Goaltender Rogie Vachon can't remember who scored the first NHL goal against him, but one of the newest members of the Hockey Hall of Fame knows exactly whom he stopped to record his first save.
"I got called up to Montreal with about 19 games to go. My first game at the Montreal Forum was against Detroit, and my first save was on a total breakaway by Gordie Howe from the blue line in," Vachon recalled. "To this day, I think that save kept me in the game for 16 years."
It was Feb. 18, 1967, when a 21-year-old Vachon was called up from the minors to make his debut against the Detroit Red Wings. He made 41 saves and helped the Canadiens to a 3-2 victory. His mother was in the stands and Vachon earned the game's first star.
"That was a pretty good start," Vachon said with a laugh.
"I've waited such a long time. After a while I started to give up on [making the Hall of Fame]," he said. "I thought nothing was going to happen after all those years, over 30 years of waiting. Finally, I've made it. It's just an incredible feeling."
Vachon played 16 seasons with the Canadiens, Los Angeles Kings, Red Wings and Boston Bruins. He played 795 regular-season games, compiling a 355-291-127 record, including 51 shutouts. He won the Vezina Trophy in 1968 and was part of three Stanley Cup championships in Montreal. After his successful stint with the Canadiens, Vachon was traded at the start of the 1971-72 season to the Kings to make room for a new stud goaltender named Ken Dryden.
"Coming from Montreal [after] winning three Cups in five years and being with the best team ever in the history of the game, and playing with such superstars like Jean Beliveau and Henri Richard ... it was a fantastic time. But it was time for me to move on when Ken Dryden came in," said Vachon, who became a star in L.A. "I wanted to be a No. 1 somewhere. It didn't matter where, and I wound up in Los Angeles, which was a great move when I look back on my career."
Vachon's outstanding career featured plenty of highlights and achievements, but one story in particular became legendary.
Before the 1973-74 season, the Kings held training camp in Victoria, British Columbia. Forward Don Kozak, then 20 and in his second season with the team, was a fitness freak, which was a rarity back in those days. He would prepare for training camp by running the horse trails around the hills near his home in Palos Verdes, California. Occasionally, he would also run for miles on the beach. So, when he arrived at camp, no one could outwork him.
The Kings invited a trainer from the Canadian Armed Forces to work with the team in Victoria. The players spent each morning going through intense weight training and stretching the week before the team began its on-ice training. On Sunday of that week, the Kings had the day off -- but the players were still at the training facility. Vachon, sitting in a recliner at the facility, was watching football, smoking a cigar and drinking a beer.
Lounging comfortably, Vachon called out to Kozak.
"Hey, Kozy. I heard you trained hard this summer," Vachon said.
"Yeah, I ran all summer," Kozak responded.
"Yeah, me too," Vachon said.
Kozak shook his head in disbelief at the notion.
"Bulls---, Rogie. Look at you," Kozak shot back. "You didn't run all summer."
With the cigar and beer in his hand, Vachon tried to convince his teammate that he was indeed in great shape. Behind Memorial Arena was a hill, about 200 yards up and back, so Kozak challenged the goaltender to a race. Other players immediately started placing bets. The race was organized and trainers Real Lemieux and Gilles Marotte got involved.
Kozak had fallen right into Vachon's trap.
The race consisted of 10 laps around the course. The rest of the team stood on the hill and watched, cheering for Vachon.
"I take off like a rabbit," Kozak said. "I was at a real fast pace and I could never see Rogie behind me. I come to the last lap and I still don't see Rogie."
Forward Randy Rota had a slight resemblance to Vachon. So the trainers dressed the two alike and on the last lap, they sent Rota up behind Kozak, who turned and couldn't believe "Vachon" was catching up.
"Holy [expletive]. Where did he come from?" Kozak thought.
Vachon stood nearby in the woods and after Kozak passed, the goaltender jumped out and soon started to win the race.
"He starts passing me and I couldn't believe this. We're coming to the finish line and I tackled him, but he dragged me across the finish line and won the race," Kozak remembered with a laugh. "We had about 15 grand bet on this and I said to Real, 'How are we going to pay this?' I was exhausted and needed help to the dressing room."
Finally, Kozak was told about the ruse and let off the hook.
"It was really funny," he said.
Vachon and Kozak were roommates for many years and remain close friends.
"[Vachon's Hall of Fame election] is special to me because Rogie's a great competitor, a great team player. He never, ever put himself first, no matter what. It was always about the team, and he never took the credit," Kozak said. "When we won, it was a team effort. We were defensive-minded in those days and Rogie made the big saves and got the team fired up. Even at practice, he was a competitor. If you scored on him during practice, he would get pissed. I'm honored to have played with a Hall of Famer. He deserves it."
The only major disappointment of Vachon's career was not bringing a Stanley Cup to Los Angeles during his playing days (1971-78).
He played two seasons in Detroit and another two in Boston before retiring with the Bruins after the 1981-82 season. Vachon had no intention of moving into the management side of the game while he was playing. But after his career ended, his mindset changed and things moved quickly. A season after he retired, the Kings hired Vachon as a goalie consultant. Within a year, he was the GM, replacing George McGuire on Jan, 30, 1984. He also served as an interim coach three times during his 20-year tenure in management.
Vachon didn't win a Cup as a general manager, but he arguably did the next best thing: He was the GM who handled the trade that brought Wayne Gretzky to the Kings (the trade was largely brokered by Kings and Edmonton Oilers ownership). And although he was no longer the GM when the Gretzky-led Kings made the Stanley Cup finals in 1993, Vachon was still with the team that had been largely built under his leadership.
Vachon has seen the game change plenty since his playing days. Today's game is bigger, faster and stronger. The rules are different, but the sport is thriving.
"I like the new style, the new game," Vachon said. "Years ago, they took away all that hooking and grabbing. That style [kept] superstars [from] playing their own game, and when they finally took out all that grabbing, it opened up the game. Now, it's more defensive, but you still have a lot of top players who can play their own game, and it makes it a lot more interesting."
During his playing days, Vachon was generously listed at 5-foot-8. Several NHL goaltenders now reach 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-7, almost a foot taller than Vachon and a lot of the other goalies during his era.
"Goaltending has changed drastically since I was playing," he said. "Now, if you're not 6-foot-2, 6-foot-3, you have a hard time playing goal. And every goalie now has a similar style, dropping to their knees on every shot, but the equipment made a huge difference. The goalies' shoulder pads and everything is so huge and light that there's basically no room [to score].
"The goalie style is totally different. In my day, we used to try to find the puck and react to the puck. Now, they just get into position in goal and they challenge the players to shoot. It's a totally different concept."
Players don't like to talk about their careers until their playing days are over. Vachon has had plenty of time to reflect on his career now that he's being enshrined.
"Well, it means everything, really," Vachon said. "There are only 271 players in the Hall of Fame, so it's really a big honor when you think of the thousands of players who have played over the last 100 years. It's really special."
For the record: Vachon gave up his first goal in his debut against the same man he first stopped, Gordie Howe.
Vachon's next stop, however, will be the Hall of Fame.