Sometimes you find things in unlikely places. Like the truth about Rogie Vachon. You could find it in my book, Living the Hockey Dream, or in another one I wrote, Facing Wayne Gretzky. Or you could talk to now-LA Kings’ goalie Peter Budaj, as I did Saturday after the Kings game versus New Jersey.
But you won’t find it asking the Kings coach. Why this is, I can’t explain. But he is famous for his truculent reluctance in press conferences.
Saturday afternoon, I asked Sutter about Vachon, starting by saying, “Thinking about Rogie, you were 13, 14 years old . . .” and he quickly interrupted.
“I played against Rogie.”
“But do you remember him as a sort of heroic figure?” I followed up. I wanted at the least a snippet. I hoped for a moment, one of those times when he gets nostalgic, warm even. After all, he’s the right age to have had Rogie as a hero.
But he continued on the same tack. “Yeah, I played against Rogie. I cheered for Toronto, Chicago. Then I played against him when he was in, I think in other places.” Pause. “I think also, as part of the, it’s been awesome for Rogie, well deserved, long time coming, it should have been a lot earlier, but I think also they should have, should also remember as part of the Hall of Fame induction this year Pat Quinn was a Los Angeles Kings coach, too. Nobody’s talked about that one yet.”
When he was told that it had been written about, he said, “I don’t read the paper,” with a chuckle. So the encounter turned charming in the end, in the quirky way that can get mislabeled with that word when Sutter is involved, but it left me asking why.
Why not just answer the question? I’m not asking for the words of God himself. Just some words, even clichés. But better, something personal. “Yeah, I had his hockey card. I remember the NHL Power Players stickers’ picture of him.” That’s what I would have said, because I did and do have his card, and those memories.
So no, Sutter didn’t have anything much to say about Rogie. But interestingly enough, current LA Kings’ goalie Budaj did. He was born in 1982, the year that Rogie retired after playing since 1966-67. Those first games, by the way, happened with no mask.
Anyway, how did Budaj know the man? He told me the story:
“I actually remember, that Rogie Vachon was the only goalie that exchanged the jerseys in the, was it World Cup or World Championships or Olympics against Czechoslovakia. Team Canada played, in 1976, and I read the book of the Czechoslovakian goalie, Vladimir Dzurilla. They exchanged the jerseys. That was the only time they did it. That’s how I kind of knew who he was before I came to the States when I was 16. I knew who he was.”
He went on to talk about the present day: “It’s pretty cool to see him there. It’s an amazing achievement to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. All the stuff that he achieved as a player, as management too, it’s amazing. Congratulations to him for his hard work and dedication. It’s a great achievement, and I’m glad I was able to be there when they celebrated his induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame.” (For details on that, see my story “No Streaks Here,” on the game.)
He finished by saying that his heroes as a child were Marty Brodeur and Pat Roy, and that he also admired Dzurilla, who was Slovakian. “He battled such superstars as Vachon, and that’s why he is to be respected.”
And since we’re telling stories, here’s mine:
I grew up in Montreal. The first time I knew hockey existed was the playoffs of 1971, when Ken Dryden, who would quickly become my hero, was winning the Stanley Cup over Chicago for the Habs. Meanwhile, on the bench, Rogie was backing up. Phil Myre also played a bunch of games for the Canadiens that year, when Dryden came in at the end of the season and then was the netminder for the whole playoffs.
So even though I watched those games, I never knew Rogie as a Hab, though his Power Players stamp, which I do recall, has him in Montreal, in his deep crouch that would become so familiar. Fortunately for him, by that time, he was wearing a mask.
He was traded away shortly after the start of the next season, to LA. I do remember him as a Kings player. The image on his cards is indelible in my mind, and the artifacts are residing in my bookcase right now.
As kids, we talked about Rogie. Mostly, we reassured each other that we knew his real name, Rogatien, not uncommon, I suppose, at least to pronounce in the bilingual Montreal of the 1970s. And we also knew him as a goalie, one of the romanticized figures of our childhoods along with Cheevers, Giacomin, and Tony Esposito. Their masks, the way their hair stuck out from the straps, their stances. We had all of these memorized, and we reenacted their great saves in our living rooms and schoolyards. They were the substance of our childhoods.
I have had the pleasure of knowing Vachon a little bit as a reporter, now covering my 500th NHL game. I have his phone number, a fact that I hold sacred and would never abuse in a million seasons of hockey. I have talked to him for the books I mentioned above. He has always been the most kindly, gracious of men. He could teach Daryl Sutter a lot about how to deal with people, actually.
I’m also very proud to have been part of the lobbying effort on his behalf which (I hope) helped to make possible his induction.
One time Rogie said something like this to me, speaking of his goalie mask: “It’s there, in the Hall of Fame. I’m not there, but it’s there.”
Now that’s corrected, which is to the benefit of hockey history. And the Kings did right by him with a day, a lovely watch, and the reminder that his number (#30) was the first one they retired, back in 1985.
Those books would make great Christmas gifts. Amazon them here: