For many of us at Christmas, the conversation will turn to old times. Around many Canadian homes, those memories revolve around the game of hockey. When the stories start to flow about the great players who were in our homes every Saturday night, certain names are synonymous with an era. Some of you were raised with Dave Keon or Darryl Sittler. Others were drawn into Leafs Nation with heart and soulers like Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark. Our younger readers first Captain to bring them off their feet was likely Mats.
And then for some guys, the Leaf we pretended to be on the pond was number 22, Rick Vaive.
When we talked about doing a special interview for our first Christmas here at LeafsHub, it had to be someone who could share intimate history of wearing the Leafs crest. We wanted to bring you the words of a former Leaf who could not only tell his tales, but offer a deep analysis of the current Maple Leafs team. A man with knowledge of the game both then and now. There was one Captain whose wealth of experience at every level stood above the rest. These are the words of a man that has breathed hockey in his entire life. And now he’s been kind enough to share with us what he’s learned.
For those of you who didn’t get to watch Vaive play I’m going to tell you all you need to know in one sentence. Rick Vaive was a big, strong, competitive guy who scored goals. I’m not talking a few goals here and there. Simply put, Rick Vaive filled the net. Three consecutive 50 goal seasons as a Leaf and in the seven seasons he spent in Toronto, he never dipped below 30. He was traded to Chicago in 1987/88 and went on to score 43 times that season. In his final 3 seasons, spent mainly in Buffalo, Vaive scored 31, 29, and 25 goals respectively. In Sherbrooke, where Vaive played his junior with the Castors, he scored 127 goals in two seasons. Including a 76 goal campaign his final year. Rick Vaive was tough, he lit the lamp, and will go down as one of the greatest Toronto Maple Leafs of all time. It was an absolute honor to listen to Vaive’s words and it’s as much of honor to share his thoughts with you all today.
So sit back and here the insight from one of our all-time favorites. Let’s spend some time this Christmas with great player, coach, analyst and old friend.
One-on-One with Rick Vaive – Part 1
Jude MacDonald: Rick, let’s go all the way back to the beginning. Being a fellow Maritimer and knowing your area, did you grow up watching the Charlottetown Islanders?
Rick Vaive: I sure did. I was just a kid. Those games were some of my first hockey memories. I can remember thinking “Man, these guys are big.” But yeah, I went to all the games. The Islanders were a junior club, initially, and then eventually became a team in the senior league. The hockey was much different back then. If there wasn’t four or five fights on a given night, the fans went home angry. It was wild times.
J: Since you mentioned scraps and I meant to ask about this, you had almost 300 PIM’s your first year in the WHA. What was the story there? Were you trying to earn yourself some space?
R: Yes, that was definitely part of it. You had to let guys know that you were willing to stand up for yourself. I took a lot of poundings too, (laughs) but when I look back on it now, the experience helped mould my career. John Brophy was my coach in Birmingham that year and the season prior they had a real tough team. When I arrived they’d had some turnover and we really didn’t have anybody to take care of that stuff, so I had to look after myself in a way. Thinking about it now, I can recall being in Toronto in maybe my 3rd year. I came back to the bench after a tussle and the coach said, “Son, we don’t need you in the box, we need you scoring goals.” I thought “sounds good to me.” (Laughs) It was something I was willing to do, but I was more than okay with doing it less.
“You had to let guys know that you were willing to stand up for yourself. I took a lot of poundings too, (laughs) but when I look back on it now, the experience helped mould my career.”
J: Who was the scariest guy you played against back then?
R: I’d have to say Ben Wilson. You just didn’t know what he was capable of. Other tough guys were intimidating, like Probert and Semenko, but you knew they’d draw the line. With Ben, who I also played with, you’d look in his eyes and you weren’t sure if anybody was home. Sometimes the eyes were rolling back and that was even scarier. What was best about Ben was after the game you’d see him leave the arena with his petite wife and his adorable red haired daughters, hand in hand, and you’d have to do a double take. He was a guy that could just turn it off. I had a bit of that in me to some degree. I was an easy going guy off the ice but when the puck dropped we were playing for keeps.
J: You mentioned John Brophy, another Easterner with ties to the Maple Leafs. What was that relationship like?
R: You know, I’ve had a lot of coaches over the years and if I was being honest, I’d say Broph had more positive impact on my career than anyone. When I was going through those times where I had to stand up for myself and do those things early on, John would sit me down and talk to me about it all the time. He pushed me every day to compete and sacrifice. Broph hammered those things home, and that’s not to say I was a guy who needed prodding, but his words and lessons stayed with me. I was a better player for it in the end.
J: I’m going to ask you to explain the meaning of life here, but what was the key to scoring goals so consistently, Rick? You were a guy that always found a way to bury it.
