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Hall of Fame induction bittersweet for Rogie Vachon

Honors wife of 44 years, Nicole, who died of cancer nine months ago, in speech

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

TORONTO -- In spirit if not in body, the light of Rogie Vachon's life was in attendance at the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday. And Vachon, inducted as a member of the Class of 2016, would feel the presence of his late wife and soulmate, Nicole, who he lost to cancer nine months ago.

"He lost his best friend," Marie-Joie Vachon said in the hours before the induction ceremony. "Election to the Hall of Fame has kind of helped Dad with his grieving, but her loss is still pretty traumatic.

"Mom cared about his career as much as he did. That's why we moved around (from Los Angeles to Detroit to Boston), to help our dad. In the end, losing Mom was a blessing, for her, but she wanted this for Dad probably even more than he wanted it for himself."

Marie-Joie, 38, her sister, Jade, 42, and their brother, Nicholas, 44, sat in a Toronto hotel lobby Monday afternoon to discuss their now hockey-immortal father. Where Rogie Vachon lost his wife of 44 years, three siblings lost a mother. And all four knew they would battle powerful emotions when Vachon stood to remember her, his hockey career and his life beyond the game in an induction speech he had worked on, and sometimes struggled mightily with, for months.

"For our dad to lose his wife, and for us to lose our mother, has been an adjustment that would be difficult for anyone," Jade said. "Joining the Hall of Fame is such a milestone in my dad's life. You want the people you love the most to be around you. Mom was his best friend. It will be very tough to not have his lifelong partner with him for a life-changing event."

Such would be the brush of bitter of this Hall of Fame weekend that included so much sweet, Vachon elected to the shrine 34 years after having played the final game of his 16-season NHL career.

Nicholas Vachon was in the family home in Venice, California, on June 27 when Hall of Fame chairman Lanny McDonald placed the call.

"Dad was in shock," he said. "He just kept repeating himself: 'Are you kidding me? What do you mean?' He hung up and walked over to me, and I'm wondering, 'Who could have that kind of impact with a phone call?'

"We hugged. For me, there were tears. It was unbelievable. For a couple of days, he literally was walking around beside himself. It was surreal."

Marie-Joie, at work, would begin taking calls of congratulations for something about which she wasn't even aware.

"We'd had a family dinner a couple days earlier and now I'm thinking, 'Was Dad not telling me something?' " she said with a laugh.

Jade spoke by phone with her brother and said that, like everyone, she was in shock.

"I'm so, so proud of him," she said. "Ever since we got the news, well, it's long overdue. We're all really happy for him. All of these wonderful feelings will linger for a long time. It will be a really nice holiday season."

The Vachon children believed, as did their father, that the day of his Hall of Fame election might never come.

"The first couple of times he was nominated, we knew it wasn't by much that he wasn't inducted," Nicholas said. "He's our dad, we're proud of him no matter what. But after the second time he wasn't elected, it was like, 'OK, maybe it won't happen.' We didn't really think about it, and I didn't even know he was being nominated this year. I don't think he knew. Suddenly, his name was brought up, and he was voted in."

It was Nicholas's wife, Renée, who acted as editor on Vachon's speech that he fussed with, trying to distill a life of 71 years into five minutes. She used a light hand, as she has done for years with things written by Vachon or Nicole that somehow always found her desk.

"He wanted to keep it short and sweet. A couple times when we were over at the house, we'd talk about a few stories, and I wanted him to add things that I know about," Nicholas said. "Renée was excited to be able to help, but my dad wrote it. He just needed some reassurance that someone else had looked at it. There's a lot of history from when he played so long ago. There are stories people don't know about. How the game was played back then. Little things -- no agents back then, the way they lived, even a player getting to the NHL is night and day from then to today."

On Monday afternoon, the three Vachon children had no clear idea about the words their father would read.

"I don't know how emotional he'll be," Marie-Joie said.

"It will be tough, not just for Dad, but for us," Nicholas added. "Mom will be looking down. She'll be proud, and she'll be happy. She hasn't been gone long, and we all miss her."

Vachon honored Nicole haltingly in his speech, struggling to contain his emotions.

"It's going to be tough," he began, clearing his throat. "I cannot finish without honoring a very special woman, somebody I'm dearly missing. I just lost my wife, Nicole. I wish she could be here. Sometimes it's not fair. She should be here, and it's not going to happen. She was a wonderful woman, we spent 45 years together. … I love you, gal. I'll see you on the other side."

If Vachon shed some light on his life and career as he entered the Hall of Fame, thanking those who marked his playing career and then the family members who are the center of his universe, his children want people to know another side of this quiet, three-time Stanley Cup champion they see up close.

"He's got a great sense of humor," Marie-Joie said. "We'll be out somewhere, and somebody will say, 'You look a lot like Rogie Vachon,' and he'll go, 'Yeah I know, I get that a lot.' "

"He's got an incredible wit," Jade said. "He's very quick, and there's a quiet sense of confidence about him."

"He's just a humble man," Nicholas said. "He's easy to approach and to speak to, humble about his career. He talks to everybody, like our mom would."

All are delighted but not at all surprised by the kindness and praise that has flowed their father's way since his election to the Hall of Fame.

"He's not a tall man," Jade said, "but we're not surprised that so many people look up to him."

Nicholas, a forward who played nine seasons in the minors and one game for the New York Islanders in 1996-97, recalled meeting Hall of Fame goalie Patrick Roy and having Roy tell him that Vachon had been the idol of his youth.

"Patrick would tell me, 'I was Rogie in street hockey!' and then he'd get that glove hand going," he said. "It's pretty special that someone like that had that much respect for my dad."

The Los Angeles Kings, who acquired Vachon from the Montreal Canadiens in 1971 before later hiring him as goaltending coach, general manager, president and finally ambassador, moved mountains for family and friends to attend the induction ceremony.

It was especially important to Luc Robitaille, the Kings president of business operations, who was selected by Vachon, then Los Angeles general manager, in the ninth round (No. 171) of the 1984 NHL Draft. Robitaille was at the ceremony, having been enshrined in 2009.

"The Kings have been amazing, unbelievably supportive," Nicholas said. "Luc was as excited as my dad. They've had a special connection over the years, and my dad has the highest respect for Luc and Rob Blake.

"I think Luc (a member of the Hall of Fame selection committee) went crazy waiting for Lanny to call my dad so he could phone."

It was two hours before the induction ceremony began when the Class of 2016 and their families and guests gathered in a downtown hotel ballroom for photos and a little storytelling.

The Vachon group, numbering 17 and dressed to the nines, was photographed in every combination of people.

As the final image was snapped, the small former goaltender in the black suit and with the tidy gray moustache took a deep breath, looked up to his soulmate and said, almost under his breath, "It took us 30 years to get here… but we're here."

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