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Rogie Vachon finally gets Hall of Fame call

Goalie won Stanley Cup three times with Montreal, helped put hockey on map in Los Angeles

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- Rogatien Vachon, a less tongue-twisting "Rogie" to most, vividly recalls his first NHL save. And why wouldn't he remember stopping Detroit Red Wings legend Gordie Howe on a breakaway just a few heartbeats into his Hockey Hall of Fame-bound career, even if it was nearly 50 years ago?

Vachon, then 22, was called up by the Montreal Canadiens from the Houston Apollos of the Central Hockey League because No. 1 goalie Gump Worsley was injured and backup Charlie Hodge was struggling. Vachon was coach Toe Blake's last-minute, play-a-hunch decision against the Red Wings at the Montreal Forum on Feb. 18, 1967.

"I didn't know I was going to play that night. Toe just handed me the puck before the warmup and said, 'You're in,'" Vachon said of what turned out to be a 41-save, 3-2 victory. 

"I was sort of in shock, still trying to pull myself together when Gordie broke in alone from the blue line. Luckily I stopped it. And I joked with Gordie that this save probably kept me in the League for years."

Howe was suitably impressed by the unknown rookie, a goalie he would beat for Detroit's first goal that night, sitting on him in the process.

"I expected to do it differently," Howe told reporters of his foiled breakaway. "But the kid made a heck of a save. He looks like a pretty good netminder."

As it turns out, the late Mr. Hockey also was a decent judge of goaltending talent. On Monday, nearly a half-century after famously stoning Howe, Vachon will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, marking the pinnacle of his professional life.

The argument often has been made that Vachon, a veteran of 16 NHL seasons, deserved to be in hockey's shrine long ago. He won the Stanley Cup three times with the Canadiens and shared the 1967-68 Vezina Trophy with Worsley.

With Ken Dryden ready to take the goaltending reins after playing all 20 Stanley Cup Playoff games during Montreal's run to the Stanley Cup in 1971, Vachon requested a trade; he was sent to the Los Angeles Kings for goalie Denis DeJordy, forward Doug Robinson, and defensemen Dale Hoganson and Noel Price on Nov. 4, 1971.

"When they told me [about the trade], I was really surprised, even though I'd told them I wanted to be traded," Vachon said at the time. "I've been in the Canadiens organization since I was 16. Ten years. I've never known anything but the Canadiens in my life.

"We've always had so much fun on this team. The guys were always great with me and yes, management treated me well. I have nothing to be bitter about. What could they do? [Dryden] is playing so well they couldn't put me in. But I have to play or my reflexes will go."

Vachon packed his suitcase with fond memories, especially Game 5 of the 1969 Semifinals against the Boston Bruins, when he made 24 of his 40 saves in the second period of a 4-2 victory, a performance that remains a Canadiens record for shots faced (26) and saves made in one period of a playoff game.

On the West Coast, Vachon thrived, even if he starred almost invisibly, with Kings game summaries rarely appearing in morning newspapers east of Chicago. But he became a legend in Los Angeles during his seven seasons. His No. 30 was the first retired by the organization in honor of his goaltending and the huge role he played in popularizing hockey in California before the arrivals of Marcel Dionne in 1975 and Wayne Gretzky in 1988.

Video: Gretzky thrilled for HHOF inductee Rogie Vachon

"This one is personal for me because he is a good man," Gretzky said of Vachon's Hall of Fame election. "He did so much for hockey in California, for L.A. He was on that team in the early to mid-70s when they weren't that great, but he was the one guy that gave them stability and a chance, an opportunity to win every night. It's always nice when really good people get selected to the Hall of Fame, and it's well-deserved."

There was hockey life for Vachon after the Kings. He signed as a free agent with the Red Wings in 1978, and after two seasons he was traded to the Bruins for fellow goalie Gilles Gilbert on July 15, 1980. He retired in 1982.

