The practice of adding a goaltender to the Memorial Cup roster of a Western Hockey League team is not exactly new. For proof, consider that 22 years after he turned down a chance to join the Lethbridge Broncos for a Memorial Cup final, Mike Vernon still gets booed whenever he visits the southern Alberta city to play in charity softball events.
"I can't even go to the brewery, for crying out loud, which really annoys me, because I do like their Pilsner beer," Vernon said. "It's unbelievable."
The matter of goaltender reinforcements is in the news again this week as the Western Hockey League champion Kelowna Rockets successfully petitioned the league on Monday to allow Everett Silvertips goaltender Mike Wall to practise with the team, with a view to activating him for the Memorial Cup, which will begin this weekend in London, Ont.
It happened to Vernon at the tail end of the 1982-83 season, after he was asked to join the Portland Winter Hawks, the Memorial Cup hosts, for the tournament. In those days, junior teams had the option of adding a goaltender from an eliminated opponent, essentially just to strengthen their rosters.
Vernon, a member of the Calgary Wranglers, also had an offer to join Lethbridge, the other team alive in the WHL final, but figured that if the Broncos qualified for the Memorial Cup, he would be sitting on the bench behind their starter, Ken Wregget. But Wregget was then injured in the final against Portland, won by Lethbridge, and with the Memorial Cup beckoning, the Broncos petitioned the league to give them Vernon instead.
It left the future National Hockey League star (Vernon went on to win Stanley Cups with the Calgary Flames and Detroit Red Wings) facing a dilemma. Go with Portland, or switch to Lethbridge.
"They were playing in the WHL final when both phoned me up and asked me to play," Vernon said. "I thought, well, Lethbridge had Kenny Wregget and Portland were struggling with their goaltending and I was guaranteed to play. It was my last year of junior, so why wouldn't I want to play for them rather than sitting on the bench?
"Of course, between the end of the series and the Memorial Cup, Kenny Wregget hurt his ankle, so they contacted the league and asked for a ruling. Then the league came to me and said, 'You have a choice.' I said: 'I'm not changing my mind. I'm not going back on my word.' "
According to former WHL president Ed Chynoweth, it was at that juncture that the league changed its eligibility rules pertaining to goaltender pickups and eliminated the option of a team adding a goalkeeper simply to upgrade the quality of its netminding. Now, they can only add a goaltender in an injury emergency, which is the situation facing Kelowna.
The Memorial Cup defending champion Rockets lost starting goaltender Derek Yeomans (1.82 goals-against average) in the first game of the WHL final against the Brandon Wheat Kings, but went on to win the series behind excellent work from their backup goaltender, Kristofer Westblom (1.91 GAA).
Even though the WHL permits the addition of a goaltender from another team's protected list on an emergency basis, it is up to the Canadian Hockey League to decide whether Kelowna can use Wall in the Memorial Cup.
In the old days, it wouldn't have even been an issue. In the 1971-72 season, for example, John Davidson played goal for the Calgary Centennials and recorded a league best 2.37 GAA. Davidson, now a commentator for the Madison Square Gardens network and Hockey Night in Canada, was added to the Edmonton Oil Kings' roster for the 1972 Memorial Cup, but lost both of his starts.
Eleven years later, Vernon fared much better. He was 3-0 for the Winter Hawks as Portland won the tournament and Vernon took home the Hap Emms Trophy as the top goaltender.
If the CHL permits Wall to play, it would be on the understanding that he can only get in if Westblom gets injured. If it turns down Kelowna's request, then the Rockets would be obliged to use a 15-year-old from their protected list, Brian Kaval, as the backup. It'd be a tough situation for an untried player to go into -- the possibility of facing Sidney Crosby, or Corey Perry or any of the other top junior players who qualified for the Memorial Cup.
Vernon had a different thought on the matter.
"Forget about facing Crosby," Vernon said. "What about facing the media? That's a bigger feat in itself nowadays. There's no NHL hockey, so the media attention will be big. Crosby's the best player since Mario Lemieux. To put a kid in that situation, it wouldn't be much fun for him."