Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Where Are They Now: Mike Vernon

Mike Vernon. Calgary Flames. 1989 Stanley Cup

For 21 National Hockey League seasons, Mike Vernon prevented the opposition from putting pucks in the net.

These days, Vernon is still a gatekeeper of sorts. But as vice president of the Bear Mountain Resort in British Columbia, he’s trying to let everyone in.

Visitors to this resort who aren’t hockey fans will see this sharp-dressed 5-foot-9 man walking the grounds and have no clue that he won two Stanley Cups, played for four NHL teams and faced legendary players — such as his long-time rival, Patrick Roy.

The Vernon-Roy rivalry began in 1986 when Vernon’s Calgary Flames lost the Stanley Cup Finals to Roy’s Montreal Canadiens. Three years later, Vernon, still with Calgary, won the first of his two Stanley Cups. That same year, Roy won the Vezina Trophy. Another memorable moment came in the 1996 Western Conference Finals when Roy, now with Colorado, helped the Avalanche eliminate Detroit, whose No. 1 goaltender was Vernon.

But during the 1996-97 season, their rivalry took another twist. On March 26, 1997, Vernon won his 300th game in a 6-5 overtime Detroit victory over Colorado. However, that milestone was overshadowed by a line brawl which featured a center ice fight between Vernon and Roy.

That wasn’t the only time Vernon was victorious over Roy that season. In a Western Conference Finals rematch, Vernon and Red Wings swept Roy and the Avalanche in four games. Vernon would lead Detroit to their first Stanley Cup in 41 years and receive the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the playoffs.

“It takes certain ingredients to win the Stanley Cup — a great team and a little luck,” Vernon said about that memorable season, “and we had both. It was a great honor I dreamed about since childhood.”

As for battling against Roy, Vernon left his feelings on the ice.

“He’s a great goaltender and competitor,” Vernon said of his rivalry with Roy. “I think there’s mutual respect there. We both stick up for our teammates. That’s the sport.”

“The sport” also involves change. After that Stanley Cup season, Vernon was traded to the Sharks before the 1997-98 campaign. Vernon, along with Kelly Hrudey, gave the Sharks two credible Stanley Cup Finals-tested veterans in net, a necessary ingredient as the Sharks were building a foundation to compete. Over the next two-plus seasons, Vernon won 52 games and posted nine shutouts. Most importantly, in his first year (1997-98), Vernon won 30 games and helped the Sharks start a run of five consecutive playoff seasons.

When the 1999-00 season began, Vernon and Steve Shields were San Jose’s goaltenders. But on Dec. 30, 1999, Vernon was traded to Florida. Two days later, a rookie named Evgeni Nabokov made his debut in relief of Shields at Nashville.

While the trade would eventually create an opportunity for a future Calder Memorial Trophy winner and two-time NHL All-Star, Vernon was shocked when he got the news. “(Head Coach Darryl Sutter) told me to get ready to play the second half of the season. I was well rested and ready to play,” Vernon said. “I was completely thrown for a loop because I felt like we finally had all the pieces to challenge for the Stanley Cup. I was very disappointed.”

Vernon would finish the season with the Panthers before concluding his career by returning to his native Calgary for his last two seasons with the Flames. When he retired, Vernon had 385 wins, 27 shutouts and a 2.98 goals-against average. He’s still Calgary’s all-time leader in games played (526) and wins (262).

Vernon may have been disappointed about not staying in San Jose, but there’s no hard feelings. “The Sharks have great ownership,” Vernon said. “It was great to play for an organization that wanted to win and was willing to take risks to put a winning product on the ice. My wife and I enjoyed living there. It’s one of the best places to live.”

Lately, there’s been some rumblings in the hockey community about Vernon making the Hockey Hall of Fame. “If they (the nominators) believe I’m worthy, great,” he said. “But regardless, I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. The Hockey Hall of Fame is out of my control.”

What’s in his control these days is the success of Bear Mountain, located in Victoria, which is southwest of Vancouver on Vancouver Island. Vernon was introduced to the resort business by Len Barrie, one of his former Florida teammates. Barrie, now one of the owners of the Tampa Bay Lightning, went into real estate development after retirement and became CEO and president of the resort. Vernon got involved with Bear Mountain a few years ago when Barrie asked him to look at the resort in its planning phase.

“Things are going well, but it’s a big project. The first 15 years are the most important for development and sustainability,” Vernon said. “Len and I used to travel around a lot to play golf all over the United States. We noticed there weren’t any golf resorts in Canada. We wanted to bring this concept to the west coast of Victoria because it has the best weather and caters to a huge tourist population.”

Bear Mountain has a golf course, housing, conference rooms, workout facilities and a little village with shops, markets and pubs. Facility guests can partake in numerous activities such as hiking, biking, kayaking and salmon fishing.

Vernon’s involvement with Bear Mountain coincides with his passion for golf. “Golf is just a good game,” he said. “I played as a kid. During the summer, I’d go workout for hockey and then head to the golf course. In fact, I owned a small course outside of Calgary.”

While Vernon is busy with the resort and being with his family, which includes four children, he’s still involved in hockey. He helps coach his children’s teams and is also Tampa Bay’s special assistant to the executive vice president of hockey operations. Vernon assists in hockey-related matters and provides guidance to the team’s goaltenders.

But despite all of the demands in his life, Vernon said family is No. 1. “It’s the time in my life where I need to focus on being a father and husband,” he said. “I want to be able to provide for them but also be there to experience as much as possible with them. My hope for the future is to live as normal a life as possible and spend time with my family and friends.”

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