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Rick Vaive: Not just a 50 goal scorer—he chased the “Big M’s” Leaf record

In 1960-'61, when I was very young, in fact all of seven years old, a young Maple Leaf winger made the headlines with an unexpected run at a treasured hockey record:  the single-season scoring mark of the legendary Montreal star, Maurice “Rocket” Richard.

In the 1940s, Richard (albeit in war time, when many top players were serving in the Canadian military) scored 50 goals in 50 games.  “50” thereupon became the single-season goal-scoring standard that others would chase. 

The record was not surpassed until Bobby Hull accomplished the feat in the mid-1960s.

But in the meantime, Toronto’s Frank Mahovlich (pictured at right in an early 1960s photo), the young forward I spoke of above, took a run at the Rocket’s big number.

That 1960-’61 season was Red Kelly’s first full year in Toronto.  The former Red Wing defenseman became a center under GM/coach Punch Imlach in Toronto, and he was the creative force behind Mahovlich’s goal-scoring prowess that season.

Frank was making headlines, and I was among the millions of Canadian hockey fans waiting to hear how the “Big M” did game after game.  At one point he was scoring so often it looked like the old “sure thing” that he would hit and surpass 50.  But he eventually ran out of steam in the last part of the season, affected significantly by an injury suffered by his veteran center, Kelly.

Mahovlich ended up with 48 goals that season, a wonderful year, and the highest total he ever achieved in Toronto to that point.  Leaf fans of that era well know that he went on to help the Leafs win four Stanley Cups, until he was traded near the end of the 1967-’68 season.

Other Leafs had good goal-scoring years after Frank, most notably Lanny McDonald in the late 1970s.  But no one really threatened 50 seriously until the 1980s (the number was not as meaningful once Phil Esposito scored 76 in the early ‘70s—and of course Gretzky scored 92 in the early ‘80s).  Still, the number had a certain cache.

When the Leafs traded the ever-popular Tiger Williams and hard-working winger Jerry Butler to the Canucks for two talented but seemingly not terribly dedicated young players, Leaf fans didn’t know what to expect.

Bill Derlago was a young, creative playmaking center.  Rick Vaive was a big shooter who also had a bit of sandpaper to his game as a decent-sized winger.

For his part, Vaive was a 5th overall choice of the Canucks in 1979, though he was already, by then, playing in the WHA as one of the so-called “Baby Bulls” in Birmingham.

With the Leafs (see left), he progressed, on a pretty middlish team, to become a first-line winger.  By the time he was all of 22 in 1981-’82, he registered his first of three consecutive 50 goal seasons—the first Leaf to accomplish the "50 goal" feat.

Those following the team at the time will remember Vaive became team captain after Sittler was shepherded out of town, but Vaive in turn had his own problems with management and lost the captaincy.

In ’87, he was dealt with Steve Thomas and rugged Bob McGill for Al Secord and Ed Olczyk—a much better deal, it turned out, for Chicago.  Olczyk did some good things with the Leafs, but Secord was past his best years.  Meanwhile, Vaive scored more than 40 goals for the Hawks his first season there.

But the thing I remember most fondly about Vaive, who spent the last three years of his career with the Sabres, is not his goal scoring.  Rather, it was, as his career was winding down, how hard he worked, how often he would take punishment in front of the net to create opportunities for his team.

He had done that at times with the Leafs, but he was more a gunner, a shooter. (He was a minus player every year but his last with Toronto, albeit on what were usually rather poor teams.)  In his later years, including with the Sabres (see photo at right) he had one of the game’s toughest jobs—taking punishment in front of the net—and I came to appreciate him even more as a competitor and an all-around player.

In fact, I was pulling for him to get the opportunity with another team after Buffalo, because he was only 32 when he played his last NHL game in 1991-’92.  He finished with 441 NHL regular-season goals and I was hoping he would get to 500.

He played a bit in the AHL near the end, and signed a deal with his original club, the Canucks, but for whatever reason, he never got the opportunity he (and I) was hoping for.

He is a knowledgeable hockey guy, having coached at the Major Junior level. He has also been a commentator on Leafs TV.  It’s funny, for all the kudos he received because of his goal scoring exploits, he may, in some ways, have been under-rated as a Leaf in the ‘80s.

Most players in that era did not always have the dedication to year-around conditioning that guys have nowadays, but I'd venture to say that the Leafs could use a winger like Vaive today, eh?

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