Vezina, Hainsworth, Durnan, Plante, Worsley, Dryden, Roy …
The Montreal Canadiens have always been renowned as the Flying Frenchmen. But often overlooked has been the Canadiens long line of great goaltenders. No team can equal the Canadians continued line of great goaltending that has been the backbone of their long tradition of success.
All of the names mentioned above were able to win the Stanley Cup, win Vezina trophies, and become members of the Hockey Hall of Fame. These men have passed into legend as the keepers of the proud heritage of the bleu, blanc, et rouge.
There is one name, absent from the list, a man who was the heir to this throne, but a man who was unable to grasp the torch in Montreal, and had to settle for being a pioneer for the sport of hockey in California.
From the beginning of his career Rogie Vachon, had to fight to get respect for his talents and his skills. Throughout his career he was unable to warrant mention amongst the best goalies of his time, and now in retirement he has had to watch as some of his contemporaries have been elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame, while he has had to make due with being recognized as the best player currently not enshrined in the Hall.
Rogie Vachon was one of the greatest goalies in the immediate post expansion NHL and the most overlooked. There are many reasons for this neglect of Vachon’s talent and achievements; timing, circumstances, team, and more. However, a closer look into Vachon’s career reveals a goalie the equal of his contemporaries, but one who was unable to gain the exposure and recognition that he so richly deserved, both then and now.
The story of Rogie Vachon is like a modern Canadian fable. At 5’7” and weighing only 170 pounds, Vachon was one of the smallest goaltenders to play professionally hockey. Vachon made a career of trying to disprove others expectations. A flamboyant goalie, Rogie was able to compensate for his lack of size, by being a superior position goalie that excelled at playing the angles, and matched it with one of the quickest glove hands ever seen in the NHL. What made Vachon so memorable was his unique style that was born out of necessity, and his everyman attitude that was related to by many fans.
Rogie Vachon was born on September 8th, 1945 in Palmarolle, Quebec, a small town about fifty miles north of Rouyn-Noranda. One of eight children, Vachon grew up on a dairy farm.
It didn’t take long for Vachon to make an impact as a young goaltender. At the tender age of sixteen, Vachon was playing junior hockey in Montreal. Recommended to the Canadiens by Gilles Laperriere (Jacques older brother), there wasn’t a spot for Vachon on the Montreal Junior Canadiens, so he played with the Montreal NDG Monarchs in 1963-64. The following year saw Vachon split his time between the Junior B squad in Thetford Mines and the Junior Canadiens.
The process of making it through the Canadiens minor league system was a long and arduous process for Vachon. In the days before expansion the Canadiens farm system consisted of many minor league clubs spread throughout North America. Needless to say there were many goalies spread throughout, and with Vachon’s lack of height and size, the odds of him making it to the Canadiens were long indeed.
In order for Rogie to make the team he needed to prove himself at all the different levels of the Canadiens chain. For Vachon this began a lifelong battle for recognition, one that he would have to battle throughout his professional career and beyond. Despite all he had achieved, there was never a sense of having made it, there always seemed to be something to prove; to others and to Rogie himself.
In 1965-66, Vachon was able to win 25 of his 39 appearances in Thetford and was named a first team all star. The Canadiens decided to turn Vachon professional later that year when he played ten games for the Quebec Aces of the American Hockey League.
At the onset of the 1966-67 season, Vachon found himself as the backup goaltender for the Houston Apollos of the Central Hockey League. The Apollos at that time were the Canadiens top farm club and were populated with such future Canadiens stars like Serge Savard and Jacques Lemaire. Backing up Gerry Desjardins in Houston, Vachon saw his path to the Canadiens blocked not only by Desjardins but by the tandem of Gump Worsley and Charlie Hodge in Montreal. Worsley had led the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup the last two years and Hodge after winning the Vezina trophy in 1964 shared it with Worsley in 1966.
