Goalie and goat …

This seems to be the week of the goalie here at View from the Edge. First the news of the death of Gump Worsley, then the retirement of the #29 jersey of Ken Dryden in Montreal, and now, last night, another goalie’s jersey was lifted to the rafters, this time in Calgary. Representing only the second jersey to be retired by the Flames, in many ways, Mike Vernon represents an excellent second choice to Lanny McDonald‘s first place.

Mike Vernon is a different sort of character entirely IMO, but it has little to do with skills. As a hometown boy, being drafted by the Flames meant intense pressure for the young Vernon, even in the context of the high-pressure NHL. Vernon’s story is, in many ways, that of the local boy who makes good beyond his wildest dreams, playing for the hometown team, and bringing home the Stanley Cup for them. But the relationship between Vernon and the fans throughout his time in Calgary is a good illustration of the double-edged nature of that “local boy” story-line. When Vernon was at the top of his game, Calgary loved him as a son … at the same time, after a few bad games, no player in Flames history has been more quickly derided, with the possible exception of Kent Nillson (who was always the guy who could change a game, when he ‘bothered to show up to play”).

As I mentioned when I talked about Dryden, goalies can never win hockey games for you. The best you can ask of them is to keep you in the game, to give you the chance to win. As the winningest goalie in Flames history, there’s little doubt that Vernon did that more often than not between the pipes for Calgary, but as any longtime fan of the Flames knows, even in seasons where Vernon posted league high numbers, local fans and press would have significant periods of time where he was the ‘goat’ for most any loss by team. Its worth remembering that Vernon really forged his name in the mid-late 80’s, a time in the league when the Flames main regional rival was Oilers of Wayne and Mark and Paul at their primes. Vernon backstopped the Flames in his debut in the ’86 playoffs, taking them to the finals, and while the Flames lost that final, Vernon was a big part of the reason they even got there in the first place. Steve Smith’s disastrous gift to the Flames notwithstanding, it was Vernon’s goaltending that allowed Calgary to even be in the position of a game 7 in that series. Perhaps even more impressive, in the 88-89 season he posted a 2.65 goals against average, with a 2.26 GAA in the playoffs. Thats a good GAA in any era, really, but recall that 1988-89 was the season when 9 of the top 10 league scorers had greater than 100 points, with Mario Lemieux racking up an inhuman 199 points. It was not an era of low scoring games, making the 2.xx GAA’s even more impressive.

It was nice to see Vernon get honoured at the Saddledome, and its fitting that no one else will wear #30 in goal for the Flames again. While he played in the city, the fans and media were happy to support him when he played well, but were equally happy to force the goat horns on him when things went wrong … as beloved as he was when the team was winning, Vernon could be reviled in the press and public while they were losing. He bore it all very well, and just went out and played hockey … its hard, no immpossible, to imagine the ’89 cup without Vernon between the pipes … at least as much as its impossible to imagine it without Lanny or Niewy or Mullen or Gilmour. Its fitting that Vernon was honoured last night, and that his was the second jersey to be retired by the Flames … he played the goat enough times during his playing career, most often through no fault of his playing, that of all the players who have worn the Flaming C in Calgary, Vernon is one of the most deserving of a permanent tribute. Its a final tip of the hat, a way to say thanks for playing so well, even when the fans and media chose not to appreciate it at the time.

Image linked from NHL.com, and used as a fair-use reference to the subject at hand

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