Former LA Kings, Montreal Canadiens Great Rogie Vachon Speaks About Career, Exclusion From Hockey Hall Of Fame
November 28, 2009 6 Comments
Even fewer know that Vachon’s accomplishments rank him among the greatest goaltenders to have ever played the game, yet he continues to be denied the honor of being inducted into the hallowed halls of the Hockey Hall of Fame (HHOF).
A close look at Vachon’s career statistics shows that he ranks ahead of a considerable number of goaltenders who were inducted into the HHOF years ago (for details, see Time To Right A Wrong: Hockey Hall of Fame Must Induct Rogie Vachon).
“If there was anyone who deserves to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame who is not—if you look at his numbers, a Vezina Trophy, three Stanley Cups, and the fact is, he wasn’t just the second fiddle on that [Montreal Canadiens] team,” said Brian Kennedy, who featured Vachon in his new book, Living The Hockey Dream. “He shared the goaltending duties with Gump Worsley in that Vezina season and they won the Cup that same season, let alone everything he did for the Kings in the mid-Seventies.”
“There is no way we can keep that guy out of the Hockey Hall of Fame,” added Kennedy.
Vachon got his start in the National Hockey League with the Canadiens in the 1966-67 season, back when the league still consisted of its Original Six teams.
“They called me up with nineteen games to go and, at that time, the coach never told you who’s going to play that night,” said Vachon. “The tradition was that the trainer would come in just before the warm-up and give the puck to the goalie who plays.”
“That night, the trainer gave me the puck, so that was a bit of a shock,” added Vachon. “Especially during the warm-up when I was trying to settle down. On top of that, my first shot in the National Hockey League was a breakaway from Gordie Howe from the blue line in.”
Facing the legendary Gordie Howe, at the time, the best player to have ever played the game, on a breakaway in his NHL debut? Talk about a rude welcome to the league!
“It was incredible,” Vachon noted. “The defenseman [Ted Harris] stood up [at the Detroit blue line] and the pass came across to Howe on the wing. From the blue line in, he was all by himself. That was a little scary.”
“I don’t know how, but I stopped him and that probably helped me with my career because I settled down,” Vachon added. “That night, I had about forty shots and beat Detroit, 3-2. Everything went really well at the start.”
Things continued to go well for Vachon, who went on to win three Stanley Cups with the Canadiens in four seasons.
He almost won another one with them as well.
“When I broke in, there were only six teams in the league,” said Vachon. “That was the last year Toronto won the Cup. We lost [to them] in the finals, so I came close to winning another Cup.”
Off To The New Frontier
Although Vachon won his third Stanley Cup with Montreal in 1970-71, it was Ken Dryden who backstopped the Canadiens in the playoffs, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs.
Vachon knew the Canadiens would anoint Dryden as their number one goaltender after that.
“It was pretty disappointing because I was just starting my career, too,” said Vachon. “But Kenny comes in, plays all the playoffs, wins the Cup and winds up the MVP of the playoffs.”
“I knew that management was going to go with him the [next] season,” added Vachon. “I was still young and I wanted to be the number one goalie somewhere, so I asked to be traded.”
The Habs honored his wishes, trading Vachon to the Kings on November 4, 1971, in exchange for Denis Dejordy, Dale Hoganson, Noel Price and Doug Robinson.
For Vachon, exchanging the Canadiens sweater for a Kings jersey was a drastic change, to say the least.
“It was a culture shock, that’s for sure,” Vachon reminisced. “Coming from the best team in hockey to here where the team was lousy—we were terrible. That year, I popped my knee so I was out for the year and we were out of the playoffs by Christmas, that’s how bad we were.”
“It wasn’t only the weather outside, but also, we didn’t have a lot of fans coming in,” added Vachon. “Compared to Montreal where we had a sell-out for every game. So yeah, it was a big difference.”
Indeed, Vachon went from a dynasty team to a struggling, four-year-old expansion franchise.
“When I first [joined the Kings], it was pretty rough,” said Vachon. “We used to go on the road and sometimes, I would give up five goals and play an incredible game, but still lose 5-0.”
“In those days, we gave up a lot of scoring chances because we weren’t as good,” added Vachon. “Especially the top teams like Boston, Montreal and the New York Rangers—when they came into town, they just blew us away. They spent eighty percent of the game in our zone.”
Vachon toiled in the nets for a couple of awful Kings teams until they finally broke through and made the playoffs in the 1973-74 season.
“When Bob Pulford came in as coach [in the 1972-73 season], it really changed things around,” he said. “He installed a good defensive system and they brought in some decent defensemen and a couple of scorers. The franchise changed around quite a bit in 1974-75.”
That season, when the Kings set a franchise record that still stands today with 105 points, is the one that stands out for Vachon.