R: It started as a kid with shooting pucks. That’s just something I did every day religiously. I had something set up outside and that’s what I would do. It really begins there. And then, it becomes about whether you have the instinct or not. Guys like Bossy, they would pan out of the play, reappear and bang it’s in. I did some of that early on and I’m not so sure it’s something you can teach. Then though, guys key on that and you have to go the net and tip a puck or get your nose dirty. That’s where the puck eventually has to go. I scored goals shooting the puck too, so I guess I managed score different ways at one time or another.
J: While we are talking about goal scoring, you were the first person in Toronto Maple Leafs history to score 50 goals. I know I’m sure there’s a great deal of pride in an accomplishment like that.
R: No question. Of course I’d trade that distinction to have won a championship here, but for sure it means a lot. It’s funny, as I started to get closer to doing it, I truly had no idea that no Leaf player before me had reached 50. I was shocked. I assumed with all the great players who’d been here in the 70 years or so previous, that somebody had done it already.
J: You watch the games intently, you’re close to the team. Tell us some things that you see to help us understand this club. What’s Rick Vaive take on the 2014/15 team and the organization’s position going forward?
R: The Maple Leafs made a few summer personnel moves and you hear things like culture change, but they definitely added some of the right type of guys. When you look at Winnik, Santorelli, Polak, Komorav guys like that, you hopefully start showing other guys the way. Look, here’s what’s expected every night. Hockey players are good guys. Nobody goes to the rink with the intention of not working hard. But for many they have to learn how to do it, or be brought along properly. Another thing the Leafs have done is given the net to Bernier. They know he’s the guy and that’s answered a question for them. The Leafs are up and down but some nights they are on their toes with confidence and you see what they can do.
“Hockey players are good guys. Nobody goes to the rink with the intention of not working hard. But for many they have to learn how to do it, or be brought along properly.“
J: What we’ve seen with some of Toronto’s collapses, is this what the pains of development can look like?
R: Well, yes and no. I think that what we saw there is a team that hasn’t really figured out how to win as a group yet. It’s something you have to learn together. When you look at an organization like the Detroit Red Wings, they had people to show you how it’s done. If you remember, when Datsyuk and Zetterberg first come up in the playoffs they did nothing. Everybody was all over them. They had to figure it out and mature into the players they are now. Maybe we are seeing some of that with guys like Kadri. It takes time and is that to say this an elite group that will challenge for a Stanley Cup? No, there’s no guarantees. If you look at the Leafs team, not many guys have won championships on their way to the NHL. Winning has to be developed as well, and for this team there is a big learning curve. Typically, what you want to do is build your team through the draft. Then what you do is you let guys grow together until they are ready. Toronto has not had the best draft record until recently, but the best organizations backbone is proper development. Take a look at the Montreal Canadiens of the ‘70s. With the exception of Lafleur, nobody went straight to the NHL. If you were drafted by Montreal, you went to the farm team in Nova Scotia and it was there that you were shown how to do things the Montreal way. I always reference the Red Wings, but that’s exactly how they go about their business. You want 8-10 young guys with the potential to be NHL contributors on your farm team. Surround them with 4 or 5 good veterans and let them hone their craft for a couple years and try to win at the AHL level. Most championship calibre teams have development teams that have also seen success. They often go hand in hand. The Marlies are having a tough time right now, but they are on the right path as far as having a young group that can eventually become good pros. The city is impatient right now, and although it’s understandable, the fans have to understand that it’s going to take time. This is a middle of the pack team right now. A good team with some positives to build on, but there’s a ways to go yet before this can be called a very good or great team.
J: Much is made of the problems the Leafs had in this regard during your days here. What did you see from your vantage point?
R: I look back on the group in Toronto and it’s a bit of a shame. Yes, we had good teams, but we could’ve been so much more. We had young guys coming up like Wendel, but the big problem was we had so many defenseman that weren’t left in junior or the minors long enough to grow their game. Forwards you can get away with rushing sometimes, but with guys on the back-end you have to take your time. And rushing those guys wasn’t what was best for them, the team or their confidence, as almost all of them had very short careers. McGill was really the only one who had any longevity, likely because Bob was tough and a bit more mature. I loved my time here, but not allowing those young guys to develop right really kept us from reaching our potential.
J: We’ll talk further about the scrutiny that comes with playing in the center of the hockey universe, but before we get into the heat that’s specific with being the captain here, is there a player who you think doesn’t get the credit they deserve?
