Bailey's near-death experience the impetus for NHL's first All-Star Game

0:56 | NHL
NHL's Most Iconic Moments, No. 8: Tradition Born of Tragedy
Friday January 27th, 2017

Before dropping the ceremonial puck, the man of the evening first removed his fedora. Thirty years old with a receding hairline, sporting a striped tie, overcoat and round-rimmed glasses, he looked fittingly distinguished for the occasion. Much better, for sure, than the blanched hospital gown he needed for more than a month.

To his left at center ice stood all 16 members of the visiting team, wearing white jerseys with “NHL” embroidered across the chest. For their participation tonight, they would later receive medals that had been donated by the Montreal Canadiens’ organization; indeed, creating this event on short notice had required much charity and collaboration from the league’s nine clubs, eight of which were represented on this star-studded exhibition roster.

On the other side were the man’s Toronto teammates, watching proudly. All of them had been outfitted in Maple Leafs sweaters, standard blue with white trim. Except these had also been custom-stitched on the front with three giant letters: “ACE.” He might’ve been named Irvine Wallace Bailey at birth, but that’s what everyone called him. And now, on Valentine’s Day 1934, 14,000-plus fans rose and roared for Ace.

At first blush, the scene at the NHL’s inaugural All-Star Game should resemble what will unfold Sunday night in Los Angeles, where the latest installment will take place in the league’s centennial season. The top players will skate, the hockey world will watch, red carpets will unfurl, goals will be scored aplenty, netminders will be miserable…standard stuff.

The overall tenor, however, should be exactly the opposite. On the one hand, Friday night will see the NHL unveil its 100 greatest players in a ceremony downtown, for which ticket prices are peaking at $300. Saturday will see Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux behind the benches at Staples Center, coaching a celebrity game. All revelry, all weekend. The sellout crowd that convened at Maple Leaf Gardens, on the other hand, ostensibly came to celebrate the miracle that Bailey had not died.

Two months and two days earlier, Dec. 12, 1933, Bailey was sprawled on the ice at the Boston Garden, unconscious and twitching. He had been injured late during a 4-1 win over the host Bruins, when rugged defenseman Eddie Shore upended Bailey from behind, causing Bailey to fall backwards and land on his head. According to specialists who later treated him, the blithe left-winger from Ontario had suffered “a bruised and torn brain, fractured skull and an extra-dural clot on the brain.”

Immediate diagnoses were bleak. At Boston City Hospital, Bailey’s condition was listed as “highly critical,” and within 24 hours he had already undergone two spinal taps to relieve intracranial pressure. The next day, an area homicide inspector visited Shore’s home. According to the Montreal Gazette, the inspector told Shore that an arrest warrant had already been written in the event that Bailey didn’t survive. The intended charge: manslaughter.

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What followed is not merely the story of the original NHL All-Star Game. To this day, it also remains an incredible tale of physical survival and mental anguish, fights and forgiveness, blood and sacrifice. Secondary characters include a father with a gun; a general manager in jail; and an altruistic sports editor at the paper. The two main characters, meanwhile, have since been inducted into Hockey Hall of Fame. Both lived into their 80s. And yet, Ace Bailey and Eddie Shore will forever be remembered for the moment they collided.

***

Eddie Shore had grown up on a horse ranch, hardened by harsh winters. “It helped me build the boy I needed to be to play nineteen years of professional hockey,” he once said, according to the HHOF, even though he didn’t actually start skating competitively until college. He was a tough sonuvabitch, accumulating 295 total penalty minutes over his first two NHL seasons. As a rookie, he almost lost his ear after tussling with teammate Billy Coutu during practice; the organ was hanging by a thread of flesh until Shore convinced doctors to sew the thing back on.

By Dec. 12, Shore had already developed into an established star, a ’29 Stanley Cup winner with Boston, the NHL’s reigning Hart Trophy winner, and one of the league’s most exciting individual draws during the Great Depression era. Bailey meanwhile hailed from scrawnier stock, listed at 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds. Then 31 years old, He was no slouch, though; his 22 goals and 32 points led the NHL in ’28-29, netting him second place in Hart Trophy voting, one spot behind Roy Worters and one ahead of Shore. Plus, he too had recently hoisted Lord Stanley – in ‘32 with the Leafs.

Details of the incident differed in the immediate aftermath, even from first-hand sources. But the generally jarring images were seared into the minds of all who attended an otherwise generic mid-December matchup that night. The Associated Press chronicled the chaos like this:

After five apparent hockey rule violations had passed with no action by the referees, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins turned their National Hockey League game into a shambles before 12,000 rabid spectators tonight at the Boston Garden. Toronto won the game, 4-1.

Eddie Shore started the rumpus by tripping Ace Bailey with such force that he was rendered unconscious. Red Horner, Toronto defenceman, then rushed at Shore and knocked him down with a heavy right hook to the jaw. Shore’s head struck the ice with such terrific force that he suffered a three-inch gash which required seven stitches. Bailey was unconscious, and Shore badly stunned, when their teammates carried them off the ice.

