by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

As a man who would like to see a Stanley Cup come to Detroit before Bruce Willis makes “Die Hard IV: My Hair Falls Out,” I propose a deal with the city of Birmingham. That is the city in which the Red Wings’ goalie, Mike Vernon, lives. Birmingham.

Here is the deal:

If the Wings reach the Stanley Cup finals, you stop drilling your sewers until they capture the title, OK?

Or better yet, how about stopping right now? Today? In the second round of the playoffs? Shut ’em down. I’m serious here.

Every morning, around 7, the drills begin in Birmingham, rattling the quiet in Vernon’s parkside neighborhood. “They’re doing something with the septic systems,” he says, rolling his eyes. “It’s a racket.”

This cannot be good for a goalie’s nerves — as though a goalie had any to spare. Just think. You spend all night whacking 100-mile-per-hour pucks away from your head, you take a long, hot shower, you drive home, settle into bed, close your eyes and . . .


I mean, come on, Birmingham, whose side are you on here? Sewers? Why not make something more indigenous to your area, like cappuccino?


Scratch that. Too much noise in the steamer.

And caffeine?

Vernon doesn’t need to get jumpy. Already, he is a whirling dervish. You watch him go through interviews, and you notice he talks quickly, he moves in halting motions, he laughs, then stops laughing, laughs again, sits forward, sits back. Maybe such darting motion is what makes him an ace in the net.

Still, when I ask Vernon — who has won five of his six Wings playoff games so far — how he stays nice and calm out there, this is what he says: “I’m not as not nervous as you think.”

And Birmingham wants to drill at 7 a.m.?

What is it trying to do, push him over the edge? His only goal was to play goal

The saving grace here is that Vernon, a solidly built, wavy- haired, slightly cocky 32-year-old, was born to be a goaltender. He has no choice. Even jackhammers couldn’t shake him from his job.

This is a kid, raised in Calgary, the son of a hockey coach, who brought his pads and gloves to school and put them in the coat room alongside the other kids’ boots and jackets. From his “diaper league days,” he never — never — played forward or defenseman. He went straight to the net.

“Goalies didn’t sit the bench,” he explains.

When Vernon was 6, he was given a goalie mask. He immediately took it home and spray-painted it green, the color of his team. (Of course, at that age, his team probably took naps between periods.)

The next day he wore the mask — even though it was still a little sticky
— and when the game ended, he took it off. The kids started laughing.

His face was covered in green paint.

You could say the job stained him right there. But it wasn’t done testing his nerves. Vernon led the Calgary Flames to a Stanley Cup in 1989, then spent the next five years besieged by fans in his hometown. They wouldn’t just say hello in restaurants, shops, the street. No. They would ask him questions.
“What about that goal last night? . . . When are we going back to the finals?
. . . What about the other goal last night?”

“It got to be that come the playoffs, I would only eat in places where I knew the owner and he could hide me in a back room,” Vernon says.

After the ’89 championship, even though he had excellent regular seasons, Calgary never got beyond the first round of the playoffs. Things got so bad that at one point Vernon went to a local basketball game — to watch a team in which he was part investor — and the fans heckled him.

They heckled him? And he owned the team?

Whatever happened to executive privilege? Through sickness, health . . . and trades

Wait. We’re not through. Vernon decided to get married, and the week of the wedding, the Flames traded him to Detroit. Now. Anyone who has ever tied the knot knows the week of the wedding, you can blink and the bride and groom start screaming at each other.

And here he was, traded half a continent away.

All of which makes me think that — even with his outward calm and stellar performance in the net so far — we don’t need to push Mike Vernon’s nerves. True, he is the answer to last year’s Detroit prayers — those prayers being
“Get us some goaltending!” — and true, in his six playoff games he has a goals-against average of 1.67.

“The key is not being great,” he says, “the key is being consistent.”

Except in the playoffs, where, for goalies, the key is being consistently great. This is asking a lot.

So we ask Birmingham a little.

Take June off, B-Town. Let the man get some sleep. Or drill at night. Or during road trips. The septic system isn’t going anywhere. Besides, think of how happy your citizens will be if Vernon stays hot and the Wings win the Cup. There’ll be lots of celebrations in Birmingham, and people will drink lots of cappuccino — and maybe even feel kooky enough to go into a local store and pay $200 for a bathrobe.

I am hoping this works. I am hoping this makes Vernon sleep better. This is all that’s bothering you, isn’t it, Mike?

“Actually, there’s this bird that comes by every morning and makes a hell of a racket, too.”

OK. Where’s Ted Nugent? . . .


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