If an aspiring fiction writer came up with a story of Vachon’s 1966-67 season it would be written off as not being believable. And though Vachon would go to enjoy many successes later on it was this particular season that in many ways was Vachon’s most memorable.
In the fall of 1966 Vachon attended his first Canadiens training camp before being assigned to Houston. The 1966 preseason saw the Canadiens dominate, winning eight of their ten preseason games. One of their losses was a 4-2 defeat to their top farm team in Houston, anchored by the first star of the game; Rogie Vachon.
In the course of the 1966-67 season in Houston, Vachon outplayed Desjardins to become the Apollos starter. In 34 games with Houston he won 17 games, lost 12, and tied 5.
Vachon’s future with the Canadiens was forever changed by a rare visit from Montreal’s general manager Sam Pollock to Houston at the turn of the year. Coming off two Stanley Cups the Canadiens found themselves struggling with mediocrity throughout the fall of 1966 and the early weeks of 1967 as Worsley was injured and Hodge struggled to stay consistent.
“When I went down to our top farm club (Houston), I saw three games,” recalled Pollock later on. “And our young goalie, Rogie Vachon was sensational all three nights, the best player on the ice. It wasn’t a difficult choice really. Vachon was the guy who looked like he could help us the most. You can never have too much goaltending, so we made the decision and up he came.”
On February 18th, 1967 Rogie Vachon made his NHL debut on a Saturday night against the Detroit Red Wings. Despite being out shot 42 to 34 by Detroit, the Canadiens won 3-2 behind the stellar goaltending of Vachon, who was named the games first star.
Almost overnight, Vachon was transformed into the Canadiens newest and brightest star, as Vachonmania gripped Montreal in the spring of 1967. In the nineteen games he played with the Canadiens that spring, Vachon won 11 games, lost 3 games, and tied 4, with one shutout, and a 2.54 goals against average as he led the team to a second place finish.
“Before Rogie came along, we had been playing like a sick team,” remembers Yvan Cournoyer. “But when he joined the team, he seemed to change our luck real fast. It was like, you know when you’re sick, and the doctor gives you the pill. Well, Vachon was our little pill. When he came along, we felt better all of a sudden.”
Led by Vachon, the Canadiens swept the Rangers in the first round to set up a meeting in the finals with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Heading into the finals Vachon was riding a month long personal unbeaten streak.
With his team a decided underdog, Leafs head coach Punch Imlach famously declared that the Canadiens would never beat the Leafs as long as they had a Junior B goaltender manning the nets.
After splitting the first four games of the finals, Vachon gave up four goals in the first two periods of the crucial game five at the Forum, and was pulled for Gump Worsley. Part of the reason for Vachon’s failure to complete his own personal Cinderella story was that the workload had finally caught up to him as he had grown increasingly tired.
In the next game as Vachon sat on the bench, the Leafs clinched the Stanley Cup. Imlach’s quote about Vachon being a Junior B goaltender passed into legend, and unfortunately Rogie has had to live with that stigma to this day.
Despite the disappointing end to his dream season, Vachon had established himself as an NHL goaltender and never played another game in the amateurs. In that summer’s expansion draft Charlie Hodge was chosen by the Oakland Seals and Vachon was now entrenched as the Canadiens number two goaltender behind Gump Worsley.
In 1967-68, his first full year with the Canadiens, Vachon split the teams goaltending duties with Worsley as they shared the Vezina trophy. Vachon won 23 games for the Habs but was only able to see action in two playoff games as Worsley was in the nets as the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup.
The following year 1968-69 saw Vachon begin to establish himself as the Canadiens main man in the nets. In 36 games that year Vachon won 22 games against only 9 losses, tying three to go along with 2 shutouts and a goals against average of 2.87. Once again Vachon found himself watching Worsley from the bench as the Canadiens swept past the Rangers in round one. However, in game three fortune smiled on Vachon, as Worsley broke his finger and had to be replaced.
Given the opportunity, Vachon went with it and over the next eight games won seven games, only lost one, with a miniscule goals against average of 1.42. The Canadiens went on to beat the Bruins and then sweep the Blues to win another Stanley Cup.
