Once Rick Vaive became the first member of the Toronto Maple Leafs to score 50 goals, he went ahead and scored 50 more the next season, and the next.
As a young star winger, he served as captain of the club for five seasons in the ’80s before getting stripped of the “C” and traded to Chicago by owner Harold Ballard. But as Maple Leafs alumnus, analyst and proud hockey dad, the Ottawa native has kept a close eye on his former club.
We recently ran into the smiling, 57-year-old Vaive and his enviable shock of silver-fox hair at a charity hockey tournament where we chatted with him about getting drafted via telephone, the vacant Maple Leafs captaincy, and why Toronto should target the never-not-serious John Tavares over Steven Stamkos during its rebuild.
SPORTSNET.CA: You were drafted fifth overall in 1979. What was the NHL Draft like back then?
Rick Vaive: It was a phone draft because it was the year the WHA merged with the NHL. They used to hold it in Montreal at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, but we didn’t go because of the merger. Our draft wasn’t until August, so it was a long summer. I knew I’d probably go in the top five. It was a matter of waiting for the phone call. Finally got it. It was Vancouver, and the rest is history.
So you’re just sitting by the phone waiting for it to ring?
It wasn’t as big of a production back then. The way they do it now brings a lot of attention to the league and the kids as well. For us, it wasn’t as big of a deal back then. I don’t even remember if it was televised.
Were you hopeful you’d get picked, say, third or fourth overall instead of fifth?
It wasn’t a matter of draft order then; it was a matter of teams. What team are you going to? Not: What number? I thought I was going to Washington right up until [draft] day. They had the fourth pick and interviewed me. They did a big feature in the paper and talked to my agent. They changed their mind overnight and took Mike Gartner—which turned out to be a pretty damn good pick. He played a lot longer and scored a couple hundred more goals. But just to go in the first round, it was magnificent.
Then 18 years later, you got to see your son, Justin, get drafted to the Anaheim Ducks.
He was going to Miami University in Ohio and we were down there for orientation and the draft that year  was in Columbus. His agent said, ‘Don’t bother going,’ because he didn’t want him to be disappointed, but I wanted to bring him. I knew he wasn’t going to go first or second round, but even if he goes third or fourth [round], at least he gets to meet the people that drafted him. Against my better judgment, I listened to the agent instead of taking him. So when he was taken 92nd overall—which is pretty decent—it really disappointed me that I didn’t take him.
Vancouver traded you to Toronto midway through your rookie season, and you held the Maple Leafs’ captaincy from 1981 to 1986. What do you think of the possibility of the Leafs entering next season without a captain?
I don’t see anything wrong with that. Not at all. You’re going to have a group of veterans who will be the spokespersons and eventually somebody younger will take over, unless… I don’t believe the [Steven] Stamkos stories. If anything I believe John Tavares would come here in two years versus Stamkos coming here now.
Why Tavares and not Stamkos?
The team is going to be so much further ahead. The young kids will have two or three years in pro hockey under their belt. What better time for John Tavares to come in and take them to the next level. My son played with him for four years with the [GTHL’s] Toronto Marlies.
Ah, so you know him personally. What’s he like off the ice? He always seems so serious to me.
I love the kid. He’s an awful, awful, big, tough competitor. He’s very serious. You don’t catch him in many non-serious situations. Maybe the odd time when he’s away from everybody and he’s with my son and a couple other buddies, he’ll let his hair down, laugh a bit and have some fun. [Note: Justin Vaive is now in the Islanders system.] But I’ve never seen him not serious: OK, I’m ready to step on the ice. That’s the way he approaches everything. Not a bad way to be, except sometimes you gotta have some fun.
Back to the captaincy. What was your reaction to being asked to wear the C entering just your third NHL season?
I wasn’t asked. I was told, by Harold. It was an honour, don’t get me wrong, but at the time I’d already been traded once. The first thing that went through my mind was: I’m not ready. I was 22 years old. I knew maybe two years down the road I’d be ready. But if I say no to Harold, he’s going to trade me. And I don’t want to get traded. I like it here. So I had no choice. Probably two years later I was a much better captain than I was when he gave me the C. Trial and error. On every team, it’s not just the captain. You have a group of four or five guys that are the leaders of that team.
Who was in your leadership group?
We had Borje Salming.
Borje wasn’t a big talker in the dressing room, was he?
Yeah, he was. He just didn’t say anything publicly because he didn’t want to get Harold mad at him. [laughs] He was a leader. So was Mike Palmateer. Bunny Larocque came in later. Ian Turnbull. Now, unfortunately we didn’t have enough leaders, and therefore we didn’t have enough success. But ask anybody who played for the great Edmonton Oilers: It wasn’t just Wayne Gretzky. It was [Mark] Messier, it was Kevin Lowe, it was Grant Fuhr… they had six or seven leaders. If you’re successful, you’re going to have a lot of those guys.
What’s your take on the current Leafs and the strategy of stripping this roster right down to the bone?
I love it. It’s like building a building. If you want a strong building that’s going to last the test of time, you have to have a strong foundation or that building will fall down. That’s what they’re doing. It’s great. Getting the first pick this year is the icing on the cake. They’ll get another good player.
Auston Matthews, it must be.
You build down the middle. That’s how you build championship teams. They need two or three more defencemen. A goalie. But they got a lot of picks [12 of them]. Don’t be surprised if they pull off a trade or two at the draft for guys in their mid-20s who are real good players in the NHL now.
How long until these Maple Leafs make the playoffs?
Probably not next year but the following year. After that, it’ll keep going up very quickly. So from that standpoint, it’s looking pretty good.