Fiery Connie Smythe, manager of the Leafs, became involved with several spectators when he tried to hasten to the side of his injured player. During a scuffle outside of the Toronto dressing room, Leonard Kenworthy, of Everett, suffered a blow over the eye that shattered his spectacles.

Three stitches were needed to close his cut and, after he received medical attention, he told Boston Garden officials that he would apply for a warrant charging Smythe with assault tomorrow morning.

Bailey, suffering from a severe concussion that was accompsnied by convulsions, remained unconscious for more than 10 minutes. Dr. C. Lynde Gateley, of Boston, attended him and ordered his removal to the Audebon Hospital in in the Back Bay section of Boston.

The next day, on page 12 of the Montreal Gazette, a stock photo of Bailey appeared beneath the headline, “Faces Death in Boston Hospital.” Three doctors took the lead on the surgery at Boston City Hospital, entering his fractured skull to remove damaged tissue and tie up bleeding vessels. Bailey’s wife, Gladys, and his 3-year-old daughter, Joanne, arrived in time to see him before he went onto operating table, and spent the duration comforted by the wives of several Bruins players. Freed from jail on $100 bail, having pleaded not guilty to assault and battery, Smythe stood by Bailey’s side too. To Smythe, fault rested not with Shore, but Boston management.

“I don’t blame Shore for the accident which may cause the death of Bailey,” Smythe said, via the AP. “He is one of the finest sportsmen I ever met…Shore has been used so much that I doubt that he fully realized what he was doing when he knocked Bailey down last night.”

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(Bailey’s father clearly did not agree; as Bailey later recounted in Brian McFarlane’s Golden Oldies: Stories of Hockey Heroes, he had grabbed a “big .45” revolver and hopped on a Boston-bound train to find Shore. Only after Smythe met him, bought him a drink, and slipped sleeping pills into the glass did Bailey’s father settle down. “They relieved him of his gun, the security men took him to the Canadian border and turned him over to the Ontario Provincial Police,” Bailey said. “By the time he woke up, eh was back in Canada.”)

For his part, Shore, who along with Horner was suspended indefinitely by the NHL until final punishments could be decided, appeared wrenched by his responsibility. “Shore Is Broken Man,” read the Montreal Gazette headline, under which the 31-year-old blueliner gave his side. “I went into the dressing room to see Bailey,” Shore said. “He was conscious. I said, ‘Ace, I’m sorry this happened. I hope you’re not badly injured. I assure you it was not intentional.’ He replied, ‘that’s all right, Eddie, it’s all in the game.’ I did not strike him with a stick. I had no malice.”

Even so, Shore estimated that he had been skating at 22 miles per hour when he ran into Bailey’s left side. Paired with the 30 extra pounds Shore had on his opponent, the high-speed impact left Bailey fighting for his life. “He’s not looking so well,” Gladys said upon leaving the hospital Dec. 16, after Bailey had undergone a second operation within 24 hours, and promptly lapsed into a coma. Another pressure-relieving procedure was required Dec. 19, after which Dr. Joseph Hahn told reporters that he didn’t believe Bailey could “last very long.”                                                                                                    

***

They flocked to the hospital and found him smiling. He wore a brown business suit, matching tie. Since he couldn’t stand yet, he greeted the reporters while sitting in a chair. “Tell the Toronto fans I’ll never forget their kindness,” Bailey said. “I’m getting better.”

It was Jan. 13, a little over one month after the hit. By then, Bailey’s recovery had become national news. Sports pages devoted space daily, tracking every shift in his condition. On Dec. 21, his daughter’s fourth birthday, he began “taking nourishment through the mouth.” On Dec. 22, when his doctor pegged his chances of survival at 60-40, he moved his body freely for the first time, waving at members of his family, and then reached for a glass of milk and drank it, much to Gladys’s delight.

Even vague updates were considered newsworthy. On Christmas, which Bailey spent at the hospital with his family, he was described as “very good.” On Dec. 26, it was “resting comfortably,” and then “really good” on Dec. 29. He was downgraded to simply “good” on New Years’ Day, but sat up for the first time on Jan. 3. And now, flanked by what the Associated Press called “a battery of newspapermen and photographers,” Bailey was bursting with optimism. “I feel so good now,” he told them, “I expect to be back on the ice before the season is over.”

The next day, the Montreal Gazette ran that wire story above a smaller item that was headlined, “Still Very Nervous: Shore Not Confident of Ability to Return to Game.” Reporters had tracked down Shore in New York, as he and his wife were returning from three weeks in Bermuda. To Shore, though, the trip wasn’t a vacation – though he did golf a lot – so much as a mental escape.