Vachon had finally earned his share of Stanley Cup glory. Vachon it seemed, had taken his rightful place as the heir to the great Canadiens goaltending tradition. Little did anybody know at the time, but Vachon had played his last playoff game for the Canadiens.
Early in the next year Worsley left the team for good and Vachon was the number one goaltender for the Canadiens. Playing in 64 games in 1969-70 Vachon posted some of the best numbers of is Canadiens career, setting a career high with 31 wins, against only 18 losses and 12 ties to go with a 2.63 goals against average.
But there was only one statistic that really mattered to the fans, the press, and the team’s management and that was the Canadiens failure to make the playoffs after a disappointing fifth place finish. Being the team’s main goalie, much of the blame was placed at the feet of Vachon. Undoubtedly making matters worse was the performance of Tony Esposito in Chicago. Let go by the Canadiens and picked up by the Chicago Black Hawks in the interleague draft, Esposito had one of the greatest seasons in goaltending history. Esposito set a modern day NHL record with 15 shutouts, won the Calder and the Vezina trophies and was the runner up in the voting for the Hart trophy. For Vachon, this meant the subtle beginnings of the seeds of doubt by others that would spell the end of his tenure with the Canadiens.
Vachon’s 1970-71 season would prove to be his last full season with the Habs. In 47 games he was able to win 23 games, against 12 losses, with 9 ties and a 2.64 goals against average. The Canadiens were unable to gain any consistency during the season and found themselves in the middle of the pack, behind the record setting Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. Of concern to the Canadiens management was the team’s record that year against the Bruins, only one win against five losses, and the fact that Vachon hadn’t beaten Boston all year. Near the end of the season the Canadiens brought up the unknown Ken Dryden. In a situation reminiscent of Vachon’s heroics four years before, Dryden played six games for the Canadiens at the end of the season, winning them all, with a tiny 1.65 goals against average.
Facing the Bruins in the first round, the Canadiens decided to go with Dryden as their starting goaltender. Vachon could only watch from the bench as Dryden led the Canadiens to a first round shocking upset of the Bruins, and followed it up with series wins over the Minnesota North Stars and the Chicago Black Hawks as the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup with Dryden winning the Conn Smythe trophy.
To give you an idea about the type of person and team player Rogie Vachon was. If you watch the old footage of the Canadiens clinching the Cup you will see the players mob Dryden as time expires. One of the first players off the bench jumping into the crowd was Rogie Vachon.
Deep down Vachon knew that his goaltending future didn’t lie with the Canadiens. With Dryden’s success the writing was on the wall. After giving up four goals in one period of action early in the 1971-72 season, Vachon went to Sam Pollock’s office and demanded a trade.
Ironically, Vachon wanted to go to Toronto to play for the Leafs. However, the Leafs with Bernie Parent and Jacques Plante sharing the goaltending duties weren’t interested. Instead the Canadiens traded him to the Los Angeles Kings on November 4th, 1971 for Denis DeJordy, Dale Hoganson, Noel Price, and Doug Robinson.
Vachon’s career had taken an unexpected turn. Instead of becoming the next great Canadiens goaltender, Rogie was shipped to one of the worst teams in the league, a team that was on the NHL’s outer limits, a team that was struggling to gain acceptance in L.A.
Besides the professional change a personal metamorphosis began for Rogie. He grew his hair long and began sporting a prominent Fu Manchu mustache and quickly adapted to the laidback Los Angeles lifestyle as opposed to the pressure cooker of being in Montreal. The professional adjustment was tougher as the Kings finished the 1971-72 season with the second worst record in the NHL.
But with Vachon on their team, the Kings quickly began to improve both on the ice and at the box office.
In 1972-73 the Kings improved by 24 points as Vachon posted a 2.85 goals against average. The next year the Kings advanced to the playoffs and played the Chicago Black Hawks in the first round. Despite Rogie posting a 1.75 goals against average, the Hawks won in five games.
