In Part 1, Rick Vaive talked about the influences on him and his career. He told us of the relationships he’s made along on the way and so much more. We left off with #22 telling us just how much the game of hockey has given him back. For the 2nd part of his exclusive interview with LeafsHub.com, the first Leaf to pot 50 guides us through his captaincy, his time coaching, and being a hockey dad. Then we shift focus and take an in depth look into the current Leafs team. Vaive has the rare ability to offer the wisdom and perspective of a former player, captain, coach, and analyst. I can assure you that in our conversations his experience was evident, as you saw in Part 1 and will continue to see during the remainder of this interview. Vaive was not only extremely generous with his time, he was open and honest.
One-on-One with Rick Vaive – Part 2
I’d like us to go back to the period just prior to your becoming a Toronto Maple Leaf. Can you recount the trade that brought you here and what was going through your mind at the time?
“Well, I was drafted by Vancouver and it was my rookie season in the NHL. Harry Neale was my coach and honestly I wasn’t sure if he was warm to me. I knew that Derlago and Harry weren’t on the best of terms, so there was a chance something was going to happen, but for me I was pretty shocked. Not only that, I’d have to say I was disappointed. I wanted to do well with the team who’d drafted me, so being traded hurt a bit in that regard. I didn’t like letting anybody down, you know. I thought I would be a Canuck for a long time, but that’s hockey and I found that out pretty fast.”
What kind of experience was that, coming to a place like Toronto?
“I don’t want to say that things were in disarray in the front office when I came to Toronto, but I think there were some issues, for sure. So it was kind of a strange time that way, but I mean hey….you’re playing for the Leafs. No doubt it was exciting. When I look back on now, it was such a great thing to happen to me by coming to Toronto. The experiences I’ve had thanks to being traded to the Maple Leafs made for a wonderful time here. There’s no question about it.”
So now you’re a Leaf and trying to find your way in the league. Tell me about the process going from there, to becoming the Captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“Well you know, it was interesting how it happened in many ways. I just kind of became captain (chuckles a little), nobody really said anything. I was interim captain, at first. Darryl (Sittler) had asked to be traded, obviously there was his relationship with Ballard or whatever. I don’t really know about that and it’s not for me to say, all I know is that after a while Harold sat me down and basically told me I was the next captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs.”
That’s a big responsibility to put on your shoulders at the point in your career. What was your initial feelings towards the owner bestowing that on you?
“If I’m going to be totally from the heart here, my gut told me to turn it down. Not because I didn’t want to be captain, of course I did. I just knew I wasn’t ready. We had a veteran group and I felt that I hadn’t played enough in the NHL to earn the guys respect. I mean, everybody was good about it and stuff, it wasn’t that. The feeling for me was that I hadn’t paid my dues yet and was still learning how to be a decent player. The situation was one where I didn’t think I could say no. I was 22 and I’d already been traded once. I thought that if I turned it down that Ballard might, or would, trade me. I felt like I was a couple years away from being able to lead and I thought at that time, I should work on my game and keep figuring out ways to find the net. But even though I knew in my heart I wasn’t fully ready to be the captain, I didn’t have a choice, frankly. That all said, I was truly honoured and gave it my best.”
“If I’m going to be totally from the heart here, my gut told me to turn it down. Not because I didn’t want to be captain, of course I did. I just knew I wasn’t ready. We had a veteran group and I felt that I hadn’t played enough in the NHL to earn the guys respect.“
When did you begin to feel comfortable in your role as captain?
“It’s funny how things go. Thinking back, I probably embraced the captaincy right around the time I really thought I would actually be ready for it. I guess around 24, a couple of years in. The team had gotten younger and I was starting to work with the guys who were coming up, showing them the ropes in some ways. I really enjoyed doing that and I only wish we had of done a better job developing some of our D in junior longer. I think we could have had a real solid team there. We had a lot of talented guys in the system. But yeah, once I had grown up a bit I felt comfortable and good in the role.”
