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Hockey immortality for my boyhood hero

NHL.com columnist Dave Stubbs reminisces with Rogie Vachon on his long road to the Hockey Hall of Fame

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

TORONTO -- We're about 16,000 feet in the air, nearing the tip of Lake Ontario, when Rogie Vachon considers the goaltending equipment he wore through 16 seasons in Montreal, Los Angeles, Detroit and Boston on his long, winding road to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

"You know, I still have dents in my shins," he says more than 34 years after his final NHL game. "My legs are still dented through the pads that didn't offer much protection."

Yet it's almost with a fondness that Rogie remembers the tools of his trade, those old pads having come off the Hamilton, Ontario, workbench of Pop Kenesky, a former saddlemaker.

"I kept 'em forever," Rogie continues. "I'd sew them up, stitch them here and there, shove the stuffing back in them until they finally just fell apart."

Which might, he suggests, explain his dented shins at least in part.

It is mid-morning Friday, and Rogie and I are seatmates in Row 7 on this short, blustery flight from Montreal to downtown Toronto. He originally was assigned the front row with room to stretch out on this twin-engine Dash 8 turboprop, but he was happy to shuffle back into 7D so we could sit together.

"I'm 5-foot-7," he joked. "I don't really need the leg room."

Fifty years less four months since Rogie's first trip to Toronto in March 1967 as an NHL rookie, which he made by train, he is on a plane to the city where on this day he will be presented with his Hall of Fame ring, his formal induction on Monday evening bookending a busy weekend. I'm along for the ride with a modest hockey legend, and to say that I'm thrilled with the window seat beside him doesn't begin to cover it.

Growing up in Montreal, Rogie was my first boyhood hockey hero. I pretended I was Rogie in street-hockey goal - "La belle arrêt!" (a beautiful stop) I'd brag after a good save - and I kept scrapbooks pasted thick with his newspaper clippings and photos and game summaries.

It was Rogie to whom I penned the first fan letter of my life; I was 9 when he debuted with the Canadiens at age 22 in February 1967, called up from the Central Hockey League's Houston Apollos, and not far past my 10th birthday when word got out that the goalie-rich Canadiens might return him to the minors.

"Don't let them send you down," my fan letter pleaded. Ten days later, a Canadiens-crested envelope was in the mailbox, and on the reverse of a picture postcard, Rogie in the famous half-splits pose of the day, was a full paragraph reply thanking me for my support and insisting that I had no reason to worry since he was in the NHL to stay. Which, indeed, he was.

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I was 14 in November 1971 when Rogie was traded three time zones west to Los Angeles, which in the pre-Internet age might as well have been Jupiter. By December, I was wearing a royal purple Kings jersey in road-hockey goal, not just the first kid on the block wearing one, but also the only kid.

Years later as a journalist, I got to know Rogie as much more than an interview subject, enjoying casual conversation with him on the phone and on his trips to Montreal for memorabilia shows. For decades as a Montreal newspaper columnist, sometimes sounding like a lone wolf baying at the moon, I argued the case for his election to the Hall of Fame, his statistics stacking up favorably against those of his enshrined contemporaries.

Decades ago, Rogie stopped believing that the day would ever come; there was no bitterness in his words when he said simply that some things in life aren't in your control. And then late in June came the call to his Los Angeles home from Hall of Fame chairman Lanny McDonald, telling him to make plans for induction weekend.

Now, on Friday morning, we are flying together to his enshrinement, and if these words read like my second fan letter to my boyhood hero, so be it.

"It took a while to sink in," Rogie says of the call from McDonald, our plane lifting off the runway.

(Rogie calls him "Lenny," which amuses McDonald to no end.)

"That call came right out of the blue and I was in shock for a few days, asking myself, 'How did it happen now?' But better late than never."

Rogie says it has taken him months to prepare his five-minute induction speech, asking himself how far to go back in his life, who to recognize in his words of thanks.

"I've read it a few times and I hope everything goes well," he says. "But you never know. Even with this written down, you might not find the words."

