Thursday, April 7, 2011

Glory Days: Remembering NHL Legends

This is one of many retrospective looks on former NHL players of the modern age of hockey, which I define as the 1979-1980 to present. The purpose of doing this is to remind people that beyond the Gretzkys, Messiers, Lemieuxs, and Yzermans, there were other players who gave franchises outstanding performances over their careers.

Michael "Mike" Vernon (1982-2002)

The best phrase to describe Mike Vernon, at least in 1989, was "hometown hero." When the Calgary Flames won their only Stanley Cup in 1989, it was Vernon who outdueled future NHL legend and eventual fisticuff partner Patrick Roy to hoist the Stanley Cup. It was sweet revenge for the Flames, who had been defeated by the Montreal Canadiens in 1986 for hockey's most coveted prize. Now, the Flames could boast that their team was the best, thanks in large part to a goaltender born and raised in Calgary, Alberta.

You had to know there would be a video of Vernon vs. Roy in this article. History will dictate that Roy has the edge in terms of lifetime accomplishments as a goaltender, but at different point in their careers, Roy and Vernon had an intriguing back and forth rivalry.

After having a lot of regular season success but never repeating the playoff magic of 1989, Vernon was traded by Calgary to the Detroit Red Wings during the 1994 off-season in exchange for Steve Chiasson. His experience and abilities in goal in the playoffs would come in handy for a Red Wings team slowly building momentum towards their first Stanley up in over forty years. But we'll get to that in a moment.

Despite sharing goaltending duties with Chris Osgood, Vernon thrived in Detroit, registering an impressive 12-6 record in the 1994-95 playoffs. The Red Wings were swept by the New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup Finals, which was both devastating and a lesson well learned. The following season, Vernon saw less time in the playoffs, drawing a 2-2 record as the Wings fell to the eventual champions the Colorado Avalanche. This is where the rivalry between the two clubs bubbled to a boil. The 1995-96 season was significant for Detroit because they turn in what could be argued as the most dominant single season a team has ever had. The Vernon/Osgood tandem picked up the Jennings Trophy, giving up the least amount of goals en route to a 62-13-7 record.

Vernon lost the starting job to Osgood in 1997, but regained it going into the playoffs after picking up his 300th win during the infamous Fight Night at the Joe. Vernon would backstop Detroit to their first Stanley Cup since 1955. Going 16-4 with a microscopic 1.76 G.A.A., Vernon won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

After an outstanding playoffs, Vernon was traded to the San Jose Sharks during the off-season. Osgood would prove to be a worthy successor to Vernon, backstopping Detroit to a second Stanley Cup. Vernon, on the other hand, led San Jose into the playoffs twice before being traded in 1999-2000 to the Florida Panthers. The Panthers were swept in the first round and promptly sent Vernon back to Calgary where his career began. Vernon played two more seasons with the Flames, posting less than impressive numbers before retiring in 2001-02, when his old team the Red Wings won their third Stanley Cup since 1997.

Despite the decline after his Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup victory, Vernon holds a number of impressive milestones and trophies for his career:

  • Two-time Stanley Cup Champion (1989, 1997)
  • Conn Smythe Trophy (1997)
  • William M. Jennings Trophy (1996, shared with Chris Osgood)
  • Five-time NHL All Star Game competitor
  • Holds most Calgary Flames goaltending records including games played (526), wins (262, tied with Miikka Kiprusoff), minutes played, playoff games played (81), playoff wins (43)
  • 12th all time in wins by a goaltender, regular season
  • 7th all time in playoff wins by a goaltender
  • Number 30 retired by the Calgary Flames on February 6th, 2007.
Despite the accolades, Vernon is not yet in the NHL Hall of Fame. Perhaps a victim of his generation having numerous forwards holding some of the highest scoring statistics by forwards, Vernon has been eligible since 2005 but remains on the outside looking in.

What is your favorite Mike Vernon memory?

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