Few things irk Cincinnati Cyclones forward Justin Vaive as much as when he believes a teammate isn’t totally invested in trying to win a championship.

As the Cyclones’ captain, it’s his job to make sure everyone knows the stakes and embraces the challenges. And as a player who toiled in the minor leagues for 10 seasons before winning a championship – with the Komets in 2021 – he knows young players tend to lack the perspective of how difficult it is to accomplish.

“A lot of people tend to shrug it off. ‘I’m only 21 and I’m going to get my chance. I’m going to win it one day,’ ” Vaive said. “I’m like, ‘I was 10½ years in before it happened. You can’t take it for granted, that’s the big thing. I don’t know what the average career length in this league is, but it’s definitely not over 10 years.

“Don’t be OK or happy with (losing in the playoffs). There are guys in the NHL who play 18 or 20 years or don’t get a sniff of a Stanley Cup final, so that’s my biggest message – ‘Just live in the moment and don’t get caught up with going home and seeing your family because they’re always going to be there, whether it’s May 1 or June 15. It’s a lot more fun going back to see them when you’ve won something, versus the other outcome.’ ”

The Komets and Cyclones begin their best-of-7 first-round playoff series at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Heritage Bank Center in Cincinnati and Vaive will – as often happens when these teams meet – be a pivotal figure. The 6-foot-6, 237-pound forward had 32 goals (tied for the team lead with Zack Andrusiak), 52 points, 89 penalty minutes and a plus-10 rating in 72 games this season with the Cyclones, for whom he’s played eight years dating to 2011. This is his fourth season as Cincinnati’s captain.

In 2021, though, the Cyclones didn’t field a team because of the COVID-19 pandemic and Vaive joined Fort Wayne for its run to the Kelly Cup. Once a hated rival, his mix of physicality and playmaking made him popular in Fort Wayne – he had 14 goals, 24 points and 99 penalty minutes in 60 games, including the playoffs – before he rejoined the Cyclones in 2021-22.

Now, much like Brandon Hawkins of the Toledo Walleye, Fort Wayne fans have to separate their love for a player who helped bring a championship to Memorial Coliseum with their dislike of him skating for a division rival. It’s also awkward for Vaive, since the Komets still have Anthony Petruzzelli, Oliver Cooper, Matthew Boudens, Marcus McIvor and Blake Siebenaler from the Cup team.

“It’s always going to be weird (playing Fort Wayne), whether it’s this year or in another five years if I run into them and no (familiar faces) are still there. The memories I have in that building will last me a lifetime,” Vaive said, who was an alternate captain in Fort Wayne under A.J. Jenks.

“There have been so many great fans and people in that city that will continue to reach out or see me on the road, or come to Cincy for a game, and make it known why they’re there and where they came from. From that standpoint, (this series) is going to be a little weird. But from a hockey aspect, people change teams or get traded or whatever it may be, and I think that’s not really something I’m focused on too, too much. It’s the off-ice stuff.”

This will only be Vaive’s second playoff series against the Komets. He was part of the 2018 Cyclones team that lost 4-1 in the first round. (He was with another ECHL team, the Greenville Road Warriors, when Cincinnati ousted Fort Wayne from the 2014 playoffs, and he was with the American Hockey League’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers in 2016, when Fort Wayne won a seven-game series with Cincinnati.)

The division-champion Cyclones (47-16-9) are the clear favorites over the fourth-place Komets (34-31-7), thanks to a stacked lineup that includes forward Louie Caporusso, defenseman Jalen Smereck and goaltender Beck Warm. But Vaive knows nothing is guaranteed in the playoffs, and there will always be unexpected challenges. When Fort Wayne won in 2021, there were injuries, hectic scheduling (19 games in 36 days) and unprecedented travel (8,355 miles by bus and airplane) because of the pandemic.

“If anything, it just reaffirmed a lot of things that you hear or see or experience in the playoffs,” Vaive said. “Just going on that long of a run, it showed how much of a sacrifice it is for everybody on the team, the things you have to do right, the things you have to let go of to get the team to that ultimate end.”

Despite being 33, Vaive doesn’t sound like a player looking to retire, but he admitted it’s basically a year-to-year decision. He’s not yet sure what he’ll do post-hockey, but don’t totally rule out professional wrestling. Vaive has been a fan of the sport since the 1990s and has the size and personality for it. When he was in Bridgeport, WWE was identifying hockey players as potential wrestlers and Vaive connected with folks there.

“I always kept it in my back pocket, but that was six or seven years ago and I didn’t know if I’d still be playing hockey at this point,” Vaive said. “It was always something where I was like, ‘Man, I would honestly like to give this a legitimate shot and just see how it is.’ ”

He’s had some other opportunities to try his hand at wrestling, but has never been able to make it work because of his hockey schedule. He knows it may be too late and, besides, he’s still loving hockey. He played in every game this season and reached 700 for his career Saturday.

“Everybody is now joking, ‘Oh, you may as well go another few years, maybe get to 1,000 games.’ I’m like, ‘Not a chance I’m getting to that point,’” Vaive chuckled. “But at the same time, two or three years ago, I was saying the same things. If I can still contribute and help the team win in any way, shape or form, and I’m enjoying it and my body is feeling good, I’m not going to walk away just to walk away.”

Notes: The Komets left Joe Masonius, Stefano Giliati, and rookies Andy Willis and Jackson Pierson off their playoff roster. Giliati suffered a season-ending shoulder/head injury last weekend. Masonius, who has four goals, 13 points and a team-leading 162 penalty minutes in 63 games, fell out of favor because of several game-changing penalties through the regular season. … Idaho’s Everett Sheen was selected ECHL Coach of the Year. … Allen’s Hank Crone won Rookie of the Year.

Senior Writer

Justin A. Cohn, senior writer for The Journal Gazette, has covered Fort Wayne sports since 1997. A native of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, he was named Sportswriter of the Year by the Indiana Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association in 2020.