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Hall of Fame wait worth it to Vachon

Longtime goaltender finally gets call, 34 years after retirement as player

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

Years ago, the "when" became "if," and, in time, the "if" slipped away entirely.

On Monday morning, upon answering his phone, Rogie Vachon heard "now," and he wondered whether it were a crank call.

Hockey Hall of Fame chairman Lanny McDonald was on the other end of the line, talking to the former goaltender, who was at his home in Venice, Calif.

"Lanny said, 'Well, congratulations,' " Vachon said Monday afternoon. "I said, 'What?' and Lanny said, 'You're in the Hall of Fame. We just finished a meeting and you're one of this year's honorees.'

"I was in total shock. I was going to say, 'Yeah, right …' but it was real. At last."

On Nov. 14, at an induction ceremony in Toronto, Vachon formally will be welcomed to the Hockey Hall of Fame with fellow Class of 2016 players Eric Lindros and Sergei Makarov and, in the builders' category, the late Pat Quinn.

Vachon, 70, ended his conversation with McDonald and embraced his son, Nick, who was in the room. He called his daughters, Jade and Marie-Joie. He was on the phone well into the night. He would contact his grandchildren, on vacation in St. Louis, and three brothers and four sisters in Canada, shoehorning those calls among the stream of good wishes coming from friends.

Vachon thinks all seven of his siblings will attend his induction, along with his children and grandkids. No one will be prouder than Nick's pre-teen son, Calvin, a terrific goalie who worships his grandfather.

"I totally forgot about ever being admitted," Vachon said. "I had no idea the voting was [Monday]. 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 still was in disbelief when we spoke, nearly overwhelmed by thoughts of his late wife, Nicole, whom he lost after a lengthy illness almost five months ago after 44 years of marriage.

"I wish this had happened earlier so she could be here to enjoy this with me," Vachon said of his election. He believes Nicole will be looking down on the November ceremony with great joy.

It was without shame that I cheered this man's election to the Hall of Fame - 49 years after he was the center of the universe for a Montreal Canadiens fan growing up 10 miles from the arena where he made his NHL debut.

Newspaper stories in the autumn of 1967 were suggesting Vachon might soon be returned to the Houston Apollos, the Central Professional Hockey League farm team from which the Canadiens had summoned him the previous winter.

So this 10-year-old Vachon fan took pen to paper and frantically addressed the first fan letter of his life to his first hockey hero, naively telling "Mr. Vachon" he should simply ignore any demotion and remain in Montreal.

Less than a week later, a team-branded envelope was in the family mailbox, containing a classic black-and-white postcard of Vachon doing the half-splits, the puck about to hit his outstretched blocker.

"Don't worry, I'll never let them send me down," was the first sentence in a paragraphs-long reassuring reply on the back.

Vachon laughed when I related this story to him upon his arrival in Montreal for a 2009 collectibles show. I confessed to him fully that day: I became a Vachon fan the moment he stopped the first NHL shot that came his way in 1967, foiling Detroit Red Wings icon Gordie Howe on a breakaway. I didn't remind him Howe scored on him a few minutes later to open the scoring, then sat on him.

I told him I had been a charter member of the Rogatien Vachon Fan Club, and proudly carried the membership card to school in my wallet.

And I told Vachon I remained a fan when I disowned the Canadiens for trading him to the Los Angeles Kings in a 1-for-4 deal on Nov. 4, 1971, sticking by him no matter how strange he looked in the jerseys of his later career, including stops in Detroit and with the Boston Bruins as his career wound down.

Vachon could have tried to stick it out in Montreal after the emergence of Ken Dryden, who debuted late in the 1970-71 season and carried the Canadiens to the team's 17th Stanley Cup victory. But he didn't want to warm the bench at age 26, so general manager Sam Pollock dealt him to the Kings for Denis DeJordy, Dale Hoganson, Noel Price and Doug Robinson.

A week later, I was the first kid on my block - the only kid on my block - playing road-hockey goal in a purple, crown-crested Kings jersey.

The maskless Vachon, then 21, debuted at the Montreal Forum on Feb. 18, 1967, Canadiens coach Toe Blake turning to his farm-team call-up with Gump Worsley injured and backup Charlie Hodge struggling.

Vachon was a long way from his hometown of Palmarolle, a Quebec mining country village. He had been bird-dogged five years earlier by Canadiens scout Scotty Bowman.

The goalie played for the Notre-Dame-de-Grace Monarchs, the Junior Canadiens, the Quebec Aces of the American Hockey League and, finally, the Apollos in his climb to the NHL.

With Worsley ailing, Vachon got the call to Montreal and figured he'd watch from the bench until Worsley and Hodge were back on the rails.

"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 recalled of his debut, a 3-2 victory against Detroit in which he made 41 saves.

"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 forever that this save probably kept me in the League for years."

He told reporters that night: "There was no time to be nervous. I just thought about making the stop and not about Howe. After the save, I figured I could stop them all."

Said Howe: "The kid made a heck of a save. He looks like a pretty good netminder."

Vachon filled little of the net with his 5-foot-7 frame crouched below the crossbar. But his acrobatic style would earn him a share of the 1967-68 Vezina Trophy with Worsley, three Stanley Cup victories in less than five seasons with the Canadiens, and a lifetime record of 355-291-127 with 51 shutouts and 2.99 goal-against average through 795 games - despite being caught in frequent puck blizzards in Los Angeles anchoring more than a few teams to which defense was lacking.

The mod-dressing, cigar-smoking, mustachioed Vachon was an instant hit in 1970s Tinseltown, helping to lead hockey out of the palm-tree wilderness.

He was the first Kings player to have his number retired. After his playing days, he filled most every front-office job for the team, from goaltending coach to president. He retired from it all in 2008, most recently having been an ambassador.

On the ice, his most famous work probably was in the international arena. Vachon led Team Canada to victory in the 1976 Canada Cup with a brilliant .963 save percentage, 1.39 GAA and two shutouts in seven games, selected to the all-star team while being named the tournament's best goalie and his country's most valuable player.

For years, he has heard from people asking why he wasn't in the Hall of Fame. He'll be asked no longer.

Moments after his media conference call had ended Monday afternoon, I was on the phone to my boyhood hero.

Vachon, a quiet, private man, says he will search his soul to compose his induction speech; so many people to thank, so many here and gone to remember. He expects he'll receive wise counsel from his good friend and 2009 inductee Luc Robitaille, the Kings president.

"My speech is my last worry at the moment," he said with a long sigh. "Right now, I think I'm dreaming. And if I am, I hope I don't wake up. The Hall of Fame. Imagine."

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