As the NHL advances through the dying days of its Stanley Cup playoffs, others recant the stories of their gloried past. The days when they, too, awoke every morning with only hockey on their minds, hoping desperately to accomplish their life-long dream of hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup.
For Calgary native Mike Vernon, who also spends a significant portion of time in the Columbia Valley, it’s remembering the days as a member of the Calgary Flames in 1989 and the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 when he was able to carve his name onto hockey’s most prized trophy.
For Vernon, his shot came early, with only 21 regular season games under his belt in 1986, that he took on the starter’s role and marched his Flames all the way to the Cup finals where they lost to the Montreal Canadiens in just five games.
Vernon said the experience of coming that close to your dream only to watch it brush by him like a stranger in a crowd was an important point to his future success.
“I never thought that I’d get another opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup,” he said. “I was totally exhausted. I’d played all 22 playoff games, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Will I ever get another opportunity?’ That always rings through a player’s mind after a loss in a Stanley Cup. You work all year and all your life from being a peewee hockey player to playing in the National Hockey League to win a cup.”
The loss proved to be a stepping-stone for Vernon as he was one of the league’s finest goaltenders in the 1988-89 season, finding himself once again facing Patrick Roy and the Canadiens for the Cup.
“Yes, you’re nervous, yes, the butterflies are going and, yes, you’re up against the Montreal Canadiens again,” Vernon said of his feelings of the time. “What happened in ’86 was still stuck in our minds and you just want a better outcome and that was the driving force amongst all of us.”
This time, the Flames were victorious, marking the first Stanley Cup championship in Flames history. It was special for Vernon too, because it took another six years before he was back in the Stanley Cup finals, this time in a Detroit Red Wings jersey.
Similar to his first Cup run with the Flames, this one left a bitter taste in Vernon’s mouth as the New Jersey Devils swept the Red Wings to win the 1995 Stanley Cup.
Luckily for Vernon, he had a chance at redemption two seasons later in the finals against the Philadelphia Flyers. There, Vernon put on the performance of his career, posting a 16-4 win-loss record to go with a 1.76 goals against average to win the Conn Smythe Trophy — awarded to the playoff MVP — and more importantly, his second Stanley Cup.
For Vernon, the journey showed him just how hard it was to win a hockey’s most prestigious award.
“When you look at it, there are not that many names on the Cup so it’s a very prestigious award and it’s not that easy to win,” he said. “It’s a difficult thing getting there and it’s even more difficult thing winning it. It’s a war, it’s a battle and it’s very unpredictable.”
It was in that season, on March 26th, 1997, that Vernon stumbled upon the key ingredient to forming a Cup championship-calibre team. A line brawl broke out in a game between the Colorado Avalanche and his Red Wings with Avalanche goaltender Patrick Roy leaving his net, forcing Vernon to do the same. The result was one of the most infamous fights in NHL history, collectively garnering over a million views on YouTube. For Vernon, it carried with it something different.
“From our team and our standpoint, when we looked back, we all go back to that moment because that really gelled us as a team,” he said. “You looked out and guys were sticking up for one another; that’s what it’s all about.”
Vernon said what made championship teams wasn’t the players themselves, but the solidarity that teams grew throughout the season off the ice in activities as simple as team dinners and as unique as paintball wars.
Today, Vernon still watches the playoffs intently, thinking about how the game’s changed. He understands the pressure that 21-year-old Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray is under, who is on his own quest for Lord Stanley.
He can sit comfortably knowing he’s one of the few to have his name etched on the Cup forever.
“It’s like going to university and getting your degree,” Vernon said. “It’s something to be proud of. You worked hard for it, you dedicated yourself to it and you achieved it. It’s important to know that no one can take that away from you.”