If you grew up in Western Canada and are a hockey fan, there is a good chance that you either root for the Calgary Flames or Edmonton Oilers.
In the mid to late 80′s, the Oilers dominated the hockey world en route to winning five Stanley Cups thanks to a high-powered offense and timely goaltending from Grant Fuhr and Bill Ranford. At the other end, the Flames were always a good hockey team but somehow continued to finish one step behind Gretzky and the Oilers.
That all changed in 1989 when the Flames defeated the Montreal Canadiens to win their first Cup in franchise history. While they did it with a great offense and some tight defense, they also got it done with the goaltending of Mike Vernon.
Fifteen years later, the Flames returned to the Cup Final and lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games. Unlike the Flames of 1989, this team did not score a lot of goals and instead, relied on the outstanding netminding of Miikka Kiprusoff.
Without Vernon and Kiprusoff, the Flames would have never gotten to win or come close to winning hockey’s Holy Grail. With these masked men between the pipes, the Flames were always either a playoff contender or a dark horse to make some noise at the time that mattered most.
When you are an NHL goaltender in Canada, there is no doubt that the pressure to perform is high.
For Mike Vernon, the pressure was double because not only was he the starting goaltender for the Flames, but he was also born and raised in Calgary. In his 10 seasons with the Flames, it is safe to say that Vernon more than lived up to the pressure that was bestowed upon him by the place he grew up in.
In 1986, Vernon’s strong play between the pipes helped get the Flames to their first Cup Final in beating the Winnipeg Jets, Oilers and Chicago Blackhawks. Unfortunately for Vernon and the Flames, the team would lose to the Canadiens and rookie goaltender Patrick Roy in the Final.
It was ultimately Vernon’s play in the post-season that earned him the starting job in the 86-87 season, in which he won 30 games. Vernon was even better the following season when he posted 39 wins, was named to the All-Star game (his first of four consecutive appearances in that event) and led his Flames’ to the President’s Trophy as the league’s top team.
While Vernon did not get his team back to the Final in those two seasons, he would come through in a big way in the 1988-89 season. The regular season turned out to be one of the best in his career as he led the league in wins (37), had a solid GAA for that time (2.65), was named to the second All-Star Team and finished second in voting for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best netminder behind Roy.
However, it was not the Vezina that Vernon was after. In the postseason, Vernon was stellar in making clutch saves against the Vancouver Canucks, Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks and in the Final, Roy and the Canadiens for the team’s first and only Cup in franchise history.
Lee Snowden, a self-admitted Flames fan and a great source for hockey information on Twitter, says that even though he was a youngster back then, he remember how big Vernon came up for his hockey team when they needed him the most.
“I particularly remember him making heart-stopping saves late in playoff games in the late 80′s,” Snowden said. “Vernon was one of the top goaltenders in the NHL and having a guy like that only helps your chances.”
Before having his jersey retired by the Flames in February of 2007, Hockey Hall of Famer and Flames’ Cup-winning goal hero Lanny McDonald expressed his appreciation for Vernon’s goaltending.
“Vernie is the biggest reason we are wearing Stanley Cup rings,” McDonald, who scored the Flames’ Cup-clinching goal against the Montreal Canadiens, told Sun Media.
“Calgary can be proud of its hometown boy.”
Calgary’s other great goaltender, who is still playing today, is not local by any means.
Rather, Kiprusoff is from Finland and took a rather strange road to Calgary. “Kipper” was taken by the San Jose Sharks in the fifth round as the 116th overall pick in the 1995 NHL Entry Draft.
Before joining the Sharks, Kiprusoff was very successful in the AHL with the Sharks’ farm team. He made the AHL All-Star team in consecutive seasons (2000 and 2001) and led his team to a division final in 2000.
When it came to playing up with the Sharks, however, Kiprusoff was very inconsistent. As such, the Finnish goaltender was traded to the Flames in November of 2003 after the Flames lost then starting goaltender Roman Turek to an injury.
From that point on, everything was different for the Flames between the pipes. In 38 games with his then new club, Kiprusoff went 24-10-4 with a 1.69 GAA, a .933 save percentage and four shutouts.
Kiprusoff’s strong play continued that post-season, which turned out to be quite a magical one for the Flames until it ended in heartbreak in Game 7 of the Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. That post-season, Kiprusoff stole the show in winning 15 games, posting a 1.85 GAA, having a .928 save percentage and picking up 5 shutouts.
At the end of the Flames’ magical run, Kiprusoff was named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy and finished the year with a modern record low GAA of 1.69. Had it not been for Kiprusoff’s goaltending that regular season and postseason, the Flames probably would have never made it that far in the first place.
While the Flames’ have yet to get back to the final since 2004, one certainly cannot put the blame on Kiprusoff. He has averaged over 30 wins a season, has gotten the Flames into the playoffs in four of the last seven seasons, has been an NHL First Team All-Star (2005-2006), played in the All-Star game (2007), is a Vezina Trophy Winner (2006) and an all around good team player.
“For the past 7-8 years, Kiprusoff has shown all of us that he is one of the most skilled goaltenders in the NHL,” Snowden said. “He has often taken the team on his back and fans in Calgary will say if not for Miikka, it would have been a long 8 years.”