Jason Baird is not a household name in Toronto, New York or Boston. He doesn’t have a high-priced agent and fantasy poolies do not call out his name. When he went undrafted in junior, not a single eyebrow was raised.
But Baird is loved by many hockey fans. People in Erie, Pa. remember fondly his days with the Otters. Corpus Christi, Texas treats the Ontario boy like a native son and Youngstown, Ohio is praying for him.
A career minor leaguer, Baird recently signed on to play with the Muskegon Fury of the International League, but he will likely never suit up for them.
On July 17, Baird was working a summer job as a landscaper in Youngstown when the riding lawnmower he was steering exploded, engulfing the 27-year-old father of three in flames. Baird received third-degree burns to more than 70 percent of his body and the weeks since have seen the gritty winger in and out of surgery and fighting for his life.
Like a lot of kids in North America, Baird was keeping his dream of playing hockey for a living alive by doing what had to be done. If he could only earn about $500 a week, he would take a job in the summer and make up the income that way.
According to former teammate Dave Gilmore, who now works in the front office of the Corpus Christi IceRays, most Central League players work in the summer. Construction and landscaping are common, which, ironically, is what NHLers did back in the Original Six era.
But now that summer job has Baird fighting for his life in an Akron burn unit. His wife, Bethany, has kept a thorough and heart-rending journal of Baird’s battle online throughout the recovery process. Some days are good, some days are bad.
Massive skin grafts to Baird’s chest, back and arms – from shoulder to fingers – were applied in surgeries, which occurred every other day. His face will likely need grafts, which will take two days to complete, while his legs began healing at a rate that suggested grafts might not be necessary.
On the ice, Baird gave opponents all they could handle. Look at his career stats and you’ll find an agitator who was good for about 50 points and at least 100 penalty minutes (sometimes 200) in a given season. His best campaign came with the CHL’s Indianapolis Ice in 2003-04, when he notched 79 points and tallied 196 PIM. Gilmore was with him then, as well as the next year in Corpus Christi when Baird put up 74 points and 222 PIM.
“He was one of those guys you hated to play against, but loved to have on your team,” Gilmore revealed.
In the hospital, Baird is showing the same competitive spirit. Early on, Bethany reported his attempts to get up, despite being on a ventilator. He has since raised his head in an attempt to survey the extent of his wounds. Just the other day, he fought through his first infection, a common pitfall for burn victims. Most of his grafts have been overwhelming successes and the ones that aren’t 100 percent can be dealt with easily.
Following Bethany’s journal, I can feel the emotions in her words. The good days are major victories, the bad days a time to summon as much inner strength and faith as humanly possible. The kids have come and visited, while Jason’s mom has come to give Bethany a brief break.
As a player, Baird gave back to the communities he played in. With the IceRays, he would buy tickets for 20-30 underprivileged children for each game.
Since the incident, the hockey towns Baird touched have returned the favor. Benefits in several locales have already begun, which are very necessary since Baird did not have insurance. In the CHL, most players are only covered for their time with the team; once the season is over, that’s it.
“A lot of times,” Gilmore noted, “I would take out insurance even for the ride home.”
Canadian players are especially at risk since technically they’re not allowed to work in the U.S. except in a hockey-playing capacity.
But none of that really matters right now. After two weeks, Jason Baird’s next milestone will be to get off his ventilator and talk again. While he never played in a major hockey market, the passion – and compassion – of his fans runs just as deep.
Trawl the comment section on Bethany Baird’s journal and you’ll find fans, Zamboni drivers, rival teams and even the folks who used to run the pizza place in Cayuga, Ont., where Jason grew up. Fans always loved Baird’s intensity and spirit on the ice, now they’re doing all they can to see their boy win one more battle.
Bethany’s online journal
Updates on news/benefits surrounding Jason
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every second Friday, and his feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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