Sports This Week - Leaf great Rick Vaive looks back on career

When I was old enough to actually realize what hockey was, that it was more than a television show on a Saturday that I could snuggle close to Dad and watch until I fell asleep, I wanted a favourite team.

Dad cheered for Montreal and I suppose even at a young age I realized it was more fun to argue sports than simply agree on things, so there was no way I was cheering for the Canadiens.

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So my choices were rather limited. This was around 1967-'69 so there were really only six teams. Yes the National Hockey League expanded to 12 teams in '67 but really who could cheer for LA or Oakland, in their ugly uniforms, or any of the teams based on the awful rosters the existing league had allowed them.

No, it was the original six, well five with Montreal off the table, so even then my Canadian pride showed through and I became a Toronto Maple Leaf fan.

I remember the '67 Stanley Cup win from stories later, not from any real recollection of the win, the final one with only six teams, and the drought since is the stuff of legend and enough memes and jokes to fill a dump truck or two.

It hasn't been easy being a Leaf fan, and it's probably why I began following Vancouver when they joined the NHL in 1970, another team with a long history without a Cup.

In 1979 though the Canucks drafted a guy named Rick Vaive fifth overall after he scored 126 goals in two seasons in Sherbrooke, and spent a year in the World Hockey Association with Birmingham.

Vaive should have been a star in Vancouver but after 47 games he was traded. Imagine a team moving a first rounder after 47-games today. It was not a savvy move, but then again the Canucks were lousy more often than not because of brutal decisions.

Vaive went to Toronto though so good news for a guy who also loved the Leafs.

Vaive would have three 50-goal seasons as a Leaf, before settling back to have three 30-plus goal seasons on a mediocre team before the team ran by one of the worst sport team owners ever; Harold Ballard, sent him to Chicago.

Scoring 50 should have made Vaive untouchable, only two other Leafs, Gary Leeman and Dave Andreychuk, have matched it.

But the three 50-goal seasons might have cursed Vaive too. Falling back to the mid-30s in goals was an obvious decline, and the team never made a Cup final either.

But Vaive was close to a Hall of Famer too. He finished his career with 441 regular season goals in a world where 500 is a virtual golden ticket to the Hall. He need the 30 goal years to be 40s and he was in.

Now, more than 25 years after his last NHL game as a Sabre in 1992 Vaive has released a book 'Catch 22: My Battle, in Hockey and Life'.

This is a book for Leaf fans whose memories extend back to Vaive's playing days, and era when even his 50-goal efforts were often overshadowed by the shenanigans of owner Harold Ballard, who always seemed to want to be the centre of attention with his team and did crazy things, including a raft of bad trades, Vaive among them.

So why a book now?

In a telephone chat Vaive said to begin with he was waiting for co-author Scott Morrison to have time, noting he “was the only guy” he would have worked with.

And secondly Vaive said he was simply finally ready to tell his story, warts and all.

“It just felt right. I'm in a good place in my mind … and family wise,” so telling his story was easier.

Even the tougher parts of his life, family growing up, booze in the NHL, are part of the telling of Vaive's story. He said he had to tell the bad with the good and conjuring the past was not hard in the end.

“It didn't bother me at all,” he said, adding in the end the path he took was one he chose. “I have no regrets with what I did.”

Vaive said there were mistakes but added “at the same time that's on me.”

Vaive said a lot of people will think a player with a 13-year NHL career “it must be a perfect life,” but in the end “we're just normal people even though we're playing at the highest level, we have challenges in our lives too.”

That is the part of the book that will stick with readers, that 50-goal seasons do not ensure a smooth time in dealing with everything that a person faces.

But the 50-goals remains a career highlight.

“Obviously it was very big for me,” said Vaive, adding it was big for fans too at a time because of Ballard “things were a circus around there.”

But, in retrospect Vaive added “I'm more proud of the fact I was able to get to the NHL, the best league in the world and play for 13 years.”

© Copyright Yorkton This Week

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