There were four people interested in buying Mike Vernon’s house. He had their names and numbers. One day, not too long ago, he told his wife, “Maybe we better call them.” This is how you think when you’re not playing. Brace for the worst.
“I figured they had no reason to keep me if I wasn’t playing, so I’d be traded somewhere else,” he says. “When that happens during the season, you get on a plane and your wife gets stuck with the movers. I was trying to help her out.”
Fortunately, his wife, Jane, had better instincts. “We are not calling anybody until something actually happens,” she said.
Here’s what happened. Vernon went from backup to front- runner. From sitter to starter. From expendable to invaluable. It is one of the most magical and mystifying stories in the NHL playoffs. Vernon is 34, in his 14th NHL season, and since he spends nights trying to stop a small piece of rubber from getting past him, you’d think funny bounces would not catch him off guard.
You would be wrong.
“Don’t ask me, I have no idea why Scotty (Bowman) started me in the playoffs,” he says, chewing a sandwich before the Red Wings leave for the airport and Colorado and the Western Conference finals. “I didn’t ask him. I haven’t asked him.
“But I was as shocked as anyone.”
Being shocked must agree with him. Vernon, the red-headed Canadian who has been playing goalie since he was 4 years old, has now won eight of 10 playoff games, and has a 1.80 goals- against average — which is his best ever in the playoffs, even better than the year he won the Stanley Cup with Calgary.
How crazy is this? If the Wings go on to win the championship, and Vernon stays in net, he will end up winning more games in the playoffs than he did all regular season.
They call that saving your best for last.
His many moods
“Some coaches prefer a guy with experience,” Vernon says, taking a stab at why he suddenly became so valuable to Bowman. “It’s not a deep dark tunnel to me. I’ve been through it.
“Then again — and this may sound bad — but most coaches are two-faced. They almost have to be. When things are going well, you’re their guy. But when you’re losing, well, they get paid to win. They’ll turn on you on a dime.”
It may sound odd to hear such blunt talk from a goalie, but then Vernon’s personality is as layered as his equipment. He can be, at times, all of the following: intelligent, belligerent, talkative, curt, gentle, abrupt, humorous and devoid of a sense of humor. He has been known to snap at reporters — particularly those who ask a question that already has been asked — yet I find that when you get him alone, he often gives 10-minute answers.
“I have my moods,” Vernon admits. “I can be a bear with a sore ass.”
He also can throw a punch. Remember the last time Colorado played Detroit, when Vernon left the net and went chugging toward Patrick Roy, who had left his net to help Claude Lemieux, who was getting his face pounded by Darren McCarty?
“My fisticuffs,” Vernon calls that incident now. Others might call it America’s Funniest Home Video. Vernon and Roy tried their best to make like Ali-Foreman, but it was more like The Michelin Man vs. Sir Lancelot.
“Usually, you want to get your gloves off so you can grab something,” Vernon says. “But Patrick still had one glove on. Half the time my head was stuck inside his glove.”
He does not say he won the fight; he does not say he lost. He warns fans not to root for any rematches in this Colorado series, but he expects the Wings to be edgy. “I think it’s good to be mean on the ice. I always tell them, ‘If you want to be a nice guy, get an office job. You can be a nice guy there.’ “
Which brings us to the subject of young Chris Osgood, who passes Vernon in the food room and asks how he is getting to the airport. Vernon and Osgood, who have been close as teammates, sit next to each other in the Wings’ locker room. It is cruel geography. Each night, the reporters mob around the active goalie, and the inactive one has to push through the crowd just to be ignored while he dresses.
For a while, Vernon was the ignored one. Now it’s Osgood.
“Do you think this will affect your friendship?” Vernon is asked.
“I hope not. I know what’s happening to him isn’t fair. Not playing in these playoffs so far is probably the lowest point of his career. It’s a slap. But it will make him a better goaltender. It will make him hungrier.
“And it’ll make life easier when he’s my age and still going through this stuff.”
Vernon admits he has no idea whether he’ll be back here next year. His contract is up. But there is this one clause — which he asked to be inserted
— that says the Wings owe him another year if he wins the Stanley Cup. Which of course would mean he wouldn’t have to move. And his wife wouldn’t have to pack.
So how can you not root for the guy? He is not only playing for the title, he’s playing for house and home.
Some story, huh? The slogan for his contract could read “Win Stanley Cup, Keep Mike Vernon.”
But it might be the other way around.