The 1974-75 season would be the highlight of Vachon’s tenure with the Kings. The Kings set a franchise record with 105 points and finished fourth overall in the league standings. The franchise also scored at the gate outdrawing the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers for the first time. In the 54 games he played, the Kings won 27, lost 14, and tied 13. Rogie had a goals against average of 2.24 and was easily the most popular athlete in Los Angeles.
“I felt like I was a pioneer,” says Vachon. “When I came to L.A., the team was so bad that we were out of the playoffs by Christmas. It was a joke. Then we became more respectable under (coach) Bob Pulford, and one year we outdrew the Los Angeles Lakers. We built the foundation in Los Angeles, and it’s still there. I’m very proud of that.”
Rogie had been able to turn the disappointment of Montreal into the opportunity of a lifetime in Los Angeles. And while he didn’t have the team success in L.A. that he had enjoyed with the Canadiens, he was able to become a pioneer as one of the people most directly responsible for the success of hockey on the west coast.
Unfortunately, for the Kings, all the gains of the 1974-75 season would be overshadowed by a first round playoff exit at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs. And although Rogie would shoulder the blame for this loss, his 2.11 goals against average was nothing to be ashamed of. The main culprit of the Kings playoff disappointment was an offense that could only score 6 goals in the three game series.
Rogie would have to console himself with being named the Hockey News player of the year and finishing second in the voting for the Hart trophy.
The 1975-76 season would see the Kings dip down to 83 points and to 6th overall in the NHL standings. However, the Kings would advance past the first round of the playoffs by defeating the Atlanta Flames 2 games to none. In the two games Rogie only gave up one goal. In the second round the Kings bowed out to the Boston Bruins in a tough seven game series. Once again Rogie performed impressively with a playoff goals against average of 2.33, but the Kings lack of offence did them in again. In the seven games against Boston the Kings could only manage 14 goals.
The summer of 1976 presented a unique opportunity for Vachon to prove his greatness. The inaugural Canada Cup was held, and with injuries to both Ken Dryden and Bernie Parent, the starting goaltenders job for Team Canada was wide open. After winning a training camp battle with Gerry Cheevers and Chico Resch, Vachon was named the starter. He did not disappoint. In one of the greatest goaltender performances in International hockey history, Vachon went all the way for Team Canada, playing all seven games, winning six, posting a goals against average of 1.39 for the entire tournament, along with 2 shutouts, and leading Team Canada to the gold medal and being named the tournaments top goaltender.
This was Vachon’s shining moment, proof to the world that he was the equal of any goaltender in the world. But for Rogie it didn’t work out that way. Bobby Orr was named the MVP of the tournament and playing behind a team that included 17 future Hall of Famers, Vachon’s importance to the team was degenerated. The general feeling was that on a team that talented any goaltender could have won the trophy. It was the latest in a long line of disrespect that Vachon would have to endure and it wasn’t the last.
1976-77 for the Kings was a virtual repeat of the year before, as they once again finished 6th overall and beat the Flames in the first round of the playoffs before bowing out to the Bruins in the second round. The following year saw the Kings once again qualify for the playoffs but lose in the first round to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In the summer of 1978 Vachon left the Kings as one of the games first free agents, signing a deal with Detroit that made him the highest paid goalie in the NHL. For both Vachon and the Red Wings the trade was a disaster. After two horrendous years with the Red Wings, he was traded to the Bruins where he retired after two solid years.
After his retirement Rogie went back to L.A. to serve as the Kings general manager for a decade and have his number retired by the team in 1985.
And on the surface that would be the end of the Rogie Vachon story; but it isn’t. More than twenty five years after his retirement Rogie Vachon still hasn’t been elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame; the ultimate show of respect. After all this time, Rogie Vachon still hasn’t been honored for his contribution to hockey for both with his play and his importance in hockey history.
