Vernie’s number is up!

ERIC FRANCIS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:48 AM ET

Long before his voice started to crack and the tears started to well, Mike Vernon directed one of his many thank you's to former GM Cliff Fletcher.

“Thank you for taking a chance on a five-foot-six, 140-pound big five hole,” smiled the man of the hour, making light of the knock his fellow Calgarians threw his way whenever things went south.

“You’ll be happy to know my son Matthew wants to be a goalie... I’m trying to talk him out of it.”

Life wasn’t always easy as a hometown hero, forever alternating from Calgary’s proudest son to its favourite whipping boy. However, standing in front of 19,000 last night to watch his No. 30 jersey raised to the rafters alongside Lanny McDonald’s No. 9, Vernon was able to soak in a send-off with unconditional love.

“Playing in front of you is like playing in front of 20,000 friends,” said Vernon of his relationship with the fans.

“You’re passionate, demanding, enthusiastic and honest — just like a good friend should be.”

And with that, he wrapped up a touching 45-minute pre-game ceremony by urging fans to take some credit for spurring him on to a brilliant career that saw him bring the city home its lone Cup in ’89.

“He sometimes wasn’t appreciated because he was the hometown boy but he’s the biggest reason we’re all wearing Stanley Cup rings today,” said McDonald, speaking on behalf of former Cup-winning teammates such as Theo Fleury, Al MacInnis, Joel Otto and Dana Murzyn, who sparked a standing ovation as they paraded out with Joe Nieuwendyk holding the Cup.

Kicked off by a 10-minute video tribute tracing the roots of a career born in South Calgary that included junior stints with the Calgary Canucks and Wranglers, the on-ice festivities began with a two-minute standing ovation for Vernon after he followed out former minor hockey coaches, teammates and his family.

With Flames players looking on from the bench, Vernon accepted an engraved watch from the Flames and charitable donations from the alumni association including one in the name of his mother, Lorraine, who died of breast cancer four years ago.

“That was for my mother — hopefully she’s wearing a jersey right now,” said Vernon of his first coach, wiping tears away at a post-ceremony press gathering.

“She probably loved the game more than I did ... and I know she made more saves because the people who sat next to her in the stands had all kinds of bruises from her kicking out every shot.”

Thrilled with the way the evening unfolded, Vernon said he simply wanted to thank as many people as he could, with a focus on his wife, four kids, siblings and his father who stood behind him wearing his jersey.

“My story started like every other Canadian — I had three brothers and when it came time to play hockey, they always said the same thing: ‘Get Mikey, he’ll play net,’ ” said Vernon.

Insisting the tough love the city gave him throughout his 11 years spurred him on to be the Flames winningest goalie, Vernon said he’s sure the reason he was so honoured last night was because of the 1989 Cup run he backstopped. And the Calgary resident wanted to be sure to thank those who continue to give young locals opportunities to chase the dream he lived.

“To the Dads who shovelled snow, the moms who kept the canteen open and parents who rubbed our frozen toes while tears came out of our eyes — thanks for keeping minor hockey going in Calgary.”

Yet there he was — arm in arm with his family, looking skyward as his 17 years in the NHL and a lifetime in his community were immortalized. A giant in the Flames organization — all 5-ft. 6-in. of him.

  eric.francis@calgarysun.com


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