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Twenty-eight goalies are included in the Hall of Fame. In current all-time statistics, Vachon ranks 14th among all goalies in games (795), 16th in wins (355) and is one of 23 goalies with more than 50 career shutouts. Vachon was also a member of three Stanley Cup-winning teams, with the Canadiens.

"I stopped worrying about it years ago," Vachon said of the Hall of Fame. "There are certain things in life you can’t control, and that is one of them. It would have been nice to be in the Hall of Fame. I think I put up some pretty good numbers, compared to some of the goalies that are already in, but I don’t know."

"Hopefully it’s going to happen one day, but I’m not going to worry about it."

Perhaps a third generation of Vachons will have a run at the NHL. Nick Vachon, Rogie’s son, was once property of the Kings and played one game for the New York Islanders in 1996-97. Nick Vachon also played for the Long Beach Ice Dogs and played professional roller hockey in Los Angeles for one season.

Now, Nick Vachon’s 5-year-old son, Calvin, is taking up the sport. Rogie Vachon brought his grandson along to a recent Kings practice, and the bright youngster chatted with  folks standing him but maintained a laser-like focus on the on-ice action.

"It's amazing. He's fascinated with being a goalie," Rogie Vachon said of his grandson. "He's playing forward right now, in his little organized league, but he wants to play in goal. So at Christmas, we had to buy goalie equipment."

And does Rogie Vachon, who endured the battle scars of being a goalie, endorse this?

"Well, they have a little bit more protection now," Vachon said with a laugh.
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