During this time many of Rogie’s contemporaries have been elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame. And while both Ken Dryden and Bernie Parent were the dominating goalies of the decade and are obvious Hall of Famers. The following players are also enshrined, men like Gerry Cheevers, Tony Esposito, and Eddie Giacomin, but not Rogie.
A closer look at each mans career statistics makes you wonder why.
Tony Esposito – 886 games played, 423 wins, 306 losses, 151 ties, 2.92 gaa, 76 shutouts
Rogie Vachon – 795 games played, 355 wins, 291 losses, 127 ties, 2.99 gaa, 51 shutouts
Eddie Giacomin – 609 games played, 289 wins, 209 losses, 96 ties, 2.87 gaa, 54 shutouts
Gerry Cheevers – 418 games played, 230 wins, 102 losses, 74 ties, 2.83 gaa, 26 shutouts
I would argue that Rogie certainly does not look out of place in that group. Now I’m not arguing that these three men shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame. Instead what I’m arguing is that Rogie Vachon should be in the Hall of Fame.
A closer look at their playoff statistics tells another story.
Tony Esposito – 99 games played, 45 wins, 53 losses, 3.07 gaa, 6 shutouts
Gerry Cheevers – 88 games played, 53 wins, 34 losses, 2.69 gaa, 8 shutouts
Eddie Giacomin – 66 games played, 29 wins, 35 losses, 2.81 gaa, 1 shutout
Rogie Vachon – 48 games played, 23 wins, 23 losses, 2.77 gaa, 2 shutouts
Clearly, looking at this Rogie was as good a playoff performer, if not better than Esposito and Giacomin, and not far off Cheevers whose entry into the Hall of Fame was largely based on his reputation as a playoff performer. One could argue that the team Cheevers played on allows his statistics and his reputation to be better than Vachon’s.
That brings us to this point. All three of these goaltenders played on teams that were superior to Vachon. This gives their statistics a push that Vachon doesn’t have, but it does not make them better goalies than him. May I submit that Vachon’s playoff statistics would be much better had he played for the Bruins, Black Hawks, or the Rangers, as opposed to the Kings.
During his playoff career with the Kings, the team averaged 2.43 goals per playoff game that Vachon played. As for the others;
Giacomin – the Rangers averaged 2.76 goals per playoff game for him
Esposito – the Black Hawks averaged 3.02 goals per playoff game for him
Cheevers – the Bruins averaged 3.77 goals per playoff game for him
Vachon wasn’t able to enjoy the playoff cushion these other goalies did. Ironically when he played for the Canadiens the team averaged 3.27 goals per game for him. Coincidentally, he owns two Stanley Cup rings from this period of his career.
This is the main reason Vachon is not in the Hall of Fame, not because he wasn’t as great a goalie as these other men, but because the team he played on in L.A. wasn’t as good and because he didn’t play in the big media centers of Boston, Chicago, and New York.
“Vachon was probably a better goalie than most people thought, but you didn’t even get the Kings scores until two days later, and there were certainly no highlights of him playing.” – Harry Neale
Rogie Vachon played in an era before the 24 hour sports networks. Back in the 1970’s sports highlights were at best a ten minute package at the end of the nightly news. Since the majority of the Kings games didn’t end until one in the morning Eastern time nobody ever got to see Vachon showcased on a consistent basis. And back then not all the games where shown on television like they are now. People were able to watch whomever the Leafs or Canadiens were playing on Saturday night, and quite often that wasn’t the Kings. The only other way to see a team was if they made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, which the Kings didn’t do with Vachon playing. There was no internet so your only way of knowing about the Kings was reading a newspaper on Wednesday that had a box score from a game the Kings played on Monday night.
This lack of exposure has hurt Vachon and people’s memories of his career have suffered as well. We never saw him at his best and most of those memories are only possessed by those who were lucky enough to be in attendance that night. That doesn’t mean that Rogie Vachon, wasn’t one of the great goalies of his day, it means that he is however, the most forgotten and the least respected.