In the ‘80s there were a lot of bizarre happenings around the Leafs. One of which surrounded yourself and having the captaincy removed. Is that something you can talk about?
“Oh sure. You know what, it’s pretty simple. We had a 7:00am practice in Minnesota. I slept in. Not much else to say really. I woke up and Dan Maloney (head coach at the time) was at the door. That was it (Vaive sort of laughs). Look, I was a guy that always did what was asked from the coach or management. It was no different this time. They made a decision, somebody did anyways. I’m not sure if it came from up top or what happened, and it doesn’t matter. Quite frankly I just went about my business and played my game. I didn’t want it to be a distraction and I played some good hockey after that, and prior. I’ve had lots of coaches and I just tried to be a guy they could count on. I didn’t let it affect me all that much. If I was to be perfectly honest though, yeah…I did think it was a bit harsh (laughs). I believe that was 1986-87 and I was traded to Chicago that summer.”
Where you had 43 goals that season, and when you were in Toronto you were counted on to score most nights. We have a player here in Toronto named Phil Kessel. Do you think he feels the same pressures that you may have during your time as a Leaf?
“There’s certainly a great deal of pressure on that young man to put the puck in the net. In Phil’s case, he has a big contract to live up to and he’s going to hear about it if he’s not scoring. And he knows what’s going on, all players hear what is being said about them in the media. Really it comes down to how you handle it. For Phil, sometimes when things aren’t going right you start to see it in his body language, or in his mood. When you aren’t producing, instead of letting it compound and affect your game, sometimes you have to do other things to find a way to deal with the frustration. The hope is that you take the negative energy and do something positive with it. I used to get in a fight or a tussle, something like that, just to show I wasn’t happy with the situation. Now I’m not suggesting that Phil drop the mitts, but he can make a contribution in other areas to help out when the pucks aren’t going in for him, or the team is on a slide. Sometimes I think that Phil lets his emotions maybe get the best of him. But like I said, if he doesn’t score it diminishes the chance of the team winning, and I can relate to what kind of burden that can be here in Toronto. ”
“For Phil, sometimes when things aren’t going right you start to see it in his body language, or in his mood. When you aren’t producing, instead of letting it compound and affect your game, sometimes you have to do other things to find a way to deal with the frustration. The hope is that you take the negative energy and do something positive with it.“
Speaking of which, with social media playing such a big role now in how the game is followed, did the same scrutiny exist in your playing days and as captain here in Toronto?
“Oh definitely. I felt it every day. It’s maybe amplified now, but the same things existed. I can tell you honestly that I thrived on the negativity. I never took anything personally that was written or said about me. Those guys had a job to do and what I did was I tried to use it as motivation. . I think it made me better, actually. It just forced me to push myself harder.”
Do you think the added attention of playing in the center of the hockey universe keeps people from wanting to play in Toronto?
“Well, yes, I think for some it does. But that’s not what my feeling is at all. An athlete should want to take that on. For my money the two best places to play in the world are Toronto and Montreal, with Toronto being the best. There is nowhere I would rather play than right here. I loved my time here and the passion for the game and the attention is what it’s all about. For the right type of guys, Toronto is a super destination.”
Keeping with media, you spoke your mind as a player. Do you think guys have a harder time being honest with the press because of how things can come off or be spun out of control?
“Nobody wants to be that guy. Nobody wants to be the guy that said this or said that and we all read about it forever. But really, I don’t fully agree with that mindset. I think guys need to speak up more. Like what Roman Polak had to say the other day. That was something certain people didn’t like about me, the fact that I spoke up. I never called anyone out by name but if we weren’t playing well I’d say something like “right now we have too many passengers”. Guys were held accountable, and back then it was often done in practice. If guys weren’t playing the way they should, they’d find out about it one way or another. But I think media or not, at times there are things that need to be said. If you lose 5 straight then why shouldn’t the captain or somebody say we have guys not stepping up.”
That leads me to the current captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Dion Phaneuf. Can you give your thoughts on #3?
