• Brian McFarlane

Ace Bailey’s Final Game

Ace Bailey was a superb left winger for the Leafs in the late 1920s and early ’30s. Despite a career shortened by a near-fatal incident on December 12, 1933, at the Boston Garden, Bailey’s solid work earned him induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975.

It was King Clancy who first gave me an eyewitness account of the infamous “Ace Bailey Incident.” Another who watched in horror from near the Leaf bench that night was Frank Selke. Later, just before his death, Bailey himself provided additional details, even though he remembered little of the body check that wrote finis to his career.

Here’s what happened that night at the Boston Garden.

Bruins defenseman Eddie Shore led a Boston rush toward the Leafs zone, but Clancy tripped him up at the blue line. Shore slid along the ice and waited for the referee to wave Clancy off with a penalty. When no penalty was called, Shore rose to his feet, glowering. By this time, Clancy was leading a return rush and was deep in Boston territory, fighting for possession of the puck. Ace Bailey, with his back to Shore, dropped back to the blue line to cover for Clancy. Shore wheeled up behind the unsuspecting Bailey and charged into him, striking him with such force that Bailey was thrown into the air, his body somersaulting backward.

Everyone in the arena — the players on both teams, most of the fans and the men high above in the press box — heard a crack that might be compared to the sound of smacking a pumpkin with a baseball bat. Bailey’s head hit the ice and he lay on his back as though his neck were broken. His legs, bent at the knees, began twitching.

Toronto defenseman Red Horner rushed up to Shore and snarled, “Why the hell did you do that, Eddie?”

When Shore just grinned, Horner threw a punch that knocked him cold. Shore’s head cracked on the ice and he lay in a rapidly expanding pool of blood. Both injured players were carried off the ice unconscious.

Conn Smythe tried to make his way to the medical room — it was actually the room used by the Bruins’ minor-league team, the Cubs — to check on Bailey’s condition. En route, a fan punched the Leafs owner. Smythe returned the blow. Just then, Clancy raced over, brandishing a hockey stick. “Don’t touch my boss!” screamed Clancy.

Bailey came to in the small room, and for a few seconds he appeared to be all right. Tim Daly, the team trainer, offered encouragement: “Come on, Ace. You’ll be back in the game. You got a bump on the head, is all. I’ve seen lots worse in the [boxing] ring.”

Bailey tried to get up, and then slumped back. Dr. Kelley, the Bruins’ team doctor, arrived and began to examine Bailey. “Get an ambulance here fast!” he ordered. He turned to Daly and added softly, “If this young man is a Roman Catholic, someone should call a priest immediately.”

While the ambulance was on its way, Shore, having recovered somewhat from Horner’s knockout blow, and with 16 stitches in his skull, came into the room and apologized to the groggy Bailey.

Bailey is reported to have slurred a response through trembling lips, “That’s all right, Eddie. It’s all part of the game.”

It was an eternity before the ambulance arrived. In fact, the game was over before Bailey was finally taken to the hospital. His mates left for the train station — they had a game to play in Montreal two nights later.

Fortunately, there were in Boston at that time two neurosurgeons who were particularly skilled at dealing with Bailey’s type of injury. Two delicate operations were performed seven days apart. Internal damage was so severe the surgeons offered little hope for his survival. The doctors had told Smythe his player couldn’t possibly make it, and he began making arrangements to have Bailey’s body shipped back to Toronto. But Bailey’s fighting spirit was a factor they hadn’t accounted for; besides which, as an athlete he was in the best possible physical condition to submit to major surgery. While his teammates and family held their breath, Bailey fought for his life. On one occasion, a nurse on duty rushed in to save his life when he swallowed his tongue.

One nurse took a particular interest in Bailey. Hour after hour, she held his hand and urged him to “Keep fighting, Ace. Everybody is praying for you.”

It was true. All across Canada, fans were praying for his recovery. Thousands of get-well cards arrived at the hospital. There was a nationwide sigh of relief when his doctors announced that the crisis was over, and that Bailey was on his way to recovery.

In 1990, a few months before he passed away, Bailey said, “It was Dr. Munro [one of the Boston surgeons] who saved my life. He drilled a hole in each aside of my skull. There was a life-threatening blood clot in there between the brain and the skull. He went to work and removed the clot. Took him two and half hours to get it all, because it came out in pieces. He told me he was ready for a large glass of brandy when he was done.

“I was going to press charges against Shore and the Bruins, but Dr. Munro advised me against it. He said, ‘Ace, you may get only $5,000 or so if you win a lawsuit. But I hear they’re going to hold a benefit game for you in Toronto and you’ll get a lot more money from that than you will by going to court.’ So I withdrew the charges.

“Dr. Munro let me come home to Toronto, and a few weeks later I got a letter from the Boston Bruins. Guess what was inside: it was a check for $7,800, part of the gate receipts from a game between the Bruins and the Maroons. With that money we bought some property and built a house on it. It cost us exactly $7,800 — try doing that today. Then, when they held the big benefit game for me at Maple Leaf Gardens, we received another check — this one for about $20,000. That money was placed in a trust company and they sent us a check every month for years.”

It was during the Toronto game, a forerunner to today’s annual All Star Game, that Bailey and Shore met again — at center ice. When Shore offered his hand and Bailey took it, indicating there were no hard feelings, the crowd erupted in a tremendous ovation.

“I was never the type of man to hold grudges — against anybody,” he told me. “With my dad, it wasn’t quite the same story. My dad, after listening to a description of my injury on the radio, became distraught. Within hours he left Toronto and headed for Boston, packing a loaded gun. He vowed not to return until he’d shot the man who’d nearly killed me. Fortunately, Conn Smythe and Frank Selke got wind of it and took care of the situation.”

Selke, who had returned to Toronto with the Leafs after the Bailey-Shore incident, received a phone call from Conn Smythe in Boston.

“Frank, Ace Bailey’s dad is here, and the word is he’s out to get Shore. Threatens to shoot him. Can you do something about this situation?”

Selke could and did. He contacted an old friend, former Boston policeman Bob Huddy, and gave him the name of the hotel in which he could find Bailey. Huddy went to the hotel, located Bailey in the bar, and befriended him. After several drinks, Bailey showed Huddy the gun he had brought with him from Toronto.

“With this weapon I’ll soon make Shore regret he injured my son,” vowed Bailey.

Huddy took the gun and persuaded Bailey to walk with him to the train station. There he put Bailey aboard a train bound for Canada, flashed his badge and told the conductor to make sure the old fellow stayed on the train until it arrived back in Toronto.

Bailey’s career was over, but Conn Smythe hired him as a minor official for games at Maple Leaf Gardens, and he was a fixture there for the next 47 years. Harold Ballard dismissed him before he could reach the half-century mark, something Bailey remained bitter about for the rest of his life. “I didn’t even get a thank-you note from Ballard for all those years I put in,” he complained. “Others did when they were let go, but not me. I saw the letters signed by Ballard and I told him about it once. He said, ‘Ace, I didn’t send any letters.’ I said, ‘Oh, yes, you did. I saw your signature on them.’ He said, ‘Not my signature. One of my staff must have signed it.’ I said, ‘Harold, I know your handwriting, and it was your signature.’ He snarled, ‘Okay, then I lied to you.’ And I said, ‘Thanks for admitting it. Now you can take this job and stuff it up your keester.’ ”