TORONTO – No fewer than 15 different hockey players have worn 22 for the Toronto Maple Leafs since Rick Vaive made that number sing.
And, if the first and most frequent member of Toronto’s 50-goal club is being honest — which is the only way he knows these days — he’d prefer the recycling of that sweater end.
Vaive would be honoured to see 22 reeled to rafters of Scotiabank Arena, preferably while he’s still young enough to savour another moment at centre ice.
Vaive is 61. He’s a grandpa. And when he’s not trying to lower his handicap (currently: 5) or interviewing fellow NHL alumni for his Squid & The Ultimate Leafs Fanpodcast with Mike Wilson, Vaive can be prone to thinking about legacy, and how it pertains to hockey, team, and family.
That’s why Vaive reached out to Hall of Fame hockey scribe Scott Morrison — the only biographer he wanted — last October and said he wanted to tell his life story, good, bad and ugly.
Catch 22: My Battles, In Hockey and Life, released Tuesday, is billed as “the untold story of a Toronto Maple Leafs legend.” Thankfully, the book doesn’t gloss over the mistakes or the drinking, the pain or the frustration.
Vaive’s words and feelings are raw — but it’s not a downer. There’s hope and perseverance and some fun hockey tales in here, too.
“Everything in that book is real, and it’s the truth,” Vaive says over the phone. “And I’m extremely proud of it.”
Vaive’s only regret about the project is that the virus will prevent him from touring around to sign copies and shake hands of Leafs fans. Another catch-22 in a life full of them.
During our lengthy chat, Vaive explains why he found it so difficult to milk joy from his 50-goal campaigns, why he hit it off with comedy star John Candy, and why it hurts a little to see 22 still in rotation.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
SPORTSNET: When did you first realise you wanted to document your life and make it public this way?
RICK VAIVE: Within the last year. There’s a lot of people out there who think that for anybody who played in the NHL for 13 years, everything’s perfect. That growing up, everything was perfect. And that you’re rich. I wanted to get out there the hurdles I had to overcome.
SN: I was taken by how candid you are in these pages, tackling alcoholism and abusive relationships head-on. What was the most difficult chapter to write?
RV: The first one, “Party Central.” I love my parents, obviously — they’re both deceased — and I love my brothers and my sister. But the reality is, that’s what life was like for me when I was young. My parents did a lot of great things. As I said in the book, that’s probably how they knew how to parent because that’s how they were brought up. Life wasn’t perfect, and I took a lot of whacks for it, but it was me or my younger brothers — and I didn’t want that to happen. That was probably the toughest because my parents were good people. But, to a fault, they were probably too nice. Because of that, people took advantage.
SN: How were they too nice?
RV: When I was growing up in P.E.I., every weekend all the relatives would come to our house. The liquor would be flowing — and it was my parents’ liquor. It wasn’t theirs. Sometimes they’d bring maybe a six-pack, but they’d drink 12 or 18. All of a sudden, it’d be like, “Oh, is anybody hungry?” Then my parents start feeding them. It bothered me. I sat down with them around the second or third year after I turned pro and explained that they can’t do that. They can’t afford it. That they’re not gonna have any money when they retire — and that’s pretty much what happened.
SN: Was there anything too personal to print? Did you hold back for privacy reasons?
RV: No. It’s all in there. We didn’t edit anything out. The troubles I went through with alcohol — I’m not ashamed of anything. It’s just what happened to me, and it was a battle. But it was something I’m very proud that I was able to do the first time on my own, and then the second time by going to rehab. So, no, nothing was kept out. And I’m proud of that because that’s the way I wanted the book to be. I didn’t want it to be bulls—.
SN: Is alcohol still a battle for you? Do you make a daily choice to avoid drinking, or have you worked past that temptation?
RV: I’m pretty much through it. I’m with my buddies playing golf on Saturdays. We have a 16-man, two-man best-ball game, and we all sit around after and eat. There are tons of pitchers of beer in front of me, and I don’t even think about it. So, I’m at the point where I just consider [sobriety] part of my life now, and that’s the way it is going forward.
SN: That’s great. I admire how you dive right into your alcoholism on the very first page. You score 50 goals, and they throw all this beer in front of you. Was it a conscious decision to address it off the top?
RV: It was a big part of my life, unfortunately, at times. I didn’t pretend to be an angel when I was playing or growing up. I did some stupid things, as everybody does. It was very important I put that in there. I’ve gone to see former teammates of mine, and even people I never played with or don’t know. People have reached out to me to talk because they’ve had problems with alcohol and drugs. So, I enjoy doing that. Because if I can help one person out of five or 10 overcome those demons, then I’ve helped someone.
