Each day from now until the Winter Classic, Sportsnet will count down the greatest Toronto Maple Leafs of all time.
It was the second-last game of the 1982 season. On a first-period power play against the St. Louis Blues, centreman Bill Derlago got the puck along the boards, walked across the blueline and backhanded it to Rick Vaive, who one-timed it past Blues goaltender Mike Liut for his fifth goal in two games and 50th of the season. The Leafs on the ice swarmed their star right-winger, the hometown crowd rising to their feet to honour the first man ever to cross the 50-goal plateau wearing the blue and white.
Five years earlier, rather than spend his final year in junior, Vaive–the 1977 QMJHL rookie of the year—leapt at the chance to play in the WHA in ’78–79 after registering 51 and 76 goals in two seasons for the Sherbrooke Castors. There was little money, but a lot of exposure skating for the Birmingham Bulls under future NHL head coach Jacques Demers. “You take three taxis a week, that’s half of your pay right there,” Vaive said at the time. But after he scored 59 points in 76 games, the Vancouver Canucks made Vaive the fifth overall selection in the 1979 entry draft.
He wouldn’t last long on the West Coast. The winger was dealt to the Leafs in 1980 after just 47 NHL games. “When I didn’t score a lot, they gave up on me,” Vaive said following the trade. Derlago, the other first-rounder traded alongside Vaive, remembers it was the Vancouver coaching staff who soured on Vaive. “They liked the older guys. But it was the best thing that ever happened. We got to play right away.” That was thanks to Punch Imlach, who took over as Leafs coach a month after the two forwards arrived and let his young guns fly. Derlago and Vaive grew close after the trade, helping their on-ice chemistry when they became linemates.
Two left-wingers skated with them at various times that first season—Pat Hickey and Dan Maloney—but it was with the strong, puck-moving John Anderson that the line really soared. It was a transitional period for the club, one that saw the departure of favourites Lanny McDonald, Darryl Sittler and goaltender Mike Palmateer. Suffocated by eccentric owner Harold Ballard, the franchise was in a freefall. The bright spot? The six-foot-one, 198-lb. right-winger with the famous black swath of hair who scored 54 goals in his second full season with the Leafs.
He would hit the 50-goal mark in each of the following two campaigns. “He loved to score goals,” Derlago says. Some things never change. “We play old-timers a few games a year and you can just see him—when he gets that puck his eyes are just glued on the net.” But Vaive was more than a sharp shooter. He racked up more than 100 penalty minutes in five of his seven full seasons with the Leafs, including 229 PIM in ’80–81 and 157 PIM in ’81–82.
Nicknamed “Robo-Vaive,” the winger wore extra padding and a visor to protect himself. Vaive’s scrappy and hot-tempered nature meant he fought his own battles, endearing him to fans even while the team was losing. Derlago believes Vaive’s willingness to drop the gloves cleared some room on the ice and allowed him to keep scoring at an impressive clip. He wasn’t tough all the time, however: He was afraid of flying. “I’ve had to throw away shirts after flights because they were soaking wet,” he said.
They didn’t make visors thick enough to protect Vaive from the pressure that comes with being the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Vaive took over the leadership role from Daryl Sittler midway through the ’81–82 season, holding the position until February 1986. One morning in Minnesota, Vaive missed practice and was stripped of the “C” in a joint decision by GM Gerry McNamara, then-coach Maloney and Ballard. Vaive characterized the incident as nothing more than a “late-night bull session” with former linemate Anderson, who was in town the night before with the Quebec Nordiques, but the damage was done. It was a huge disappointment to the Leafs superstar, and he was dealt to Chicago a year later, joining a list of other Leafs captains who finished their careers in other cities—Keon, Sittler and later, Mats Sundin.
Vaive played eight seasons in Canada’s largest market, never scoring fewer than 32 goals. The Leafs made the playoffs three times during his tenure but never put up a winning season. Still, no one scored more for the team than Vaive, and only Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky scored more goals over the three seasons between ’81–84. For the now silver-haired Vaive, that’s some pretty good company.