If you think the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews 2021-22 season is spectacular, you should’ve seen what Rick Vaive was doing 40 years ago. Many younger Maple Leafs’ fans may not know, and several diehard fans would rather forget, but the 1980s were a brutal era for the franchise. It was the most chaotic time under owner Harold Ballard, and Vaive was in the middle of it. The fact he did what he did, a performance that has not been matched until recently by Matthews, is worth remembering and honouring Vaive by retiring his number 22.
The Maple Leafs’ Centennial Anniversary began with the franchise retiring the numbers of 17 players, bringing the total to 19 players recognized as Leafs’ Legends. They are all incredible players, many are in the Hockey Hall of Fame, but there is a banner missing between Borje Salming’s number 21 and Darryl Sittler’s number 27. Let’s look at why Vaive’s number 22 should be in the rafters.
Vaive Linked to the Dark Times
Back to Ballard who had been convicted of theft and fraud in 1972. After serving less than a year of his nine-year sentence, he seemingly continued to steal, although it may not have been as illegal. The franchise was a printing press for cash. Fans were buying tickets for a barely competitive team, often finishing last under Ballard’s ownership. He refused to pay for coaches, general managers, trainers, and players. If someone got too good, they were shipped out before needing a new contract.
That is how Vaive came to Toronto. The Leafs traded one of the most beloved players in team and NHL history, Dave “Tiger” Williams and Jerry Butler, to Vancouver for Bill Derlago and rookie Vaive. It turned out to be a good trade for Toronto, two young guys and both first-round draft picks who were very cheap. However, this trade happened less than two months after Ballard had traded Lanny McDonald to the Colorado Rockies. A move that caused fans to protest in front of Maple Leaf Gardens. Following that up with trading another fan favourite did not sit well with the fanbase.
Despite the less than warm welcome, Vaive won some fans over with a great shot off of the Titan Ultraglass TPM 2020 non-curved stick. Plus, he had incredible grit and toughness. He led the team in penalty minutes in his second NHL season, first full season in Toronto, with 229 in 75 games. He also had 33 goals and 62 points.
Vaive Named Captain after Sittler
The following season, 1981-82, is often remembered as the year Darryl Sittler was traded. The heart and soul of the team for 12 years finally had enough of Ballard and left. He had been the team captain since 1975, other than a short period when he tore the “C” off his jersey after McDonald was traded. Keeping with the awkward replacement tradition, the captaincy was assigned to Vaive. He was the 19th captain in franchise history and the youngest Leafs’ captain, wearing the “C” at just 22-years-old.
While the team and the fanbase were in disarray, Vaive went about his business. He became the first player in franchise history to score 50 goals. He finished the season with 54 goals, setting a franchise record that stood for four decades. He rang up 51 goals during the 1982-83 season and 52 in the 1983-84 season. Only two players scored more goals during those three years, Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy.
Vaive’s numbers are impressive, but even more notable is the situation he was in and the team that was around him. This was the darkest of dark times in the Ballard era. Players were being traded, inexperienced and cheap general managers and coaches were being brought in. The medical trainer was Guy Kinnear, who was Ballard’s boat mechanic. In Vaive’s book, Catch 22: My Battles, In Hockey and Life, he writes that the day after he hurt his shoulder, he went to the Kinnear for treatment and was handed two Neocitran packages. Unfortunately, the equipment management doesn’t sound much better. If they were on a smoke break, which sounds like there were many, you couldn’t get anything done, including a skate sharpening. As a result, Vaive skated on dull skates several times.
Vaive played 534 games with a Maple Leaf on his chest and recorded 537 points, 299 were goals. That puts him in the franchise’s top ten for points but by far the least number of games on that list. Some players ahead of him played double as many games in Toronto.
Since the Leafs last won the Stanley Cup in 1967, all but three captains have had their numbers retired, Dion Phaneuf and Rob Ramage. When Toronto named their top 100 players of all time, Vaive was number twenty. All the players ahead of him have their numbers retired except for McDonald and Busher Jackson.
Vaive Stripped of the C
Vaive made a very public mistake that many believe is why his number is not retired. He was stripped of the captaincy when he overslept and missed practice in 1986. Considering the stories around the team back then, that should be looked at as a minor infraction, and a reprimand should’ve been in order, but not to that extreme. Others believe he has been snubbed from the rafters because of team president Brendan Shanahan. Shanahan had publicly stated he held a grudge against Vaive for refusing to give him an autograph when he was a kid. The first time Shanahan lined up next to Vaive in the NHL he attacked him off the faceoff.
Vaive has also been very vocal about his battles with alcohol. It was part of his life, before, during and after hockey. He’s been sober and has helped others battling addictions. He’s been part of the Toronto Alumni games and charity events. He says he is proud of what he accomplished with the Maple Leafs. Too bad his time with Toronto coincides with some of the worst teams during arguably the worst time in franchise history. The fact that he did what he did despite the circumstances is enough to warrant a look. Still, he set franchise records and gave the Toronto-faithful something to cheer about when there wasn’t much to like about the team. Number 22 should be in the rafter. Vaive is a Leafs’ legend.
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