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Hang It on Him

Times Staff Writer

Vachon

30

The purple-and-gold jersey stares down at Mathieu Garon daily.

That No. 30 hangs on the wall at the Toyota Training Center, where Garon spends his days preparing to be the Kings’ goaltender. It also dangles high above in Staples Center, where Rogie Vachon’s jersey will always be in the spotlight.

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This is a hallowed piece of cloth to King fans and a reminder of the hole that has been in net.

King officials expect that Garon is the one to fill that void.

Although that may be a lot to ask from someone who has played in only 43 NHL games, the hope is that he can follow the Vachon path.

Garon was acquired from Montreal -- as Vachon was in 1971 -- and had been backup to one of the NHL’s best -- as Vachon was in 1971. And like Vachon, Garon has had the Kings’ hopes and dreams laid at his skates.

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Vachon succeeded, spending seven quality seasons as the backbone of some talent-thin King teams and becoming the first to have his jersey retired by the team. No. 30 was also Garon’s number before he arrived in Los Angeles.

“When I got traded they asked what number I wanted because No. 30 was unavailable,” said Garon, who now wears 31. “I knew that. I saw his jersey when I played here. It’s always nice to see a goaltender’s jersey retired.”

Vachon remains. Others have come and gone.

Kelly Hrudey survived seven-plus seasons -- and a blizzard of shots -- while benefiting from Wayne Gretzky’s circus on offense.

The Kings squeezed one quality season and part of another out of veteran Felix Potvin before the Cat’s nine NHL lives expired after the 2002-03 season.

And perhaps the best thing that can be said of Roman Cechmanek is that he checked out after a 2003-04 season in which King fans cringed with every shot on net.

Stephane Fiset, Byron Dafoe, Jamie Storr -- all have come and gone in the last decade. Now Garon, 27, stands in the shadow of Vachon’s jersey.

“Rogie went through this years and years ago, coming to Los Angeles to play,” King General Manager Dave Taylor said. “It didn’t work out too bad. If Mathieu plays anything like Rogie Vachon, we’ll be real happy.”

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Garon, stone-faced serious, deflected the lack-of-experience questions so effortlessly that the Kings can only hope he treats pucks the same.

“I’m ready for this,” he said. “I know people are going to ask questions about me because I haven’t played many games.

“You know there was a lot of pressure in Montreal. ... You can be a hero one day, a zero the next.”

The Kings will take the hero.

Garon displayed some ticker-tape-parade skills a week ago in the first exhibition game against the Mighty Ducks. He made one save, then, lying facedown on the ice, managed to reach up and snag a Sergei Fedorov shot on the rebound.

“I’ve seen him do stuff like that a lot,” said forward Michael Cammalleri, who teamed with Garon last season on the Kings’ American Hockey League affiliate in Manchester, N.H. “He’ll be doing the split on one side of the net and the puck will be shot to the other side. You think it’s in and all of a sudden, he’s there.”

But Tuesday, Garon gave up four goals in an 8-4 exhibition victory over Phoenix. This follows a year with Manchester where Garon was mostly brilliant during the regular season, then wobbled in the playoffs. That, he said, was a learning curve.

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Giving a player with more potential than credentials a chance is hardly a first.

The twist here is that the Kings lack a safety net in the form of a veteran. They have gambled that Jason LaBarbera, who has played in five NHL games, will do.

“I’m fine with our goaltending going into the season,” King Coach Andy Murray said. “If I felt any other way, we shouldn’t start the season. I’m not into goaltender subtleties. Just stop the puck.”

That was a requirement that Cechmanek often couldn’t meet. His one tumultuous season with the Kings left open the question whether “Cechmanek” was a Czech phrase meaning “the red light is on.”

He became the poster boy for the Kings’ goaltender frustrations, built on 17 players who have been in net the last 10 years, five alone in 1994-95.

“We brought in some veteran goalies, whether it was Felix Potvin or Roman Cechmanek,” Taylor said. “Now we feel we need to go in a different route with two young guys.”

The Kings tracked Garon for more than a year, knowing that the Canadiens were committed to Jose Theodore, who won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie and Hart Trophy as most valuable player in 2002. With the salary cap on the horizon, the Canadiens were unlikely to carry Garon’s $1.2-million salary just to carry Theodore’s sticks.

On draft day in 2004, the Kings acquired Radek Bonk from the Ottawa Senators, then redirected him to Montreal for Garon.

“I have been waiting so long to get this chance, and I knew it would never come in Montreal,” said Garon, who played parts of four seasons with the Canadiens. “So I had to go somewhere else.”

The same was true of Vachon in 1971, only then the Canadiens decided to go with the younger goaltender. Ken Dryden -- now in the Hall of Fame -- made a whirlwind entrance into the NHL, playing six regular-season games in 1970-71, then 20 in the playoffs, leading the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup.

Vachon played one more game for the Canadiens after that season before being shipped to L.A.

With Vachon in net, the Kings finished with a franchise-best 105 points in 1974-75. Vachon had a 2.24 goals-against average and finished runner-up to Philadelphia’s Bernie Parent in the Vezina Trophy voting. Vachon left the Kings in 1978, the same year Garon was born.

“I know a little bit about him,” he said of Vachon. “I’ve heard a lot.”

But Garon grew up in a different era in Quebec, where young goalies worshiped Patrick Roy, who was leading the Canadiens to Stanley Cup success.

Garon lived out a Quebec boy’s dream when the Canadiens drafted him in the second round of the 1996 draft.

“I grew up watching the Canadiens, everybody did in Quebec,” Garon said. “Hockey is so big there that everybody knows everything about the team, sometimes even more than the players do.”

But after spending the 2003-04 season as Theodore’s backup, playing in 19 games, Garon was ready to leave. His 2.27 regular-season goals-against average was the same as Theodore’s, but Garon knew the job would not be his.

The Kings had an opening and remembered Garon as the Montreal goalie who dominated them during a March 2004 game, a performance that has been recounted often in training camp.

“He stopped 60 shots that night,” Murray said.

Said Garon, “Sixty? It was a lot, but not 60.”

Garon stopped 46 of 48 shots in Montreal’s 4-2 victory.

Said Taylor: “We think Mathieu is capable of being our No. 1 goalie with the ability to improve.”

Improve on being No. 1?

That leads Garon back to the wall and that jersey. Would No. 31 look just as nice there as well?

“I think right now, it’s a lot too soon,” he said. “It would be great, but right now, I got a lot to prove to get my jersey up there.”


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