After review the case for almost three weeks, the NHL suspended Shore for 16 games, then the second-longest ban in league history. And even though Bailey had publicly absolved Shore of responsibility, the defenseman still hadn’t forgiven himself for the wreckage. To make matters worse, he tried to visit Bailey in the hospital upon returning stateside, but was flatly denied.

“I’m still very nervous,” Shore told reporters. “Right now I don’t feel like playing hockey but I hope to regain my confidence when I strap on my skates January 28.”

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At the executive level, a coalition was mounting to ensure Shore wouldn’t come back even then. In a gesture of goodwill, the Bruins had donated the full $6,642.22 in gate receipts accrued from a Dec. 19 game against the Montreal Maroons to Bailey’s family. But as Bailey’s hospital bills climbed into the thousands of dollars, Smythe grew increasingly angry that the Leafs were bearing the financial responsibility, and not Boston. Other owners grew rankled at Bruins manager Art Ross, whom they viewed as emphasizing Shore’s mental health in interviews over that of Bailey.

“Many people must wish that Art Ross would stop talking about Shore’s mental agony,” Senators owner Frank Ahearn said. “All this talk will not make people forget poor Bailey lying in hospital with two holes sawed in both sides of his skull. Nor will they forget the real mental agony of Mrs. Bailey and Bailey’s family.”

That day, Jan. 10, governors from Toronto, Ottawa, and the Maroons invoked their rights to call a special session, in which they intended to hear evidence and request a season-long suspension for Shore. The meeting was scheduled for Jan. 24. Reporters expected a lengthy, contentious battle.

Instead, the governors emerged with an all-star game.

***

Shore waited in the dressing room, “white-faced and visibly nervous,” according to the Canadian Press. He had returned from the suspension on time, the season-long ban cast down by a 6-3 vote, but hadn’t appeared at Maple Leaf Gardens since the hit. When he skated out onto the ice, he was greeted by raucous applause.

Looking back, it seems positively bizarre that when the NHL’s three-man committee chose the all-star roster to face the Maple Leafs on Feb. 14, Shore was among the 16 named. But even in Toronto, which by all reason could’ve been baring its fangs, the decision was reportedly met with near-unanimous approval. “A gesture that will be appreciated by all hockey lovers,” said Lester Patrick, who coached the all-star side and put Shore into the starting lineup.

Given this, it’s not too strange, then, that Shore was cast in a similarly sympathetic light as Bailey, who made his first public appearance since the injury at the all-star game. The big moment came during the pregame ceremony, when the players were presented with medals and custom windbreakers. Shore skated over to Bailey, who was standing in the front row behind the boards. When they shook hands, the crowd again cheered, even louder than when Shore had entered. “They sure warmed my heart,” Shore said. “Please thank Toronto fans for those cheers. I appreciated them more than any others I ever received.”

The event itself had reportedly come together thanks to similar suggestions by Maroons owner James Strachan and Ottawa Journal sports editor Walter Gilhooly. It was a whopping success. Final proceeds, all going to Bailey, were $20,909, roughly $3,000 more than initially expected and carrying the same buying power as $374,500.47 today. “The most colorful show hockey has yet staged,” wrote the CP.

Fittingly enough, Bailey’s old linemates – Andy Blair and Harold Cotton – combined for the game’s first goal, and the Leafs carried a 4-3 lead into second intermission. Desperate for offense in the third period after another goal put Toronto ahead by two, Patrick sent five forwards onto the ice. It backfired hard; the Leafs scored twice more and won 7-3. After the game, Bailey was on hand to present his Leafs teammates the All-Star Game trophy, which Smythe had donated and named in Bailey’s honor. Over the loudspeakers, Smythe then announced that the Leafs would be retiring Bailey’s No. 6 jersey, which had never been done in the NHL before.

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Those around the league initially hoped that the All-Star Game would become an annual affair, but that didn’t happen until 1947. (Two other benefit games were held in Nov. ’37 and Oct. 39; along with the Ace Bailey game, none of them appear on the official list of all-star results.) That same year, Shore was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, having rapidly rediscovered his confidence after the outpouring of support; he won consecutive Hart Trophies in the two seasons after the incident, and was posthumously named to the NHL’s first batch of its greatest 100 players, having passed in March 1985.

Bailey’s playing career ended after the hit, but he worked as an off-ice official at Maple Leaf Gardens for 47 years, timing penalties at rink level, and coached hockey at the University of Toronto. He received his call into the Hall of Fame in 1975. He died at 88 years old on April 7, 1992, the oldest living ex-Maple Leaf at the time.

Last summer, when the Maple Leafs embarked on their centennial tour, they stopped first at Bracebridge, Ontario, Bailey’s hometown. A ceremony was held at Silver Bridge, from which Bailey’s old banner from Air Canada Centre was unfurled. According to MuskokaToDaily.com, this left Bailey’s children swelling with pride. Said one daughter, Joanne, “We’re glad people haven’t forgotten him.”

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