From the Montreal Gazette: Honour overdue for ex-Habs goalie Vachon

Great article of Rogie in the Gazette. I would have called it: "Rogie's mask is in the Hall of Fame, but he's not."

Newspaper stories in the autumn of 1967 were suggesting that Canadiens goaltender Rogatien Vachon might soon be returned to the Houston Apollos, the minor-league farm club from which he had been summoned the previous winter.

So a 10-year-old Vachon fan took pen to paper and addressed the first fan letter of his life to his first hockey hero, telling "Mr. Vachon" in as many words that he should simply ignore any demotion and stay put.

The CH-crested envelope was in my family's mailbox less than a week later, a classic black-and-white postcard of Vachon in the half-splits, the puck about to hit his outstretched blocker.

"Don't worry, I'll never let them send me down," his reassuring, paragraphs-long reply read in part.

Rogie Vachon grinned when I told him this story yesterday. He enjoyed a modest show-and-tell as we spoke at his hotel - his face in a plastic marble that I'd dug out of the sugar of a 1969 Post cereal box, after many Vachon-less boxes had been consumed; one of his earliest Topps bubble gum cards; a full-size replica of the first mask he wore, acquired a year ago for my office wall.

Full disclosure, I told him: I became a Vachon fan when he made his first NHL save on Feb. 18, 1967, a Gordie Howe breakaway. I remained one when I disowned the Canadiens for trading him to the Los Angeles Kings in a 1-for-4 deal in November 1971. I stuck by him no matter how bizarre he looked in the jerseys of Detroit and Boston as his career wound down in the early 1980s.

And the autographed postcard didn't hurt.

Vachon, 64, was in Montreal for a brief visit to a sports collectibles show at Centre Pierre Charbonneau. He'd flown in from L.A. on Saturday evening, dined with old friends, had Sunday brunch with a few family members, signed autographs yesterday afternoon and was on a dinnertime flight home.

The three-time Stanley Cup champion had never before done a signing in the city where his NHL career began. He does precious few, in fact, maybe one every few seasons, and only good timing and direct flights confirmed this one.

It was the first time in several years that he'd visited Montreal, using the airport mostly for connections to visit family in the Rouyn-Noranda area.

Vachon is surprised by the boom in sports collectibles, as are most of his generation. He has kept very little from his playing days beyond a few jerseys, his final gloves and skates and a purple, crown-painted mask he wore with the Kings. His last game-worn leather pads disintegrated in garage storage, decomposing in the California heat.

"Most of the stuff just got thrown out," he said. "Or the trainers made a little money with it on the side."

He remains at his playing weight nearly 30 years after his final game, thanks to four rounds of golf a week, two energetic grandchildren spoiled by him and his wife, Nicole, and the willpower to skip dessert.

Vachon still wears the familiar mustache he grew as a Canadien, the trim salt-and-pepper replacing the Fu Manchu and muttonchops he cultivated in tandem with teammate Mickey Redmond.

"Toe Blake was not very happy," he joked about his old-school coach's distaste for facial hair. "He said he was going to send Mickey and me back to the minors if we didn't shave."

It was Blake who threw a 21-year-old maskless goalie to the wolves on Feb. 18, 1967, a callup from Houston when Gump Worsley was injured and backup Charlie Hodge struggled.

"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 what would be a 41-save, 3-2 victory.

"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've joked with Gordie that this save probably kept me in the league for years."

That save, yes. Along with an acrobatic style that earned him a share of the 1967-68 Vézina Trophy with Worsley, three championships in 41/2 Canadiens seasons, and a lifetime 395-291-127 record with 51 shutouts and 2.99 average through 795 games - despite being caught in frequent puck blizzards with more than a few clubs in Los Angeles to whom defence was a nasty rumour.

Vachon could have stuck it out in Montreal after the emergence of Ken Dryden, who debuted late in the 1970-71 season and carried the Canadiens to the club's 17th Stanley Cup victory while winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs.

But he didn't want to warm the bench at age 26. General manager Sam Pollock dealt him to the Kings for Denis DeJordy, Dale Hoganson, Noel Price and Doug Robinson.

Vachon soon was enormously popular in L.A., and became the first King to have his number retired. After his playing days, he would fill most every front-office job for the club, from goaltending coach to president. He retired from it all last season, 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 average and two shutouts in seven games, selected to the all-star team while being named the tournament's best goalie and his country's MVP.

As a three-time Stanley Cup winner and a Vézina recipient, and a player who led hockey out of a palm-tree wilderness before a forward named Gretzky, this remains a mystery:

Why is Vachon is not in the Hall of Fame, especially considering the enshrinement of contemporaries whose statistics are no better?

To say nothing of the curious 1989 induction of Vladislav Tretiak, a fine international goalie who is in the Hall, no matter the argument selectors might offer, almost uniquely for the landmark 1972 Summit Series and its political importance.

"People are shocked when I tell them I'm not in the Hall of Fame," Vachon said, shrugging. "They assume I am. I'd love to be in there, but there are things in life that you can't control."

None of that mattered to him yesterday, nor to the many who queued at his signing table with photos, pucks and miniature Stanley Cups.

If even for a few hours, Rogie Vachon had returned to the city that gave him his start. There's a Canadiens jersey in his Los Angeles home that says he's never forgotten that.

And he was delighted to sign my replica of his first mask. He doesn't have the genuine article - it's in the Hall of Fame.