TORONTO — Rick Vaive still remembers the date: March 24, 1982.
He doesn’t even need to look it up.
That was the night he became the first player in Toronto Maple Leafs history to score 50 goals in a season and part of his march to setting the franchise record at 54.
It was a special time in Vaive’s career and his life, and it was something he was looking forward to reliving in the weeks ahead with Auston Matthews in hot pursuit of his place in history. Then everything came to an abrupt halt when the spread of the COVID-19 virus forced the NHL to pause its season.
“I think he had a good shot at it,” Vaive said of Matthews during a Tuesday afternoon phone conversation. “Maybe he wouldn’t have got to 54 or 55, but certainly he would have got to 50. Then, now, who knows? Obviously I don’t think they’re even going to play regular-season games, they’ll go right to the playoffs if they do resume.
“I feel bad for him because the circumstance is out of his control.”
In the grand scheme of what’s happening in the world right now, hockey records obviously matter little. But with a season unexpectedly halted in its final stages, it ranks high on the list of compelling storylines likely never to be seen through.
Matthews had 47 goals through 70 games when everything stopped — already tied for the seventh-best total in Leafs history. That put him on pace for a 55-goal season which would have established a new benchmark for the 103-year-old franchise.
“No one ever wants their records broken, but he was on the verge of doing that,” said Vaive. “I thought it would have been unbelievable. The fact that it’s been 38 years and a guy of his calibre is able to do it and that I could be there.
“It would have been a pretty special moment for him and for me. And for the organization as well.”
Vaive fondly remembers having Frank Mahovlich come into the dressing room at Maple Leafs Gardens the morning after he first hit the 50-goal milestone by beating St. Louis Blues goaltender Mike Liut.
Just 22 at that time — like Matthews is today — he’d raised the bar on Mahovlich’s previous franchise-best of 48 goals from 1960-61.
“He came in and congratulated me and said ‘That’s unbelievable’ and got pictures taken with me,” said Vaive. “For me that was an unbelievable moment because, you know, it’s Frank Mahovlich. I watched him for so many years.”
Vaive intended to share a similar exchange with Matthews if he wound up passing the baton this spring, and was even willing to travel to road games if the Leafs centre got in a position to do it.
Those two actually discussed the pursuit during the team’s “Blue and White Gala” event in January. They were seated at adjacent tables, with their backs to one another, when Vaive leaned over and said: “Are you going to break the record or what?”
“He said ‘Well, I’ve got a lot of work to do.’ And I said ‘Yeah, but I think you’re going to be able to do it. You’ve got a lot of games left and you’re a talented player, you’ve got a great shot, I’m pretty sure you’re going to be able to do it.’ He said ‘Well, we’ll see.”’
It meant something to the three-time 50-goal man just to have that kind of banter with Matthews.
Vaive was following the chase closely and doesn’t like the fact that Matthews will likely never get a shot at the final 12 games to try and score eight more goals.
“You know what, I feel bad for him because of what has happened,” he said. “I’m sure he’s disappointed because he’s not getting the opportunity to see if he can do it or not.”
For Vaive, who is currently observing a period of self-quarantine at home in Niagara Falls, Ont., it’s a reminder of how much needs to go right to score 50 goals at any level of professional hockey.
You need good health, and some bounces, and a year where you play a lot of games.
Somewhere on the other side of all this uncertainty brought on by coronavirus, he believes Matthews will line up those things yet again.
“I think he can do it,” said Vaive. “I don’t see any reason why he can’t if the season goes right and he doesn’t get hurt.
“Now he’s just got to hopefully look towards next year and say: ‘OK, well next year I’ll give it another shot.”’