Because the Fall marks the beginning of another cycle of hockey, the season never fails to inspire feelings of rebirth and renewal among observers and players alike.
There is another, more melancholy element to this time of year, though. And it hit me this year when, without a press conference, news release or tweet, 37-year-old goalie Andrew Verner retired after an 18-year professional career.
See, Verner and I have been friends longer than anybody else I’ve been friends with. We met in senior kindergarten in Toronto and have been tied together in one shape or form ever since. He’s the guy who sat beside me in class for years and daydream-sketched versions of Ken Danby’s famous “At The Crease” painting – then went out each night to games and practices with the AAA Toronto Young Nationals.
‘Vern’ is the guy who would take on any comer in street hockey, all day, every day. He traveled across Ontario and beyond to play, with no guarantee of anything other than another dent in the wallet of his parents, Ted and Irene. He turned out to be a much better hockey player than I ever was. And his ascent through hockey’s ranks helped me understand not only the game itself, but also the demands and rewards the sport takes from and gives to those who play it best.
Through Vern, I learned the dedication it takes – from the time we went to Maple Leaf Gardens as kids and fit inside those ancient, undersized seats – to have any hope of realizing the dream of millions of hockey players.
He’s the reason I’ve never begrudged pro athletes for their comparatively oversized salaries; if you saw the journey I saw him take, you’d be happy for him and any other player who defies the odds to earn a living off of the game.
He was the one who surrendered the comforts of friends and our hometown high school at age 16 to move to Peterborough, play for the Ontario League’s legendary Petes and ride buses for next to no money for the next three years.
But Vern excelled. In 1991-92, he helped Peterborough to its first first-place regular season finish in five years and was the first goalie selected (34th overall by Edmonton) in the 1991 NHL draft.
Vern’s pro career started in 1992 with the American League’s Cape Breton Oilers. He won a Calder Cup championship that rookie campaign, but his personal highlight was being recalled to the NHL team for 12 days as Ron Tugnutt’s backup.
Vern sat on the Oilers bench for four games, yet never saw NHL action. But at the time, he was happy simply for the experience.
“It was tremendous being up,” he told me. “You’re just trying to take it all in at that point. You don’t really think too far ahead. And the money I got from those two weeks was more than I’d ever made. In the ‘A,’ I was making around 30 grand. So that was nice.”
After a second season in Cape Breton – and two years playing on the Canadian National Team where he experienced World Championships and Spengler Cups – he came to a crossroads that ended when he signed with HPK Hameenlinna of the Finnish Elite League.
It was the last time he’d play North American hockey – and, as it turns out, the point where the possibility of getting back to the NHL began fading.
But at the time, Vern was taking matters year-by-year.
“Me and (his Peterborough high-school sweetheart) Alison had just gotten married and had no idea where we were going beyond that one year,” he said. “We were just going to go and see how we liked it.”
They liked it enough to stay and see the world.
Vern left Finland after a season and bounced from Sweden to Germany before eventually landing with Klagenfurt AC of the Austrian League. He powered his team to a championship in 2004 and was named the country’s player of the year in 2004-05.
Even better, he acquired the nickname ‘The King of Klagenfurt.’ I cannot express my gratitude to the hockey gods for the mental image of him walking, Al Waxman style, through Austrian streets and basking in the adulation of the locals.
He enjoyed it so much – and the money and perks (including a paid-for car and apartment) – that he even turned down a shot to come back and make one last attempt at the NHL.
“When I signed my biggest deal in Germany, (then-Canucks assistant coach) Mike Johnston talked to me about going back for the Canucks training camp,” he said. “But by that point, I would’ve had to give up the contract I had in place, just for a pseudo-tryout. And I got another 10 years (in Europe) out of it.”
Vern’s legacy as a hockey survivor had a physical price. He’s endured four serious groin injuries, three knee surgeries, three broken noses, a broken collarbone and a herniated disc. As well as this colorful story:
“The Russian doctor for the 1972 Summit Series was one of my team’s doctors in Germany,” Vern said. “Only he didn’t have a license to practice medicine in the country at the time. He used to stick cortisone directly into my groin before games. On the road dressing room in Mannheim, the whole team was watching me get a needle stuck underneath my balls. And wiggled around. Then we went out and played.”
Vern spent the last two seasons in the U.K. League before hanging up the pads. These days, he’s working as a goalie consultant with amateur teams in Peterborough and also visiting Germany and Italy to teach the game to new generations of players.
All along, he’s remained that same wisenheimer I first met more than 30 years ago; older and creakier, but otherwise, still the typical crazy goalie with the same love of life and friends he’s always had.
Looking back, he’s got every reason to be thankful. Vern played with Chris Pronger, Mike Ricci and Tie Domi in Peterborough, and with Brian Rafalski, Andreas Lilja and Sergio Momesso in Europe. He was coached by junior legend Dick Todd and Oilers bench boss Tom Renney. He even scored a goal in a European game.
And, of course, the most important thing the game gave to him: His wife Ally and their great kids Ella and Jacob.
To me, he represents a different breed of hockey player – one who didn’t craft a spot for himself in the Hockey Hall of Fame, yet one who worked wherever he could.
Congrats on the retirement, Vern. The NHL wasn’t in your cards, but I know thousands of hockey fans and friends are glad you were at the table and playing.
This article appeared in the Oct. 11, 2010 edition of The Hockey News magazine.
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Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Wednesdays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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