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50 Forgotten Stories: Vachon Stories, Part 1

by Sheng Peng @Sheng_Peng / LAKings.com

1) According to Rogatien Rosaire Vachon, born September 8, 1945, he was "probably the middle" of eight children. He then counted, "1. 2. 3. 4. There were four ahead of me. I was the fifth." They grew up on a dairy farm in Palmarolle, Quebec.

 

2) The 5'7" Vachon didn't plan on playing, in his words, "goaler." "I was the smallest kid in town and the smallest kid always gets stuck in the pads in the crease. All the big boys wanted to be Maurice the Rocket." (Murray, Jim. "This Is a Job?" Los Angeles Times, January 26, 1975.)

 

3) "It gets in your blood," said Rogie. "I tried being a defenseman one year and I seemed to wind up in the net all the time so I went back to goaltending." (Hafner, Dan. "Steel Inside, Jelly Outside." Los Angeles Times, March 13, 1974.)

 

4) Junior A hockey teams, which at that time were the most traditional outlet to a pro career available to Vachon, passed over him twice. He went on to play for the Junior B Thetford Mines.

 

5) The Montreal Canadiens discovered Rogie and sent him to their top minor league team in Houston, where he eventually supplanted incumbent Gerry Desjardins. Desjardins was LA's starting goalie until 1970, when he was packaged in a deal for Dennis Dejordy. Just a year later, DeJordy was traded to Montreal, along with Dale Hoganson, Noel Price, and Doug Robinson for Vachon.

 

6) Rogie recalled his NHL debut. "Gump Worsley was hit by an egg thrown from the stands, so they called me up [to the Habs] to be the second goalie. Then the other goalie, Charlie Hodge, was in a slump, so they put me in." (McManis, Sam. "He Manages to Keep Busy." Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1984.)

Famously, Vachon stopped Gordie Howe on a breakaway for his first NHL save in route to a 3-2 victory.

 

7) Rogie led the Canadiens to the 1969 Stanley Cup, but two postseasons later, he lost his starting position to Ken Dryden.

The following training camp, Vachon believed that he was competing to win his job back. "They never gave me a chance to win back my position. I had a good training camp and thought I had earned it." (Davis, Mike. "The Kings' net asset." San Bernardino County Sun, March 26, 1978.)

After Dryden played the first 14 games of the season, Rogie requested a trade.

 

8) "Sometimes I lost games and the next day I had to go to the general manager's office because he had phone calls that I had been out drinking [the night before the game]," said Vachon about the scorching spotlight he was under in hockey-mad Montreal. "Yes, people are really vicious there." (Roberts, Rich. "After Montreal, L.A. is paradise for goaltender." Independent Press-Telegram, February 10, 1974.)

 

9) When Rogie met model Nicole Blanchard, "She thought Jacques Plante was still the goalie for the Canadiens." (McManis, Sam. "He Manages to Keep Busy.")

Plante had been gone from Montreal for at least five seasons. She remembered, "It was not exactly love at first sight; I hated hockey." ("King's Goalie Buys Home." Los Angeles Times, June 21, 1975.)

 

10) On November 30, 1971, he married Nicole in Burlington, Vermont. Hours after tying the knot, future Canadian Motorsport Hall of Famer Jacques Duval rushed the newlyweds through a snowstorm to Montreal.

The next night, Vachon was pelted by 50 shots in a 5-3 loss to the Canadiens, his first game against them since he was traded to the Kings. He lamented, "We were leading 3-1 after two periods." (Davis, Mike. "The Kings' net asset.")

 

11) Two months later, Montreal brought more bad tidings. "I went to my right to play Jacques [Lemaire]," said Rogie, "and then tried to come back quickly to my left. That's when I heard something crack in my knee." (Rausch, Gary. "Canadiens hold Kings to 1-1 tie." Independent, February 4, 1972.)

Vachon would miss the rest of the season. Los Angeles would call up none other than 21-year-old future Hall of Famer Billy Smith to take his place.

 

12) Rogie's nickname was "Bono." Not for U2, but for his resemblance to Sonny.

 

13) Nicole had just one fear when her husband was traded to Los Angeles.

"At that time the (Kings) used to laugh and have parties after a loss. They didn't seem to care and I didn't approve of that.

"With the Canadiens they couldn't even stand to have a tie." (Bentsen, Cheryl. "Rogie and Nicole: The Rituals of Success." Los Angeles Times, December 25, 1974.)

 

 

14) Incoming Head Coach Bob Pulford, with his new-fangled "Canadian Army calisthenics, chalk talks and films" would prevent such a malaise. (Boal, Pete. "Joke Has Ended for Kings, Berry." San Bernardino County Sun, December 14, 1972.)

Vachon recounted, "My first year in L.A. I had knee surgery and the team was really bad. Then, Pulford came in and turned everything around...Those years playing in L.A. were the best in my life." (McManis, Sam. "He Manages to Keep Busy.")

The defensively-minded Pulford spearheaded a 24-point improvement in the standings in 1972-73, culminating in a still franchise-best 105 points in 1974-75.

 

15) Playing under a taskmaster like Pulford could still be fun. For Rogie, at least:

"Others are skating laps, but Rogie crouches three feet behind Pulford undetected. Finally, he is caught. 'Pick it up, Rogie,' says Pulford.

"It is no wonder Rogie seeks refuge.

"When the stop-start sprints end, Bill Lesuk collapses. He lets his face fall onto the ice.

"Such is the price of victory." (Boal, Pete. "Joke Has Ended for Kings, Berry.")

 

16) His goaltending "paraphernalia weigh[ed] 40 to 50 pounds, which in the case of a man like the Kings' Rogie Vachon is almost one-third as much as he does." Vachon used 32-inch tall pads throughout his career. "It costs about $400 to outfit a goaltender and most of them run through two equipment sets a season." (Hafner, Dan. "Goaltenders Wear 40 to 50 Pounds of Armor. Los Angeles Times, March 12, 1974.)

 

17) "That's the greatest exhibition of goaltending I've ever seen," said Buffalo Sabres Head Coach Floyd Smith of Rogie's 53-save performance on October 24, 1974 in a 7-2 Los Angeles triumph.

Kings captain and five-time Stanley Cup champ Terry Harper agreed, "Vachon played as good in goal as I've ever seen."

This was a powerful beginning to what would be perhaps Vachon's signature NHL season. It also happened to be his 150th appearance in Forum Blue and gold.

"I don't know if it was my best game ever," demurred Vachon. "But it was one of my best." (United Press International, October 25, 1974.)

 

18) Before every game, Vachon taped "his fingers with sponge and strap[ped] on 40 pounds of shoulder, chest and knee pads. And then a trainer [handed] him some smelling salts to clear his head, followed by a piece of chewing gum." (Bentsen, Cheryl. "Rogie and Nicole: The Rituals of Success.")

 

19) "When we're winning, these things can get out of hand," admitted Rogie. "It gets worse every day. I wear the same suits, eat the same things at the same time." (Bentsen, Cheryl. "Rogie and Nicole: The Rituals of Success.")

 

20) But such rituals couldn't save him from Charlie the Chimp's scoring touch.

Charlie, who starred in the Holiday on Ice show, and his handlers happened upon a Vachon and Kings practice. They asked to take publicity pictures of a chimpanzee playing hockey.

"They gave Charlie a sawed off stick and coaxed him to charge the net with the puck. So here came Charlie. Vachon expertly blocked the shot. But, just as expertly and even more quickly, Charlie whirled with a backhand and slapped the rebound back in for a score."

Rogie exclaimed, "Get him outta here, burn the film." (Hall, John. "Around Town." Los Angeles Times, January 10, 1975.)

 

21) In March 1975, Vachon earned the Red Rose Award presented by the Hospital Charity Fund of Los Angeles for his "unselfish interest and compassionate concern for people, especially children."

"That meant as much to me as the National Hockey League's Most Valuable Player award," said Rogie. (United Press International, April 10, 1975.)

He was the Hart Trophy runner-up that season.

 

22) Vachon expanded on what inspired his compassion for others.

"It was the way I was raised at home. My Mom is probably one of the nicest ladies in the world. I probably got it from her.

"In those days, we were living on a farm. We were sort of poor. But we ate well. When you're on a farm, you always have something to eat.

"She would always give away [food]."

 

23) In July 1974, the Vachons began adoption proceedings for a girl from war-torn Vietnam. They expected to receive her next August.

"But when the North Vietnam offensive began the Vachons made frantic attempts to get the baby out as soon as possible. For a time they feared it was one of those killed in the crash of a planeload of orphans Friday in South Vietnam."

The hours went by without any news. "I had felt we had lost her," thought Nicole. "Mr. Cooke had his attorney contact the State Department and the agency office tried, but we heard nothing.

"It was my feeling that if we didn't hear anything by Sunday, we would know she was dead. When I received the phone call yesterday morning that she was arriving in Vancouver at 10 a.m., I was so relieved and excited."

"Life has been so good to us," acknowledged Nicole. "We wanted to share it with someone. We didn't do this out of pity, but for the love of the child." (Hafner, Dan. "A Gift of Vietnamese Jade for the Vachons." Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1975.)

The Vachons named her Jade.

 

24) When the Vachons married, they decided to have one child of their own (Nicholas) and adopt another of the opposite sex. What prompted such an agreement?

According to Rogie, "That was mostly Nicole. We both agreed, but she's the one who decided. We did adopt two, Jade and Marie-Joie."

 

25) "He is the smallest goalie in the league and others have said he could be mistaken for a team mascot." (Bentsen, Cheryl. "Rogie and Nicole: The Rituals of Success.")

Whatever he lacked in stature, Vachon made up for it on and off the ice with larger-than-life talent and heart. To the Kings and their fans, he's always been a giant. And this November 14th, 34 years after he put away his pads, the Hockey Hall of Fame will finally recognize what we've always known.

 

"50 Forgotten Rogie Vachon Stories" will be continued next week!

 

50 Forgotten Stories: The Case of the Missing Mask

50 Forgotten Stories: Spies, Systems & Victor Netchaev

50 Forgotten Stories: Before Gretzky, Season Openers Were Something Else

50 Forgotten Stories: Bill White & The Worst Kings Team Ever

50 Forgotten Stories: The Battle For Red Kelly + Who Is Yasushin Tanaka?

50 Forgotten Stories: It Was Almost The LA Blades

 

Sheng Peng is a freelance hockey writer based out of Los Angeles, California. He covers the LA Kings and Ontario Reign for Today's Slapshot. His work has also appeared on VICE Sports, The Hockey News, and SB Nation's Jewels from the Crown.

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