SN: Why haven’t the Maple Leafs retired sweater number 22?
RV: I don’t know. In my personal opinion, if you look at the numbers over the time I was there and compare them to guys in the top 10 — who played anywhere from 150 to 600 games more than I did in a Leafs uniform — I would say it’s probably something that should be done. It would be a great honour, there’s no question about that. It would be something I would be very proud of, and I hope maybe one day it does happen — and that I’m still young enough and my family can be there.
The worst thing I saw was Red Kelly getting his number retired in Detroit way past when it should’ve been. Watching that ceremony, I don’t know if Red even knew at that point. He had dementia and everything else, and I’m not sure he was sure who was on the ice. I found it very sad that they waited that long to do that, because he wasn’t in a condition to really enjoy it. It was only three months later that he passed away. So, if it does happen, it would be one heck of an honour. And I just hope if it does, my capacities are still there to enjoy it.
SN: Does it hurt that it hasn’t happened yet?
RV: Yeah, there’s no question it does. I mean, I look at the numbers, and you’re fifth in goals  and 10th in points  and the first player to ever score 50 goals for the franchise. Yeah, it does a little bit. It’s not something I think about every day or lose a lot of sleep over, but to a degree it does hurt a little bit, yes.
SN: Still, your relationship with the organisation is strong, right? I’ve seen you at games, and you attend alumni events.
RV: Oh, absolutely. Our alumni are treated extremely well by MLSE, and Brendan [Shanahan] has done so much for us since he’s come in. We’ve got a suite on Level 2 right behind the visitors’ net. He took two suites and made it into one big one. There are Leaf alumni games, and we do tons of appearances with their corporate partners, and you get paid for it. They’ve given alumni a lot of money for appearances and stuff like that, so we’re very well taken care of.
SN: What sticks out from your 47 games with the Canucks?
RV: Being the fifth pick overall [in 1979] was fantastic, what you always dream of. Our draft was a phone draft, and it was late. It was in August, because that was the year the WHA merged four teams into the NHL. I don’t remember a whole lot from Vancouver. I lived with Glen Hanlon because there were no apartments available, and we had one that was being built. Ironically, we came back from a long road trip, our apartment was ready, we moved in, and I got traded to Toronto the next day.
SN: Your description of the three consecutive 50-goal seasons with the Leafs is fascinating — just how little joy you felt as the star player on a bad team. How do you view those great individual years now?
RV: I wish we could’ve been more productive as a team. Everything around the 50-goal seasons would have been a heck of a lot more enjoyable. We had an owner who… he was cheap. We were probably underpaid compared to the [talented] players on other NHL teams. He wouldn’t pay for a good general manager who could make that move when you needed it at the deadline. He wouldn’t pay for good coaching. We had some good players, and that’s the sad part about it. We drafted pretty well. They made mistakes by bringing a lot of guys up to the NHL way too early, and some didn’t last very long. We suffered through those times.
We were just starting to get good in 1985-86. Dan Maloney was our coach. We had a good playoff and got to the second round. And then they wouldn’t give him any more than a one-year contract, so he left and went to Winnipeg. The whole thing was a mess because of one individual, and that was Harold Ballard.
That you are playing in the National Hockey League and playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs and you’re [putting up points] and you’re the captain, yes, that’s all great. But winning is what you play for. You play for winning a Stanley Cup. That’s your dream when you’re a kid. Under different circumstances with the guys we had, things could have been different. I’m not saying we would’ve won a Stanley Cup, but we might have.
SN: Auston Matthews’s chase for 50 continues. With 82 games another long shot this upcoming season, who knows how long your team-record 54 goals will stand? What kind of conversations have you had with Auston?
RV: We’ve talked about it at the Leafs gala a couple of times and at the Leafs and Legends golf tournament. I believe he’s gonna do it at some point. I was very disappointed for him last year. The first few seasons he had good years, but he had injuries. All of a sudden, he’s there, and he’s got the opportunity last spring — and it’s not an injury that takes it away from him. If it’s just an injury, that’s part of the game. But it’s a pandemic. That bothered me because it took that opportunity away from him. I felt bad for him. I really did. That must’ve been very frustrating for him. He would’ve scored 50 for sure. No question. He probably would’ve had a good chance to get 54 or 55, and he didn’t get that opportunity because of the pandemic.
