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."
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?"