By JOE BABIK
ECHL Senior PR/Historical Specialist
Matt Vernon has brought impressive bloodlines into his first professional season with the Jacksonville Icemen.
The rookie goaltender’s father, Mike Vernon, captured Stanley Cup titles with Calgary in 1989 and Detroit in 1997, earning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Most Valuable Player of the 1997 Stanley Cup Playoffs after going 16–4 with a 1.76 goals-against average and leading the Red Wings to their first Stanley Cup championship in 42 seasons, and in November, earning induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Despite that well-decorated resume, Vernon did not push his son to become a goaltender.
“I think he didn’t want me to be a goalie, so he kind of just let me do my thing,” Matt Vernon said. “Everybody kind of just rotates at that age, and I didn't really want to become a goalie much myself at that age either, honestly. It just kind of just happened.”
Having such an accomplished goaltender as a father was a big help for Vernon becoming a pro goaltender in his own right, especially on the mental side of the game.
“The X’s and O’s have changed a lot more for goaltenders over the years,” he said. “He kind of tried to get me to do some outrageous stuff, like come six feet out of the net every time because that’s the kind of stuff he did. But he was really good for the mental aspect of the game, which honestly, there’s goaltending coaches everywhere that can run you through it, but finding someone to help you with the mental side of the game and having someone with that kind of experience was an absolute game changer for me.”
Vernon was able to get a brief taste of pro hockey last season, signing with the Reading Royals after completing his collegiate career at Colorado College. He believes the two games of experience in that stint was important to him entering his first full season.
“It was nice to kind of get the first games out of the way and realize what to expect and know what I was working towards during the summer and start to build that confidence as well. So, I was really thankful for that opportunity,” he stated.
The transition to the pro game has gone better than Vernon had probably ever imagined. Entering Wednesday night’s action, he is tied for fourth in the ECHL with a 2.42 goals-against average and 13 wins, the latter of which is tops among all rookie goaltenders in the league.
“It's been incredible so far,” he said. “This league is so good and honestly, I actually kind of like the schedule more than college. You play 36 games in a college season. We play double that and it helps you gain confidence and be able to get in the groove quickly.”
Another benefit for Vernon has been having Michael Houser as his goaltending partner. Houser was the ECHL Goaltender of the Year in 2019 with Cincinnati and ranks 11th in ECHL history with 142 wins. After playing in over 250 games in the ECHL and American Hockey League, Houser made his NHL debut with Buffalo in 2020-21 and has gone on to appear in six contests with the Sabres.
“Michael has been incredible is just a great guy,” Vernon said. “In the locker room, he’s fun to be around and I enjoy watching him play. We kind of play a bit of a different game and it's great to learn from a guy like that.”
No matter how much success Vernon goes on to enjoy for the rest of his rookie season, the highlight of his year will always be having the opportunity to be in Toronto in November to see first-hand his dad’s induction into the Hall of Fame.
“It was an incredible experience to be at the induction in person,” he said. “Home for me is Calgary, so that pretty much was my Christmas. We didn't really have enough time for me to go home this year, so that was a huge blessing for me. I don't remember much about his career and he’s always kind of just been dad. So, it really kind of put into perspective how great of a player he was back in the day. And meeting some of the old legends that I hear about that he's played with was a great experience.”