“Listen, I like Dion. He’s under the gun here in Toronto, but I think we need to understand that Phaneuf had a lot thrown on his plate. Dion was a big star coming out of junior. Then he breaks into the league, scores 20 goals and he’s up for the Calder. Two years later and he’s nominated for the Norris. After being mainly an offensive defenseman, then he comes here and he’s been asked to be a shut-down guy as well. He’s been used for every situation, whether it’s the first unit PP, the first unit PK, or facing the top players night after night. But when you look down the bench, the options weren’t really there. I just think that with Dion he was asked to do too much out of necessity. So okay, let’s take Phaneuf and put him on Anaheim, we’ll say. He slides into second pair minutes there and plays to his strengths, like being physical. I think Dion would be best served if given a specific role. Instead of being asked to do it all, you just give him the shut-down role, or the PP time, not everything. What I think you’ve got then is a solid defenseman. And we’ve seen that this year at times when his minutes are down. He has more energy to play his game effectively. When you have the “C” and a big contract, naturally expectations come with that. But Phaneuf is a good player who’s trying his best out there.”
Much is made of leadership these days and just how important it actually is. What’s your feeling on intangibles like that?
“It takes character to win, simple as that. Character and leadership within the group. Talent is obviously important, but you’ll never win on talent alone. Without the will and sacrifice to do what it takes out there, you’ll never be a championship caliber team. And the biggest thing in all that is your best players have to be the leaders. They are the ones who have to set the example and show the other guys, “Here’s how we do it.” If you get your best players paving the way for the rest of the team than you are headed in the right direction and the road to success is much easier.”
“…the biggest thing in all that is your best players have to be the leaders. They are the ones who have to set the example and show the other guys, “Here’s how we do it.””
I mentioned seeing the game from every angle, but you’ve also seen the game through the eyes of a hockey parent. Your son, Justin was drafted to the NHL by the Anaheim Ducks. What was that experience like?
“It was very special, no doubt. But the actual draft itself we didn’t attend. The agent advised against us going because he didn’t want anybody to be disappointed. I had a feeling he’d be drafted and should have trusted my instincts. It would have been good for Justin to go down and meet Burke (Brian, who drafted him) and introduce himself and all that. But it was great. Justin was a very good baseball player actually and played all sports. We encouraged that. Often if you look at the better players on hockey teams, they are good at a variety of sports. It doesn’t have to be 12 months of hockey. Justin is playing now in Hartford and we talk often after games. He’s finding his game and people are taking notice, so that’s nice to see. It’s been fun to watch. I’ve always been proud of my boys for the men they are more than any of their accomplishments.”
Like I said, you’ve seen hockey from all angles. Tell me how you transitioned into coaching?
“I took a position in Hamilton as a player/coach. What happened was that I had what they called “The Gonk” at the time, which is more or less a skin rash that in my case was brought on likely from the plastic in equipment. Through my NHL days, I would take a sauna and that probably drew it out, so it wasn’t a big problem. But later on it got so bad that I couldn’t sleep or anything, and I had to stop playing. That’s when I fell in absolute love with coaching.”
You then went to South Carolina of the ECHL for 4 seasons where you held .650 winning percentage and won a Championship there (and also played to a +2 handicap). From there to the Saint John Flames of the American Hockey League for two seasons, followed by a season in Mississauga of the OHL. You even coached some Senior and AAA before becoming an analyst with LeafsTV. From our conversations I sense the coach is still in there. Would that be accurate?
“Certainly. To be honest, I was a little disappointed I didn’t get another opportunity after Mississauga. Sure, I likely could have got work as an assistant, but I don’t know if that would be right for me.”
Is that because you like to take charge of the team?
“I guess that could be part of it but what really interests me and what I’m most passionate about right now is development. I think developing players properly is vital to success in hockey and that’s really where I get the biggest thrill, is teaching and bringing guys along. I could see myself taking on a role as a development coach in the future. We’ll see, but I’d for sure like to coach again in some capacity.”
