• Brian McFarlane

The Eddie Shore–Ace Bailey Incident

December 12, 1933, was a black day in the history of Boston hockey. A check delivered in anger — and from behind — by Bruins tough guy Eddie Shore ended an opponent’s career and left him near death with a fractured skull. It remains one of hockey’s greatest tragedies.

There was little evidence of Christmas spirit in the stands or on the ice that night. The largest crowd of the young season howled for blood as they watched the Bruins and the Leafs pound each other from the opening whistle. Before long there would be pools of blood on the ice and many would be forced to turn away, sickened at the sight.

In the second period, Eddie Shore made one of his patented rushes and was tripped up by King Clancy at the Toronto blue line. Clancy grabbed the puck from Shore and made a dash of his own into the Boston zone. Meanwhile, Shore had jumped to his feet and targeted the nearest Leaf for a return check. The innocent opponent was Ace Bailey, who had his back to Shore.

Frank Selke, Toronto’s assistant general manager, was sitting in the front row of the press box, in perfect position to see what happened next. He would write in his memoirs, “Shore arose and slowly started back for his end of the playing arena. He was behind [Red] Horner and Bailey. Whether he mistook Bailey for Clancy, or whether he was annoyed by his own futility and everything in general, nobody will ever know. But we all saw Shore put his head down and rush at top speed. He struck Bailey across the kidneys with his right shoulder and with such force that it upended Bailey in a backward somersault, while the powerful Shore kept right on going.”

Bailey’s head hit the ice with terrific force, fracturing his skull in two places. An awestruck hush fell over the arena. Everyone realized immediately that Bailey, his knees raised, his body quivering, was very badly hurt. Clancy would say, “I had many battles with Shore but I never thought he was a vicious player. He wasn’t out there to maim anybody. But that night he certainly hit Bailey as hard as he could. It was a shocking thing to see.”

Toronto’s Horner, a muscular, fearless defenseman, skated past his unconscious teammate, and then made a beeline for Shore, who stood as though stunned. Horner shook Shore by the shoulders, and then pole-axed him with a right to the jaw. Shore collapsed to the ice, out cold. Blood flowed freely from a deep cut to his head and spread across the ice.

Bailey and Shore were carried to their respective dressing rooms. In the visitors’ room, Bailey began convulsing. His head was packed in ice and then, barely conscious, he was rushed to a Boston hospital. Two delicate brain operations in the next ten days were necessary to save his life. Even when the crisis passed, doctors were concerned about permanent damage to the brain that might result from such a severe concussion. The Leaf forward never played hockey again, but he made a satisfactory recovery and lived to a ripe old age.

While the two injured players were being carried off that night, the Boston crowd, for no good reason, became ugly. Many left their seats and jammed the corridors. Toronto manager Conn Smythe, taunted by some as he fought his way to the dressing room, lashed out and punched a fan. Smythe was later hauled into court, charged with assault. But a sympathetic judge ruled that his actions were the result of great stress and all charges were dismissed.

Back in Toronto on the night of the incident, Bailey’s father, having listened to Foster Hewitt’s description of the incident on the radio, grabbed a revolver and hopped a train to Boston. He fully intended to shoot Eddie Shore — if he could find him. But Smythe and Frank Selke, his assistant, had a friend intercept the elder Bailey and ply him with liquor until he was in no condition to shoot anybody. The friend relieved him of his gun, and then slipped him aboard a train headed back to Canada.

Shore’s head wound required several stitches. He left for Bermuda a few days later, after learning that he had been suspended for 16 games.

Two benefit games were held for Bailey. The Bruins announced that all the profits from a Boston–Montreal Maroons game on December 19 would go into a fund for Bailey. But a modest turnout at the gate produced little more than $6,000. Two months later in Toronto, a game between the Bruins and the Leafs brought the stricken star over three times that amount.

“I bought a house with that money,” Bailey once told me, “and had plenty left over.”

It was during the pre-game ceremonies at the benefit game in Toronto that Eddie Shore approached Bailey for the first time since the incident at Boston Garden. Tentatively, he skated up to Bailey and offered his hand. Bailey smiled; his firm handshake convinced the crowd that he held no grudge against his adversary. Shore was forgiven. The Toronto fans roared at this display of sportsmanship. At rink-side, a number of Toronto’s finest sighed in relief; they had anticipated an ugly demonstration, perhaps even a riot.

Shore wasn’t much use to himself or his teammates for the rest of that season. In fact, almost a year passed before he displayed his old dynamic fury.

James Hendy, a writer of that era, once said of Shore, “It is doubtful that any player will ever equal Shore’s efficiency in capitalizing on his bad man reputation. The NHL fixed an annual salary maximum which many players have exceeded, but Shore is the only one who forced the league to wink at more than double the figure.”