Rogie will have roughly 18 guests at Monday evening's induction ceremony. They will include adult children Nick, Jade and Mary, grandchildren Isabelle, 12, Calvin (a minor-hockey goalie about whom Vachon boasts proudly), 11, and Chloe, 6, as well as most of his seven siblings, long-time friends, and family members of his late wife, Nicole, whom he lost to cancer in February following nearly 44 years of marriage.

Nicole, he says quietly, will be with him in spirit when he is enshrined. They were married in 1971, a glamorous Hollywood power couple with big hair and big cars and a grand lifestyle that befit Rogie's superstar status, and some said their marriage was doomed to quickly fail because of it.

"Nicole was wonderfully independent," Rogie says, his voice catching. "We'd go to a movie in two cars. If she didn't like it, she'd get up and walk out and go shopping. Or I would."

He spent the final few months of Nicole's life caring for her at home, and the emptiness in his soul now is something he'll never fill. But he is flying to the Hall of Fame careful not to let melancholy overpower his enormous gratitude about the fact that, at long last, his place in hockey history is cemented forever.

The night before, the Canadiens had celebrated Rogie before and during their 4-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings at Bell Centre. The former goaltender for both teams in the 1960s and '70s, a three-time Stanley Cup winner and Vezina Trophy recipient in Montreal, got a kick out of the fact that his team would win on this night, no matter the final result.

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Rogie and his family and friends returned to his hotel post-game, and the lobby bar was closing around 2 a.m. ET when someone suggested the party adjourn to a pub nearby.

"I think we closed a couple bars," Rogie says, laughing. "I signed a lot of autographs last night, absolutely. There was even a Kings fan in one of the places."

Now our plane is dipping and bouncing toward Toronto as we talk about his first NHL game, on Feb. 18, 1967, and his stoning of Detroit Red Wings legend Gordie Howe on a breakaway for the first save of his career with the ice still wet.

He has no reply when I quiz him on who scored the first goal against him.

"Howe, about eight minutes later," I say, "and then he sat on you."

"Ah, so Gordie got even," Rogie says, grinning.

The goalie made 41 saves that night in a 3-2 Canadiens victory. He would play 794 more games in his career, another 48 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It is Rogie's body of work in the NHL, the 1976 Canada Cup and his role in quite literally keeping hockey afloat in Los Angeles that brings him to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Friday's ring-presentation ceremony is the first time he's been to the shrine since probably the late 1980s, when he was general manager of the Kings.

He wasn't a souvenir collector during his career, but he has given the Hall a few things for display. Among them are his Size 9 white Bauer skates and the cage mask that he wore in his final NHL game with the Bruins in 1982.

"They have my original mask, too," he says.

In return, the Hall fitted him for his ring, and for a crested blazer that he'll be presented during Sunday's Legends Game at Air Canada Centre.

"The ring is Size 13 - I'm a small guy but I have big hands," he jokes. "And my jacket size is 42. Short."

We hit an air pocket upon final approach into Toronto over Lake Ontario and the plane drops sharply. Rogie is not pleased, grabbing the seat in front of himself with both hands.

"I didn't even know there was an airport here," he says, having made note of the downtown skyline filling my window.

The ring presentation and interview session done a couple hours later, Rogie jokes that he's feeling the effects of Montreal's famous hospitality. The Hall's Class of 2016 will attend the 7:30 p.m. game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers, and Rogie knows just how he'll prepare.

"Just like when I was playing," he says. "With a pre-game nap."

But before he takes his leave from the shrine's Great Hall, I ask Rogie whether he's seen his Hall of Fame plaque. He hasn't, so we turn a corner and he gazes a long way up.

"Wow, that's nice," he says, beaming.

The plaque is nearly seven feet off the floor, so placed either by chronological induction order or by the figurative height that this small giant played the game.

This lifelong fan, having just lived a dream traveling with a boyhood idol to his spot in hockey immortality, chooses the latter.

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