Randy Carlyle has recently been let go, and you and I have spent a lot of time these last couple weeks just plain talking hockey and today’s Leafs. I’d really like the fans to hear what Rick Vaive thinks of the systematic play here in Toronto.
“First of all, I feel for Randy. I really do. I’m sure he tried everything to get his message across, but ultimately it falls on the coach. He’s the one to pay in this case. When I watch the Maple Leafs, and I watch all the games, there’s one thing that sticks out to me more than anything else. And that is their gap control. When you see Toronto at its best, they are a 5-man unit. Short passes, plenty of puck support, guys coming back and helping the defenseman get the puck up ice. The problem is that it takes a level of commitment to play that way consistently. With the Leafs of today, when they start to play well or pick up a few wins, they often resort back to cheating up ice or letting their gaps get too big. In contrast, when they start to struggle, they cheat even more to force offense.”
“When I watch the Maple Leafs, and I watch all the games, there’s one thing that sticks out to me more than anything else. And that is their gap control. When you see Toronto at its best, they are a 5-man unit. Short passes, plenty of puck support, guys coming back and helping the defenseman get the puck up ice. The problem is that it takes a level of commitment to play that way consistently.“
“I’m sure the coaching staff has showed them the tape countless times, and you see it done properly from certain lines, but it’s not consistent. For the Leafs to be a good hockey team they have to hang their hat on being a team that supports the pucks. Now I’m a coach, so I don’t want to say coaching is overrated. What I am saying is that often the solutions are rather simple, instead of over-analyzing. The game is the game at the core and some principles never change. What you are trying to do as a coach, through whatever system because none work without the players buying in but many can work if they do, is you are trying to break down the other team. How do you do that, exactly? By creating 2 on 1’s all over the ice, in all 3 zones. And to take it a step further, you create those odd mans by using strength, skill, determination and hard work. And you can trace that all the way back to keeping good gap control and supporting the puck.”
“Something else that falls in line with all this is hockey sense and on ice communication. There are players who just have that instinct of where to be and how to play the game defensively. The best way to defend is as one unit all pulling in the same direction. Talking and having everyone on the same page is essential in that. You need to pay attention to your assignments out there and defend with intensity. With this Leafs team it comes down to the core principles I mentioned earlier. Things like getting back hard and being there to help out in your zone. Listen, defense is hard work and can be a thankless job. But it all starts in your own end. And after that, it’s an easier game when you are making short passes and moving the puck up the ice together. But it doesn’t just happen. It takes commitment and discipline to play for one another.”
During the course of this interview, I am able to say I got to know Rick Vaive. Whether it be through exchanging texts after a game to pick apart what the Leafs did well (or maybe not so well), or other times talking while Rick was on his way to or from an Alumni game (where Vaive still plays 40 to 50 games a year and travels throughout Ontario with his friends and teammates), telling hockey stories and having a laugh. My hope is over the hours we spent talking, LeafHub was able to provide you with commentary of a hockey man in the truest form. A heart and soul Maple Leaf. We’ve spoke to the goal scorer, the competitor, the teammate, the hockey dad, and the intuitive coach.
But the guy on the other line I spoke to half of the time, while encompassing all of these men, was something more. You always hear the voice and thoughts of a coaching mind when speaking to Rick. Even more so, the words that shone through for me were those of Rick Vaive……fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Although Vaive carries with him a wealth of knowledge and experience we could never match, there is still something he shares with us all. And that is our love of the Blue & White jersey with the Maple Leaf crest in the middle. Vaive could talk Leafs all day and all night, and in fact, we have. He is “one of the boys” in every way, except he has a better shot than most of us. Okay, all of us. He can still absolutely wire it, bar down. Some things never change.
In a difficult time here in Toronto, Rick Vaive reminded myself and all of us here at the Hub why we bleed blue, and always will.
Thanks 22. Even now, he’s still finding a way to contribute for the Leafs.
Now that’s character.
Read Part One of the interview HERE.