For the longest time, people who knew Nicholas Vachon believed his dad Rogie Vachon was in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“They would always introduce me to friends as, ‘yeah, his dad’s in the Hall of Fame.’ And I would always be like ‘actually, he didn’t get inducted,’” said Nicholas. “These are hockey people who just assumed with his career and everything that happened over the years, he had won three Cups and the Canada Cup and he was MVP of the Canada Cup and had had such a long career and his numbers were there.”
This wasn’t a major sore spot for Nicholas or his family. After a while they stopped keeping track of inductions and when calls for inductees would go out.
Then one day last June, they were at Rogie’s house in Venice, California and the phone rang. Lanny McDonlad – chairman of the Hockey Hall of Fame – was on the other line. When McDonald introduced himself, Rogie thought, “why would he call me?” Then McDonald delivered the news.
“All of a sudden he said ‘congratulations you’re in.’ So I hesitated a little bit and I was like ‘I’m in what?’ He said, ‘you made the Hall,’” Rogie said.
To people who knew and watched the 71-year-old Vachon, this honor was long overdue. In Los Angeles, Vachon was a transformative figure who kept the Kings competitive and made them a draw as they tried to find their footing in Southern California. The official induction will come Monday night in Toronto.
“You see someone who is going to be on the ice the whole game and make some of the acrobatic saves he would make, so he was a huge factor in keeping the team here and keeping attendance fairly good,” longtime Kings play-by-play announcer Bob Miller said. “(The attendance) wasn’t great in those days, but I think he was a factor for most people came to the games.”
Vachon came to Los Angeles by way of the Montreal Canadiens after the 1970-71 season. With the Habs, he had won three Stanley Cups and a Vezina Trophy, but he believed he didn’t have a chance to unseat Ken Dryden as the team’s starting goaltender. He needed a fresh start and he got that with the Kings, a team that had started play just three years earlier.
The 5-foot-7, 170-pound Vachon was the Hart Trophy runner-up in 1974-75, a year where he held a 2.24 goal-against average and notched six shutouts in 54 games played. That season, Los Angeles finished with 105 points, which is still a franchise record. He currently ranks second on the Kings behind Jonathan Quick in organizational games played (389), wins (171) and shutouts (32). Vachon’s number 30 is one of six retired by Los Angeles in the organization’s history.
As teams that came into the Western part of the United States in the 60s and 70s like the California Golden Seals and Colorado Rockies, foundered and eventually moved, Los Angeles stayed put. The organization attributed Vachon’s play to keeping them afloat in the years before they acquired enough talent to win on a more consistent basis.
“You always felt with Rogie in goal you always had a chance to win the game and even if you were playing a strong team,” Miller said. “The Kings weren’t a strong team at that time but you had a chance in those games. It was like putting your best pitcher on the mound in a Game 7. You have a chance to win it.”
Even though he was on the shorter side, Vachon was known for his quickness and reflexes. He would try to give the shooter the upper portion of the net on his glove side, and then snap up his catching hand and snare the puck before it could go into the net.
“I think he had the fastest glove hand I’d seen,” Miller said. “He wasn’t huge stature wise like goalies are today. I guess for those years he was a stereotypical type goaltender as far as size and weight but he had great agility and was the first real superstar the Kings had in my opinion.”
Washington Capitals goaltending coach Mitch Korn runs several summer goaltending camps and shows his students a DVD Vachon in the 1967 playoffs with the Canadiens. Vachon was not wearing a mask at this point, and Korn believes Vachon’s game in that postseason is the best example of how a goaltender can play with bravery and flair.
“It was a whole different era because you could be 5-foot-7 and play,” Korn said. “You talk about needing courage to play now because of the way guys shoot etc., but try playing without a mask regardless if you want to talk about courage.”
Added Korn, “He just was very quick. He skated really well … he was really athletic and dynamic and mobile and fearless.”
The problem for Vachon was that very few people around the league actually saw his exploits live or even on television. In Los Angeles, only 15 games were broadcast and they were all on the road. Vachon made the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1975, but he didn’t receive much more national publicity.
As a kid growing up in Quebec, Kings president Luc Robitaille said he didn’t know much about Vachon’s exploits because he didn’t see many Kings games.
“The only time you saw Kings games was when they came to Montreal which was once a year if I recall and that was it, you know?” Robitaille said. “I saw him in 1976 at the Canada Cup, but that was pretty much it because he was in LA and we didn’t see enough games.”
Vachon then spent two seasons with the Detroit Red Wings and two with the Boston Bruins before retiring after the 1981-82 season. Over his career he had 355 wins (currently 19th in NHL history, but fifth when he retired) and held a 2.99 goal-against average in 795 career games.
At that point, it seemed he would probably get called for the Hall of Fame once he was eligible, but that moment never came. Eventually Vachon just stopped paying attention to any sort of Hall of Fame buzz that involved his potential induction.
“After that many years, over thirty years, I totally ignored it,” Vachon said. “I figured, ‘well, it’s not going to happen’ and ‘why worry about it?’ I just let it go and didn’t know when the votings were in Toronto and never paid attention to that.”
Robitaille, who is a member of the Hall of Fame’s selection committee, was one of the first people to know about the decision last June to add Vachon to the Hall. Robitaille also knew Vachon well because of the Kings connection and wanted to call as many people from the organization as possible to let them know about Vachon but couldn’t until McDonald broke the news.
“It was really, really hard for me to hold my emotions because I was so excited but I couldn’t call anybody so it was hard and I kept thinking ‘c’mon Lanny, just make the call so we know’ so they let me know when they were making the call so right away I could call a couple of people in our organization and Rogie himself to congratulate him. We’re pretty excited. It has been a long time coming for him,” Robitaille said. “It’s a big deal for us. This guy represents us.”
The moment was bittersweet for Vachon, who had lost his wife Nicole to a brain tumor recently. After McDonald gave him the news, Vachon got emotional on the call.
“I was joking to start with and then he was speechless and then he said unfortunately his wife had passed away a year ago but he said how proud she would have been to know he had been selected for the Hall,” McDonald said. “For him the emotions were all across the board, but the bottom line was he was so thankful and so overwhelmed that he had finally entered the Hockey Hall of Fame.”
Said Vachon, “She was a great lady and had a great sense of humor and some nights after a bad game you know, she was always with me and encouraging me and always pushing for the best. We had a great time together.”
According to Nicholas, Nicole badly wanted Rogie to make the Hall of Fame, which made the moment even tougher.
“It’s hard for my dad because obviously they had been together for years, since … for his whole career and everything after as (the Kings’) general manager and president and everything else. They had been through everything together,” Nicholas said. “I think it will be hard for everybody but especially for him that she’s not. But maybe she had something to do with it. Maybe she helped with something. Who knows.”
Rogie said he plans to have close to 20 family members in Toronto on this day. Though there will be sadness because of Nicole, it’s still a long overdue celebratory moment that will be recognized.
“I think it’s really the ultimate,” Rogie said. “For an athlete going into the Hall of Fame, this is it.”
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