Vachon played 795 NHL regular-season games and had 355 wins, a 2.99 goals-against average and 51 shutouts. In 48 playoff games he had 23 wins, two shutouts and a 2.77 GAA.

His most famous work probably came in international hockey. Vachon helped Canada to victory in the 1976 Canada Cup with a .940 save percentage, a 1.39 goals-against average and two shutouts in seven games. He was selected to the All-Star team, named the tournament's best goaltender and Canada's most valuable player.

In retirement, Vachon returned to the Kings and served in many capacities, including goaltending coach, general manager and team president, before stepping down as an ambassador in 2008.

Then in June, 34 years after his retirement as a player, he was stunned to receive a phone call at home in Los Angeles from Hockey Hall of Fame chairman Lanny McDonald to learn of his election.

"I was in total shock," Vachon told that day. "I was going to say, 'Yeah, right.' … But it was real. At last. I totally forgot about ever being admitted. I had no idea the voting was [that day]. I had in my mind that it wasn't going to happen. There are certain things in life you can't control and this was one of them. I thought, if it was going to happen it would have happened by now. And then … bang! Surprise!"

Vachon will be inducted alongside fellow players Eric Lindros and Sergei Makarov, and the late Pat Quinn, the latter in the Builders' category. In addition Sam Rosen will be honored for winning the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for outstanding contributions as a broadcaster, and Bob Verdi for winning the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award for excellence in journalism.

A native of Palmarolle, Quebec, about 450 miles northwest of Montreal, Vachon was seen in the early 1960s by two Canadiens scouts and then by Scotty Bowman, then the Canadiens' chief scout for the region. It took Bowman some work to convince Vachon's parents to let him come to Montreal, where he'd play for Bowman first with the Junior B Notre-Dame-de-Grâce Monarchs, then with the Junior Canadiens.

Vachon would be groomed further in junior with the Thetford Mines Aces of the Quebec Junior Hockey League and the Quebec Aces of the American Hockey League. He was in his first season with Houston when general manager Sam Pollock called him in to support Worsley and Hodge.

Another Hockey Hall of Fame member, forward Yvan Cournoyer, was in his third full season with the Canadiens when Vachon arrived.

"He was a really good teammate," Cournoyer said. "All goalies have their own world. But Rogie wasn't like a goalie, he was like a regular teammate. Rogie was a part of the team.

"He really worked hard all the time, even in practices. What I liked most about him is that he was very consistent. He wasn't up and down, really good one day and really bad the next. Most of the time he was really good. Rogie deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Not that many goalies win the Stanley Cup, and for a team to do that it needs the best goalie it can have. With Rogie we knew what we had."

Vachon also holds an important place in Kings history. 

"What Rogie did for Los Angeles was incredible," Kings president of business operations Luc Robitaille said. "The NHL has included the California Golden Seals, the Colorado Rockies and the Kansas City Scouts. All those teams came in and disappeared. Look at a map and see how far L.A. is compared to those cities, and you wonder, 'How did the Kings survive?' And then you realize that over Rogie's first years in L.A., the team had one star, and it was Rogie.

"Look at the crowds during the six years he was here. The Kings outdrew the Los Angeles Lakers [NBA]. We realize that one of the main reasons the Kings are still going, one of the reasons that Gretzky had a chance to come here, one of the reasons for everything that's happened here since, even the 'Triple Crown Line' [Dionne, Charlie Simmer and Dave Taylor], is because Rogie kept us afloat."

Robitaille, enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009, and Dionne, inducted in 1992, will be among the Hall of Famers in Toronto on Monday when Vachon joins the sport's most exclusive club.

"To all of us who are Kings fans and those of us in the Kings organization, this is one of those it's-about-time things," Robitaille said. "I think one of the issues with Rogie is that everyone thought he was already in the Hall of Fame. We're happy that he's been elected, especially in this 50th anniversary season of the Kings, to finally give him his due."

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