For a good portion of Rick Vaive’s life – the formative years – it was all about hockey.
Hockey, hockey, hockey.
And damn if he wasn’t one heck of a player. The kid lit up the QMJHL for 127 goals and 265 points in 136 games for Sherbrooke before he even turned 19. Then the Birmingham Bulls of the World Hockey Association started their kiddie corps program at a time when the NHL refused to employ teenagers.
Off to Alabama he went as a pro hockey player. There were some crazy times in the WHA. Vaive recalled being in the trainer’s room during an intermission when he heard loud noises coming from an adjoining room. He crept down the hall to the weight room and there was Bulls’ coach John Brophy dressed in a suit and pounding away on the heavy bag. “He was cursing and swearing,” Vaive said. “I just shook my head.”
The season before Vaive joined them, Birmingham tried to go the Broad Street Bullies route, employing a bunch of thugs (Steve Durbano, Dave Hanson and Frank Beaton), and now the kids were paying the price. “Those guys were all gone and the other team took it out on us,” Vaive said.
Vaive led the Bulls with 26 goals and 59 points in 75 games while accumulating 248 penalty minutes as a 19-year-old. Other teenage members of Birmingham’s kiddie corps were Michel Goulet, Rob Ramage, Craig Hartsburg and Pat Riggin.
That summer, Vaive was drafted fifth overall by Vancouver, and the real drama began. He had 13 goals and 21 points in 47 games but was often a healthy scratch. Before his rookie NHL season ended, he and Bill Derlago were traded to Toronto for Dave ‘Tiger’ Williams and Jerry Butler. “It was devastating,” Vaive said. “You’re the fifth pick and you are expecting you’ll be there for a while. It was a shock. I’m only 20 and I’m wondering if I’m done.”
It turned out to be a blessing. Vaive become an important cog in hockey’s biggest market. He took his game to the next level, becoming the first Maple Leaf to hit the 50-goal plateau. In fact, he did it three years in a row, scoring 54 in 1981-82, 51 the following season and 52 the year after that.
Trouble was, the Leafs failed to surround Vaive with support and Toronto made the playoffs just once in that span. The Leafs named 22-year-old Vaive captain in 1981-82 replacing Darryl Sittler. “I don’t believe I was ready for that,” Vaive said. “I wasn’t asked to be captain; I was just told by (owner) Harold Ballard. If I said I wasn’t ready, I think he would have traded me.”
Looking back, at 56, Vaive is the first to admit he was riding the crest of a wave and never had a handle on life’s big picture or what to expect when the applause faded. “Most guys aren’t prepared,” Vaive said. “It’s different for today’s players who have $40-50 million in the bank. We had to go do something right away to support our families.”
Vaive’s NHL career ended after 1991-92. He coached five seasons in the ECHL (winning a title in 1996-97), two in the AHL and one in the OHL. Then he became a commentator on Leafs TV and for the past eight years has done public appearances while playing for the Leafs and NHL Alumni teams. “I’m not making a million bucks a year, but I’m getting by,” Vaive said.
Vaive and his wife of 34 years, Joyce, reside in Niagara Falls, Ont. Their son Justin was an Anaheim draft pick in 2007.