R: That’s an easy one for me. Tyler Bozak. You always hear people say the Leafs don’t have a first line center. I’ll tell you what, I don’t really care what you call him. That player has done everything you could ever ask of him and he’s done an exceptional job playing on the top line. He’s a smart guy that knows how to play and is probably under-appreciated for his work in all 3 zones. Is he your prototypical stud center like a Getzlaf? No, he isn’t. But you look at his ice time and that’s a very good way to measure his importance to the team. I’ll tell you something else, I’ve coached and I can assure you that coaches are coaching to win. If a guy isn’t getting results it won’t take a coach long to figure it out. I would say that Bozak is likely the Leafs most rounded and reliable forward. He carries himself like a pro, whether it’s his body language or how he conducts himself on and off the ice. He just comes to work and does the job. Tyler Bozak is one heck of a hockey player and it’s really not debatable.
“Tyler Bozak. You always hear people say the Leafs don’t have a first line center. I’ll tell you what, I don’t really care what you call him. That player has done everything you could ever ask of him and he’s done an exceptional job playing on the top line.“
J: You’ve been in the game so long and had so many relationships. Tell me about some of the guys you were closest to?
R: Oh boy, wow. I’ve had a lot of buddies over the years. In the room I really always got along with everybody, so you’re kind of close with everyone. In Toronto, Derlago and I were on the same line and we had little plays together on the ice. In Chicago, Steve Ludzig and I were close and still are today. Actually something I’m quite proud of is the work Steve and I have been doing to raise money to aid those suffering with Parkinson’s. We’ve raised $300,000 and it’s hopefully just the beginning. Steve and I have a good time. Always having a laugh. And Denis Savard lived around the corner too. Then in Buffalo Hawerchuk and Andreychuk lived nearby but what really goes unnoticed is the wives and what they do. We moved to Buffalo and Mike Foligno and I were friends and his wife Janice, who’s now passed away, was so helpful to my wife and I. So now when I go to Buffalo for something her daughter Kara is working for the team and Marcus is playing there, it’s a special thing.
J: We have so much more to cover, and we appreciate how giving you’ve been with your time, but in the spirit of Christmas I must get down to the heart of the matter. Ricky Vaive has given himself to the game, right from that boy shooting pucks to the same guy whose passion I just heard dissect last night’s game for 45 minutes for no other reason than love of the game. You’ve devoted your life to hockey. What has hockey given back to you?
R: A great life. I got to play the game I loved, for the team I loved, and be the Captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs. I’ve been to Europe, I’ve seen different cultures, had wonderful opportunities. I made good money and I spent good money (laughs). In all seriousness, could I have made more money? Maybe. Should I have made more? Probably but I never really looked at it that way. I was never greedy. I’ll put it into perspective a little bit. I made more money my last two years playing hockey than my father made his whole life. Yet what he was still able to provide for me and my brothers and sisters says it all for me. I think it just goes back to your upbringing. Growing up in P.E.I., you learned to be respectful and humble. What I’m most proud of, ahead of the 50 goals or anything like that, is seeing my boys and how they represent themselves. When I see the men they’ve become, I think it helps to enjoy everything. Nobody wants to fail at anything, so when you see your boys are just good hearted people, you can allow yourselves to feel good about the rest.
The conversation dictated that this had to be a two part story. In all honesty the intent was to do the piece as a Christmas gift to the readers that would appreciate a Leafs legend like Vaive. What happened was simply the material and analysis Vaive provided could not be done justice in one read. His history, experience and candor has to be shared properly. Talking with the first captain I knew made for a Christmas this Blue Blooded Leaf fan won’t soon forget, and I hope that hearing the words of a beauty like Ricky Vaive made your Christmas a little more special as well.
In Part 2 we talk about being named captain, the current captain, Ballard and being traded, coaching, having a son that was drafted, and we get into system breakdown. I was fascinated with how he passionately Vaive talks x’s and o’s. Here’s a couple excerpts:
“The game is about creating two on ones all over the ice. You do that by using your strength and skill to win battles. That’s how you break a team down, by out-manning them all over the ice.”
J: You’ve seen the game from every angle. Here at LeafsHub we are trying to figure out what it’s going to take to win in Toronto. What’s it take to win, Rick”
R: Will. I think it’s as simple as that. You need skill, sure, but it takes character to win. I’ll tell you a story. I was coaching for South Carolina in the ECHL and we had a pretty good team. Good group, but we added a real character guy at the deadline, so we were feeling good. Anyways, Ed Courtney is our leading scorer, he had 56 goals at the time. He two hands a guy right in the kisser and he’s gone for 25 games. The deadline was passed and we couldn’t add. We just kind of all looked at each other and knew that everybody had to do more. Our captain was Brett Marrietti at the time. Was Brett the most skilled guy we had? Maybe not, but he lead by example and by doing whatever it took to help us win. He had what’s most important and that’s heart. Everybody followed his lead and the boys blocked shots, sacrificed and gave all they had for each other. We had a defenseman, Chris Hines, and he used to always say he’d block a shot with his face if he had to. Well in Game 7 of the finals he did. And he went to the dressing room and shoved some cotton in his nose and came out and finished that game. That’s how you win a championship.