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Mike Vernon returns to crease in alumni game

by Brian Hunter
CALGARY -- Yes, it was only a friendly alumni match-up and not Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, a scenario Mike Vernon once faced as the goaltender of the Calgary Flames in playing the Montreal Canadiens.

Yet, when you haven't strapped on the pads since retiring more than eight years ago, taking the ice on a frigid late afternoon in February and facing some frozen rubber fired your way off the sticks of guys like Kirk Muller, Russ Courtnall and Mike Keane is bound to create a few butterflies.

Vernon acquitted himself well Saturday in front of more than 10,000 fans at McMahon Stadium, and although the Canadiens came away with a 5-3 win against the Flames in the alumni game preceding Sunday's 2011 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic, he had a good time wearing the familiar Calgary uniform again.

"The body just doesn't move like it used to," Vernon said with a laugh as the Flames warmed up in the locker room after the game. "This was a great event. It was fun. We all had fun with it and I think that's the important thing here. It's all for the fans."

Vernon thrilled many a fan during his 19-season NHL career, which was book-ended by two stints in Calgary, the team that selected him in the 1981 Entry Draft. Vernon led the Flames to the Final in 1986, where they lost to the Canadiens in five games. Three years later, he posted a 16-5 record and 2.26 goals-against average as the Flames captured the Cup in a six-game rematch with the Habs.

"It was a great tradition between Calgary and Montreal, and it was great to be a part of that," Vernon said. "Even playing in Montreal, when we won, the Montreal Canadiens fans gave us a standing ovation, which was totally classy. It's a good battle. It's always been very intense. The New Year's game was always a big one for us, too, when they'd come into town. Probably one of the hottest tickets of the season."

Vernon won 385 regular-season games and another Stanley Cup with Detroit. He also had stops in San Jose and Florida before returning to Calgary to end his career. The Flames retired his No. 30 in 2007, as he followed Lanny McDonald as the second player in franchise history to receive the honor.

While Vernon was mostly self-deprecating when asked about his performance Saturday -- "I didn't hurt myself, so that's a good thing," he said -- teammate Al MacInnis, who won the Conn Smythe in 1989 -- shining both offensively and defensively -- was glowing in his review.

"Unbelievable," MacInnis said. "Here's a guy who hasn't played … he was out (practicing) with the alumni I think a couple times in the last couple weeks, and honest to God, he did good out there. Goaltending is no different than any other position. Goaltending is hockey sense, anticipating, reading plays. He looked good out there -- for a guy who hasn't played much in seven years, I'd take him on my alumni team any day."
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