Rick Vaive on his still standing record, the playoff format, and Leafs vs. Blue Jackets
SN: What do you make of Toronto’s offseason moves, particularly adding Wayne Simmonds and Joe Thornton to the leadership mix?
RV: It is important, no question. The moves were primarily to bring in some guys that have been through the wringer and got to the Stanley Cup final or semi-finals, and they know what it takes to get there. At the end of the day, they can tell the young core anything they want. It’s up to them now. They’re not kids anymore. They’re not young. They’ve been in the league for three, four, five years, some of them. It’s up to them to take over now. Yes, the other guys can help by keeping things level in the dressing room, and I’m sure they can help with issues players are having. That’s all very important, but at the end of the day, now it’s time for them to shine and take over and take this team to the next level.
SN: What was the most important lesson you had to learn about leadership?
RV: I like to lead by example. If I had to say anything, it was something that was done not by yelling and screaming, but it was standing up and saying, “Guys, we’re still in this. We’ve got two periods. We’re down two, but we can win this game.” I wasn’t a rah-rah, get-up-and-yell-and-scream type of guy. When I was captain, it was difficult because we didn’t have a lot of older players. For me to relate to them, it was a little bit more difficult. Seeing what they had to go through as 18- and 19-year-olds when they should’ve been back in junior, getting better and getting bigger and stronger and more mature, drove me crazy. It really bothered me because I felt bad for them. They were not put in a place to succeed. The only guy that came in as an 18-year-old while I was there that you knew was gonna have success was Wendel Clark. You knew that right away.
SN: Clark was only a sophomore when he shoe-checked you. Was that rare, for a young guy to pull a prank on the captain?
RV: If you can get away with it, it’s fine.
SN: Best prank you witnessed?
RV: Somebody going to grab his shoes, and they were nailed to the floor. Guys would tie real tight knots in your shirtsleeve or your pant leg. You’d sit there, legitimately, for half an hour or more trying to get the knot out your pants or shirt. The best one of all: The towels were all piled up outside the shower on the shelf and someone would come in and put baby powder inside the towel. Or put baby powder in the hairdryer. So, when someone went to dry their hair, it would go all over him. One time somebody put baby powder in the hairdryer, and who had a shower while we were on the ice and used the hairdryer? Harold.
RV: He actually thought it was quite funny, which was surprising to everybody on the team. He thought it was a good prank.
SN: OK, so I grew up a massive fan of John Candy’s movies. It was fun learning he was a friend of yours. Give me your best John Candy story.
RV: Oh, boy. We’d just played in L.A., and he came into the dressing room. I was in the shower. I guess he walks into the room and he goes, “Hey, where’s Squid at?” — which is my nickname — and all the guys are like eyes wide open, going, “Holy s—! It’s John Candy.” So then I walk out and shoot s— with him as I got dressed and then went to the bar. And we used to have a party in a barn in Mississauga. There was prime rib, a band, and the whole bit. Usually it was around Halloween, so we’d make it a Halloween party. John got my wife and I into Second City to get makeup done and everything and dressed up in costumes. That was pretty cool, as well.
SN: Was he always on, cracking jokes, being the life of the party? Or was he a little different when you got to know him on a personal level?
RV: Oh, he was pretty funny. That made him a natural for those movies, and they were hilarious. I remember him telling me one story: He lost a lot of weight because of his health. And then he went a period of time where he never got a role because directors didn’t want him — because he’d lost all the weight. So then he put it all back on and started getting funny roles again, because he was funnier as a big man than he was as a skinny guy. He was a great person, and his wife [Rosemary Hobor] was a fabulous individual. We hit it off and had a great relationship.
SN: How did you get the nickname Squid?
RV: In Birmingham, when I was 19 in the WHA. John Brophy was our coach. One day, we’re doing power-play drills at one end, and everyone’s shooting at the other end. It’s our power-play unit’s turn to come down and switch. All the guys are down there, and Broph is at the blue line screaming at the top of his lungs, “Squid!” Craig Hartsburg says, “Who are you calling?” And Broph said “Vaive!” And Craig said, “Oh, you mean Spud”— being from P.E.I. and all. Broph said, “Spud, Squid… I don’t give a f— what you call him. Get him down here!”
That was it. Then I was drafted to Vancouver, and everybody called me “RV.” Then I got traded to in Toronto, and we’re playing Minnesota one night. In the warm-up, I’m at the red line stretching. And Craig [now with the North Stars] comes up, and says, “Hey, Squid, how’s it going?” Dave Burrows was beside me, and he says, “Squid?!” That was it. It was Squid from that day on.