Justin Vaive – Carving Out His Own Legacy

Author: Adam Reid, for PHPA.com
Date: Mar 10, 2017

Growing up in Buffalo, New York, Justin Vaive acknowledges the benefit of having a father who was an NHL All-Star, team Captain, and three-time 50-goal scorer to his own professional hockey career. “The obvious thing would be that he was there to give me information along the way,” said Justin, who credits constantly being at the arena as a major part of his success as a hockey player.  “I had a good understanding of the lifestyle and what to expect, seeing the highs and the lows that come along with being a professional athlete.”

Although Justin Vaive, who now plays for the Rochester Americans, was coached and mentored by his father, Rick, he has worked hard to create his own identity, and develop a hockey legacy of his own.

Throughout his teenage years, Vaive wasn’t certain about the route he wanted to take with his career. At the age of 16, he opted to play for the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP) for athletes under the age of 18, which allowed him the opportunity to play marquee level hockey while maintaining his eligibility for college hockey.  This also provided Justin the ability to play with players who would soon become some of the best players in the NHL including Patrick Kane, James Van Riemsdyk, and Kevin Shattenkirk. Not only did the program help him develop as a hockey player, it allowed Vaive to be scouted by colleges and NHL teams.

Following his time with the USNTDP, Vaive was drafted in the fourth round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft by the Anaheim Ducks. “It was a cool day, a little different than other people’s draft day,” he recalls. “I wasn’t really planning on or expecting to be drafted, I didn’t even attend the draft.” According to Justin, the most memorable part about being drafted was being with his dad when it happened. “I think it was a really proud moment for my dad, I think it is a proud moment for any parent watching their child follow in their footsteps.”

Although ecstatic to be drafted to the NHL, this was not the start of Vaive’s pro career.  Instead, he enrolled at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, a decision the Ducks were supportive of.  “There are so many different routes available for kids to choose now whether it’s minor league, college, or overseas, and the Ducks were ok with me going the college route,” said Justin acknowledging the importance of a post-secondary degree for athletes.

The decision to choose Miami University was somewhat easy for Justin. “I didn’t want to be a small fish in a giant pond.  When I visited the school, the staff and the guys were all really nice to me and the brand new rink was awesome, I knew it would be really easy for me to fit in.”  Vaive and the Miami Redhawks flourished over the four years he attended, competing in the NCAA Tournament in all four years, including a 2009 NCAA Championship game appearance. The Redhawks were also Central Collegiate Hockey Association regular season champions in 2009-10, and conference tournament champions in 2011.

Even with the success Vaive and his teammates had over those four years, hockey was not the only reason he attended Miami. He understood the importance of having an education in a sport as unpredictable as hockey, and made Sport Management his area of study. “My life for the last 19 or 20 years has revolved around sports.  Whether professional hockey works out or doesn’t, I’ll someday need a different job.”

Following his time at Miami and as Vaive sought to begin his pro career, the Anaheim Ducks were going through a management transition and the two parties could not come to terms on a contract.  “New management was in place compared to when I was drafted to Anaheim and we couldn’t come to terms on a deal.  I ended up talking to the Florida Panthers and earned a spot with the San Antonio Rampage which was Florida’s American Hockey League affiliate at the time.”

The transition to professional hockey can be difficult for players of any caliber; no matter what league that player is entering. Not only is the pace of play different, but so is the lifestyle that comes with it. “I think college helped with my transition because by the time I played pro I was already 22 years old, compared to being 18 or 19,” said Vaive.

Although college seemed to help with his transition to the pro game, Vaive recognizes it wasn’t easy to adapt to the new lifestyle. “The travel and quality of play is much different.  It took me a couple years of playing professional to really grasp what it takes to be a pro.  It’s not something that just clicks at a given time.”

Vaive has become an American Hockey League regular over the last few seasons, playing complete AHL seasons in 2014-15 and 2015-16 with Hartford and Bridgeport respectively.  What is most special to Justin is the ability to be playing professional hockey close to home in Rochester, New York. “It’s definitely cool having my parents able to come down and see me play at the pro level.  Before Rochester I never really got to play close to home, especially with a team like San Antonio that never makes trips out east.”

Last season, Vaive took on an additional leadership role while with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers by serving as the team’s Player Representative for the Professional Hockey Players’ Association, and attended the 2016 PHPA Annual Meeting of Player Representatives in Orlando.  “Its definitely a cool experience for someone who’s never been to the PHPA Annual Meeting.  You get to see all the behind the scenes stuff and it gives you an appreciation for what goes into the off-ice operation of the game.  It was great to meet so many people that work to make things easier for us players.”

In addition to discussing his experience at the meeting, Vaive described how important it is for the players to have a union at the minor league level.  “Other sports such as baseball don’t have the same benefit of having a union at the minor league level.  The players really appreciate it given what we have and the benefits we receive compared to if we didn’t have a union backing us.”

Vaive says he is satisfied with where he is as a player today, but as a professional athlete he is always striving to get better. “The easy answer is that I want to play in the NHL,” said Vaive.  “The biggest thing is consistency, it’s a long season and those players at the elite level are there because they bring it every night.  Whether you are 20 or 40 years old its tough to bring your ‘A’ game every night.”

Vaive is working hard to get to that level of consistency.  Following shoulder surgery Vaive spent the offseason training in Amherst, NY at Performance Sports Training under the watchful eye of renown trainer John Opfer who also works with elite athletes such as Sammy Watkins, Jermaine Mcghee, and others.  “It’s cool to be training around other high caliber athletes,” said Vaive.  “They cater your training specific to your sport.  I worked on a lot of balance and movement and coordination mixed in with weights, which was really difficult and frustrating because it’s not my typical way of training.  But the hard work was worth it and is allowing me to play my game in Rochester.”

Also working with Opfer to rehabilitate his surgically replaced hip, PHPA Executive Director Larry Landon witnessed first hand the work put in by Vaive.  “He has an unbelievable work ethic,” said Landon.  “I witnessed how hard Justin worked to be in the best condition of his life.  He is a great kid with a bright future ahead of him.”

Vaive continues to work hard towards his dream of playing in the NHL, carving out his own legacy, while relying on his Dad from time to time for some sound advice. “When I was a first year pro and I was struggling a bit I talked to my dad.  He told me I can’t be afraid to make mistakes out there, and that I know what I am capable of and to believe in that talent.”


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