“It was a good time,” said Vachon. “When Pulford came in and we started to be respectable and a lot of fans started to come in, they made the trade for Marcel Dionne—all of a sudden, the franchise started to get a little better.”
But even though Vachon often won games all by himself on teams that were mediocre, at best, he was unable to get the Kings past the first round of the playoffs.
“Unfortunately, in those days, the first playoff round was a two-out-of three, which was ridiculous,” Vachon lamented. “You lose the first game, you had no chance to come back. We lost to Toronto and to [superstar goaltender] Tony [Esposito] and Chicago.”
Despite not being able to get the Kings out of the first round of the playoffs, Vachon was not just a superstar. He was also a leader, a part of his game that he brought with him from Montreal.
Indeed, one of Vachon’s most vivid memories about his time wearing the bleu, blanc et rouge (blue, white and red) jersey of the storied Canadiens is the attitude and pride that was present throughout the franchise.
“We had great defense and a lot of scoring,” Vachon explained. “There was so much tradition in those days. Everyone refused to lose. If we lost two games in a row, it was total panic in Montreal.”
“There was just so much pride in that jersey,” Vachon elaborated. “It meant so much for everybody, especially the players.”
Bob Berry, a pro scout for the Kings, played six seasons with Vachon here in Los Angeles.
“The fact that [Vachon] came from [the Montreal Canadiens] organization, which still has a mystical, mythical ring to it—but in those days, to come from Montreal, he was not just bringing Rogie Vachon,” said Berry. “He was bringing a little bit of one of the great championship organizations ever in any kind of sport. It was special.”
“He was a competitive guy who had a lot to do with teaching us how to win because of the way he played and the way he competed when he first came here from Montreal,” added Berry. “He came here with really high credentials.”
Berry said that Vachon competitiveness is what he remembers most.
“There would be times, especially when we were at home, when we were asleep in the first period and got outshot, 12-4, and only be down, 1-0,” Berry related. “Rogie would come [into the dressing room] and break his stick over the water cart and that really was all he did. He didn’t curse or swear or anything.”
“We realized that here was a guy who was a winner, he was competitive and he really worked hard, and I’m not making this up,” Berry elaborated. “This is the way it was. [We thought], ‘Jesus Christ. He’s really mad at us. We’d better get going,’ and we did.”
“It wasn’t usually verbal. We all knew what kind of competitor he was. It was just a tacit feeling throughout the room that Rogie was pissed off and that he’s bailed us out so many times we’d better get going, and I’m sure if you asked all the other guys who were there, they’d tell you the same thing.”
Vachon explained that all he was trying to do was light a fire under his teammates.
“It did happen a few times and it was all about motivation,” he said. “It started in Montreal, doing that kind of stuff. I hated to have anyone score on me, even in practice. When you get used to that mentality, when you go into the games, sometimes I would come in after the first period after giving up a goal, I’d say, ‘All right. You get me two goals and that’s it. We’re going to win the game because they’re not going to score another one.’”
Indeed, even with superstar center Marcel Dionne joining the team in the 1975-76 season, Vachon was the biggest reason the Kings teams Berry played on had any success at all.
“Part of us learning how to win as a team was to keep our goals against down and I think under coach Bob Pulford, we all thought we were doing things well defensively,” Berry explained. “He brought a lot to it. But that said, it was still Rogie who was the last line of defense, and on most nights, when we would win close games, 3-1 or 2-1, or whatever it happened to be in those days, it was usually him who bailed us out and made big stops.”
“He would keep the ship afloat and we’d finally understand that we’d better get going,” Berry stressed. “It didn’t happen every night, but it happened enough. He taught us how to win.”
Of course, the leadership Vachon provided would have meant nothing if he was a poor or even just an average goaltender. But he backed up his leadership with elite level skill.
“He was a goaltender, and there haven’t been many in Kings history, that when he was in goal, you knew you had a chance to win the game, or that he would keep you in the game,” said long-time “Voice of the Kings,” Bob Miller, who called the action for five of Vachon’s seasons with the Kings.
“He was so good, so good,” added Miller, the 2000 recipient of the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award, recognizing those members of the radio and television industry who made outstanding contributions to their profession and the game during their career in hockey broadcasting, making him a media honoree in the Hockey Hall of Fame. “I remember one story…we were in Chicago Stadium and Dennis Hull was playing for Chicago. He came down left wing and, to this day, it was the hardest shot I’ve ever seen. It got deflected up into the third balcony. I couldn’t even see it.”
“I saw Rogie later and I asked him, ‘tell me what you’re thinking when you see Dennis Hull ready to shoot.’ He said, ‘well, I know the only way I can stop it is if he hits me, so I hope he hits me.’ I said, ‘what?!’”
Miller, who is now in his 37th season of calling the action for the Kings, said that Vachon’s courage was one of the reasons he was a superstar.
