Former Maple Leafs captain Rick Vaive tells it like it was — and is — in new book

·6 min read

Rick Vaive is finally ready to tell his story — his whole, unfiltered account.

The former captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs was never one to hold back, and it makes sense the same approach would apply to his book "Catch 22: My Battles, In Hockey and Life." 

"I always said that if I was going to write something, I wanted it to be authentic and truthful," Vaive said in an interview with The Canadian Press. "A lot of people think you play in the NHL and everything's perfect, everything's great ... and everything's been great since you were born. 

"That's not the way it is."

Named captain of the Leafs at age 22, Vaive was the first player in franchise history to score 50 goals — he did it three times and holds Toronto's record at 54 — and rubbed elbows with the likes of actor John Candy and singer Anne Murray.

But he was also a member of the team during some of its darkest days under the ownership of Harold Ballard, suffered from undiagnosed anxiety, had serious issues with alcohol, saw his career cut short by injury, had a disastrous tenure as head coach of Don Cherry's Mississauga IceDogs in the Ontario Hockey League, went through more than two years of court proceedings related to charges for impaired driving, and eventually went to rehab to get clean.

"Like everybody else in the world, there's challenges," said the 61-year-old Vaive. "You have to overcome those challenges."

Co-written with award-winning hockey reporter Scott Morrison, "Catch 22" details Vaive's difficult upbringing in Ottawa and the Maritimes, where alcohol cast a long shadow over his family.

"It wasn't until later in life that I came to realize what a terrible influence all the drinking and fighting — at my parents' house, with my grandfather — had on me," Vaive writes. "Back then I was too focused on school and sports to notice, too focused on just trying to get through my childhood."

He recounts leaving Prince Edward Island as a teenager and navigating hockey's heavy drinking culture of the 1970s and 1980s. He isn't afraid to names names, and doesn't pull any punches. 

"They know damn well what happened," Vaive replied when asked if he expected any pushback following the book's release Tuesday. "I don't think there should be anybody upset about it. 

"If they are, then too bad."

He touches on his surprise at being handed the 'C' in Toronto, recording a franchise-record 54 goals the same season when he was still just 22 — the book's title stems from that, his No. 22 jersey and a number catch-22 situations he's found himself in throughout life — and numerous other anecdotes from the Ballard years.

Those stories in particular range from head-shaking to cringe-inducing, including one infamous team photo involving the owner's unfortunate dog, T.C. Puck.

Ballard would criticize his captain in the media, but Vaive said the two rarely spoke.

"His goal was to be on the front page of the sports section every day," Vaive said. "We just took it with a grain of salt.

"He was a jerk and he was cheap. You lived with it. It sucked because he was the main reason why we weren't having success. That was frustrating."

And Vaive's exit from Toronto via trade in 1987 after being stripped of the captaincy the previous season still stings because of what might have been during his prime, and the success the franchise enjoyed beginning in the early 1990s following Ballard's death.

"It hurt," Vaive said. "They turned things around. To this day, it's one of those things where you wish you could have been part of that." 

Vaive, who's been married to wife Joyce for nearly 40 years, has two adult sons, and welcomed his first grandchild last year, eventually got into coaching after retiring at age 33, but not before he tried to catch on with either the Ottawa Senators or Tampa Bay Lightning when the NHL expanded in 1992.

Born in the nation's capital, Vaive thought the fit there would have been perfect. He admits it was a mistake not to have an agent at the time, but recounts how the dysfunctional Senators never even bothered calling him back.

"I'm pretty sure I could have scored somewhere between 20 and 30 goals a year, helped some of the young guys and hopefully kick-started the franchise," Vaive said. "But it didn't work out."

Speaking of things that didn't work out, there was Vaive's infamous stretch with the IceDogs following a successful run coaching in the professional ranks. The IceDogs won just three games in Vaive's only season behind the bench.

Vaive has nothing but good things to say about his players in junior. The team just wasn't any good. 

Cherry, the famed hockey broadcaster, is a different story.

"It was frustrating," Vaive said. "Especially when you're getting phone messages from one of your owners (Cherry) from the night before saying, 'Another loss. You couldn't coach a (expletive) peewee team.'"

Alcohol was a persistent problem for Vaive that finally came to a head during his trial for impaired driving following a traffic stop north of Toronto in July 2009. He was eventually acquitted, but the process took its toll.

"The two toughest years of my life," Vaive said. "Every time you went to court it was on the front page. I wasn't getting any work, any appearances. And then of course the drinking got worse." 

He subsequently recognized the problem, sought help and now tries to counsel others.

"It's something I'm proud I was able to overcome," Vaive said.

Not one to hold grudges, it does gnaw at him that he isn't viewed in the same light as other Leafs greats. The franchise retired the numbers worn by 16 players back in 2016, but No. 22 wasn't among them. 

"It's not something that I wake up and think about every day," said Vaive, who ranks fifth in goals and 10th in points all-time for Toronto despite playing just eight seasons in blue and white. "They're asking themselves the wrong question if they're asking themselves 'Why?' 

"The question should be 'Why not?'"

He's holding out hope, but not holding his breath on that final chapter.

"If it does come, I'd like to be young enough to enjoy it," Vaive said. "It would be an incredible honour." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2020.

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"Catch 22: My Battles, In Hockey and Life." Rick Vaive with Scott Morrison. Penguin Random House Canada, 255 pages, $32.95. 

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press