Poor Rogatien Vachon. It wasn't supposed to be like this. Rogie was going to arrive in Detroit, don his familiar No. 30 jersey and then justify the Red Wings' $1.9 million faith in him by playing goal for them in the same stingy manner he had for the Los Angeles Kings for six seasons. The Detroit fans were going to go wild over him, and the Red Wings—the NHL's most improved team a year ago—were going to win big. Yeah, Vachon's life was going to be magnifique.
Instead, the Red Wings have won just six games out of 21; the Detroit press is calling Million-Dollar Rogie a "Nickel Goalie"; Red Wing fans are jeering Vachon and cheering the No. 2 goalie. Jimmy Rutherford; and Vachon—wearing the unfamiliar and clearly jinxed No. 40 on his back—is sporting a 4.21 goals-against average and a record of 3-7-3 following last Saturday night's 4-0 loss to the Blues in St. Louis. For Vachon, life has been—how do you say?—ze pits.
It may even get worse, if that's possible. Detroit signed Vachon as hockey's highest-priced free agent last summer, but the Red Wings have not yet provided compensation to the Kings as required by NHL rules. An independent arbitrator did rule that Detroit must send 21-year-old Center Dale McCourt, who was the leading Red Wing scorer as a rookie last season and the symbol of the team's revival, to Los Angeles as payment for Vachon. However, McCourt challenged the compensation clause in the NHL's collective-bargaining agreement, and a circuit court judge in Detroit subsequently ruled in McCourt's favor, allowing him to remain in Detroit. The NHL has appealed that decision. If the judge's ruling is reversed, McCourt will be ordered to Los Angeles.
This possibility has only increased the pressure on the diminutive Vachon, who enjoyed a tranquil existence in Southern California while establishing himself as the most valuable goaltender in the NHL. As Vachon said after Detroit lost its opening game of the home season to the doleful Blues, and after Red Wing fans had loudly booed him and littered the ice around his cage with debris, "Imagine what the crowd would have been like if we'd had to give up Dale."
December 4, 1978
In his forgettable Detroit debut Vachon played more like the Ancient Mariner, who stoppeth one of three, than the highest-paid goaltender in hockey—and one who had a tidy 2.78 goals-against average for his 12 seasons in the NHL. He gave up two easy goals, made nine saves, and Detroit, which outshot St. Louis 42-14, lost the game 5-4.
"When we signed Vachon, we thought we'd improved our club and had given ourselves as good a 1-2 goaltending punch as there was in hockey," says Detroit Coach Bobby Kromm. "But it hasn't worked out that way. I think we've played well enough to be seven or eight points better in the standings, but our goaltending has hurt us."
There is nothing more fragile than a goalie's psyche, and nothing more damaging to his performance than a psyche out of joint. Having spent nearly $2 million to sign the 33-year-old Vachon to a five-year contract, one would have thought Detroit would have had enough sense not to risk enraging Horseshoe, god of goaltenders, by assigning Vachon's No. 30 to third-stringer Ron Low, who had worn the number last season. But the Wings did, and they are paying for that blunder in spades. Vachon is on a five-game losing streak—he has gone seven without a win—and the consistent excellence that has distinguished his career has vanished.
"Rogie hasn't got that same confidence right now." says Defenseman Terry Harper, who has played with Vachon in Montreal, Los Angeles and Detroit. "He's a bit indecisive. He's not handling the puck outside the net as well as he used to. I don't think he's playing that badly; he's just not as consistent as he was before. He'll have a bad game, then a good one, then a bad one again."
"Rutherford has definitely been our best goalie so far," says Kromm. Indeed, Rutherford's goals-against average is 2.63, nearly 1.5 goals-a-game lower than Vachon's. This, mind you, is the same Rutherford whom Detroit general manager Ted Lindsay offered to Los Angeles as part of the compensation package for Vachon—a package that the arbitrator ruled was not good enough.
"We are not second-guessing ourselves," says Kromm. "Rogie's been too good a goalie over the last 12 years in the NHL. Right now he's fighting the puck and not playing naturally. What he needs is to win two or three in a row and get his confidence back." Kromm pauses. "But if Rogie can't do the job, it's best to find out early, eh?"
Vachon is willing to take more than his share of the blame for Detroit's dismal performance so far. Regarded as a potential threat to Montreal in the Norris Division, the Red Wings are floundering 13 points behind the Canadiens with a 6-10-5 record. However, Vachon is not the only Red Wing off to a slow start. Detroit has a whole raft of offenders, including Kromm himself. The coach cost the Wings a two-minute penalty Saturday night by starting a lineup different from the one he had announced would open the game. St. Louis promptly scored on the power play and rolled to a 4-0 win. All game long the Blues' forwards waltzed untouched around Vachon's crease, flipping in three rebounds and scoring on a centering pass. The Detroit forwards were so impotent that they managed only 21 shots against a Blues team that had been yielding an average of five goals a game. Singularly unimpressive was McCourt, who has been a disappointment to Kromm even though his 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists) lead the Red Wings in scoring.
"Dale hasn't played well," Kromm says. "He has a lot on his mind, even if he won't admit it. For all concerned, I hope the court rules on this thing soon."
NHL President John Ziegler calls the McCourt compensation suit the biggest problem facing hockey today. If it is not overturned, Ziegler says, the world of pro hockey will be in turmoil as the players—freed at last from the shackles of their $92,000 average yearly salaries—begin pursuing free-agentry with the relish of their baseball cousins. McCourt did not have upheaval in mind, however, when he challenged the compensation clause. "I just wanted to stay in Detroit," he says. "When I came here, I planned to stay and make it my home. I would have had to start from zero again with L.A."
McCourt may have to start well below zero if he is forced to join the Kings now. On Thanksgiving eve Detroit made its first visit of the season to Los Angeles, which despite—or perhaps because of—the loss of Vachon and the absence of McCourt holds a comfortable lead over Detroit for second place in the Norris Division. The crowd of 10,337 fans at the Forum—almost 2,000 above the Kings' average—booed McCourt lustily every time he skated onto the ice. The fans also booed when it was announced that Rutherford, not Vachon, would start in goal. Then they really aired out their lungs when McCourt was awarded a penalty shot in the third period and, with a chance to tie the score, dribbled the puck into Goalie Mario Lessard's pads. McCourt, though, silenced the leather-lungs a few minutes later when he beat Lessard from 30 feet and enabled the Wings to escape with a 3-3 tie. "I've been playing very badly," McCourt admitted afterward.
That's the old positive spirit. Vachon has been afflicted with the same sort of "I'm O.K., but you're probably better" syndrome. "I've given up some soft goals," he says. "Now I think about not making mistakes, and that's the worst thing you can do. I used to enjoy seeing a player skate down on me during a game. I'd say, 'O.K., really give it to me.' Now I'm on the defensive."
Last year Detroit survived a similar spell of early-season poor play, in which it lost eight in a row and II of 13. Still, the Wings finished with 78 points, a 37-point improvement over 1976-77, when they were the NHL's worst team.
"We're unpredictable," says Kromm, whose Wings now have won only two of their last 12 games. "We've beaten Chicago and Boston by 7-1 scores. But those aren't the games where your goaltending pays off. It's late in a close game, and that's where we have been getting hurt. It's too early in the year to worry about losing one or two in a row, but we've got ourselves in a position now where we can't afford to. We've got to put together a winning streak pretty soon."
Now that Low has been sent to the minors, the solution is clear. "I've tried everything else," says Vachon. "I think I'll have to go back to No. 30."