“He was a courageous goaltender and a huge fan favorite here,” Miller explained. “I think he was probably the first real fan favorite here for the Kings and he had some outstanding games with teams that, early in his career and my career here, were defensive-minded teams under Bob Pulford.”
“Pully’s idea of a great game was 1-0 and the puck went in off of somebody’s rear end,” Miller added. “But [Vachon] fit that mold perfectly because he was so good.”
Miller marveled at Vachon’s superior skill.
“I remember how acrobatic he was in goal,” said Miller. “The other thing I remember is that he had such a good glove hand. He’d keep his glove down at his side and let he shooter think, ‘I’ve got that upper corner,’ and then, all of a sudden, he’d flash that glove up.”
“I remember some of the games against the Montreal Canadiens and games against some of the other teams that were really good at the time,” added Miller. “Players used to think, ‘I’ve got him’ and he’d make the save. He was really fun to watch, there was no doubt about that.”
Shame On The Hockey Hall of Fame
As stated earlier, Vachon’s career statistics and accomplishments make a rock solid case for him being more than worthy of induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“He wasn’t a big guy, yet he played so well and really, the shame is that he’s not in the Hockey Hall of Fame when the numbers he has are better than some who are in the Hall of Fame, and he has those seasons and those numbers with very mediocre Kings teams,” said Miller.
“The nights he played for us, he certainly was in the [Hall of Fame] category,” said Berry.
Vachon’s stellar play in the 1976 Canada Cup tournament also adds to his credentials, as he led Canada to the tournament championship with a 1.39 goals-against average, a .963 save percentage and two shutouts in seven games. He was named as the best goalie of the tournament and the Most Valuable Player for Canada.
“That was pretty awesome, too,” Vachon beamed. “It’s totally different from winning the Stanley Cup because you’re playing for your country. We had such a great team and I was really hot in goal, but we still had to go into overtime to win the [championship]. That’s how good the other teams were.”
“I remember the last game we played against the Czechs,” Vachon added. I made one of the best glove saves of my career. A forward came in, about thirty feet away, I think it was [Ivan] Hlinka. He was the top star in those days for the Czech team. I just grabbed it and that was in overtime.”
The biggest reason Vachon has been overlooked by the Hockey Hall of Fame is because during his time in the NHL, cable and satellite television, the World Wide Web, YouTube, mobile phones and the like, did not exist. Moreover, the Kings only had about fifteen games on television each season at the time.
“There were very, very few games on TV,” Vachon explained. “There were probably 15-20 games broadcast locally and the all people back East would just read about it in the paper.”
To be sure, Vachon played in complete anonymity on most nights except to those in Southern California.
“It’s pretty strange,” said Vachon. “When you played in the West in those days, you didn’t get the recognition that guys like [Ed] Giacomin got in New York or some of the guys playing in Montreal. It hurt some of the guys here, including me.”
“If you compare my numbers with the guys who were inducted at that time, there’s no question that I should’ve been there,” added Vachon. “But what are you going to do?”
“If [Vachon] had [been the number one goaltender] in Montreal [for all those years], he would have been a first ballot Hall of Famer,” Miller emphasized. “But he did it here and they didn’t hear about it.”
Although Vachon does not seem to be bitter about being passed over for induction, he is disappointed.
“It’s disappointing,” he said, “Every hockey player dreams about being in the Hockey Hall of Fame. But certain things in life you can’t control and that’s one of them.”
Vachon came ever so close to induction in 1987, his first year of eligibility.
“The first time around, someone on the [selection] committee told me that I had missed by one vote,” he said.
“That’s missing from my resume,” he added. “Even though my jersey has been retired [by the Kings], that’s it. [Induction into the Hall of Fame is] the ultimate for an athlete, to be in the hall. All the people come in and see that you’re there. It would mean a lot.”
But since 1987? Nothing. Nevertheless, hope remains.
“A few years ago, Dick Duff, [who played in Montreal, Toronto and briefly in Los Angeles] had to wait all those years but they finally put him in the Hall [in 2006],” said Vachon. “He was like me, waiting more than twenty or thirty years.”
Miller said that the Hockey Hall of Fame’s credibility is weakened by the fact that Vachon is still not an honored member.
“It really is a shame and the Hockey Hall of Fame should be ashamed of themselves that he wasn’t nominated earlier or not nominated at all,” said Miller. “If some of those guys who are on the Selection Committee played against him, I would think they would say yes, he deserves to be in there.”
“He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, there’s no doubt about it.”
Audio Interviews (raw, unedited)
Rogie Vachon (25:40)
Bob Berry (3:48)
Bob Miller (8:18; includes a couple of brief, cameo appearances by his grandson)
The Hockey Hall of Fame accepts letters from interested parties (including fans) nominating people for possible induction. You can send letters and supporting documentation to:
Selection Committee Co-Chair
Hockey Hall of Fame
30 Yonge St.
Toronto, ON M5E 1X8
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