Historicist: The Greatest Hockey Match Ever Staged

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Historicist: The Greatest Hockey Match Ever Staged

Ace Bailey’s career-ending injury and the origins of the NHL All-Star Game.

The Toronto Telegram, February 15, 1934.

The Toronto Telegram, February 15, 1934.

On December 12, 1933, the Toronto Maple Leafs were playing a road game in Boston in front of 12,000 spectators. Early in the second period, Eddie Shore, Boston’s star player and then one of the most popular players in the entire league, led a Bruins rush into the Leafs’ zone. One of the Leafs’ defencemen—accounts differ as to whether it was King Clancy or Red Horner—tripped Shore.

Shore, possibly groggy from the hit, was slow in getting up, by which time the play was developing in the other end. Veteran winger Irvine “Ace” Bailey, then one of the more popular players on the Leafs, was backing up the Leafs’ play, and had his back to Shore. For reasons which were never made adequately clear, Shore charged hard into Bailey from behind, catching him by surprise. In the words of the Globe, “Bailey fell heavily and was knocked unconscious when his head struck the ice with terrific force.” Leafs’ defender Red Horner skated up to Shore, and while accounts differ as to what, precisely, Horner said to him, Horner followed his words with a direct punch to Shore’s face, sending Shore to the ice as well.

Both players were carried from the ice to receive medical attention. Upon recovering, Shore found his way to the room where Bailey was being assessed, and offered his apologies. Bailey reportedly responded “That’s all right, Eddie. It’s all part of the game.” The doctors on hand soon realized that Bailey’s injuries were severe, however, and had him transferred by ambulance to Audubon Hospital.

Publicity photo of Ace Bailey, likely taken in 1933.  Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Publicity photo of Ace Bailey, likely taken in 1933. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Ace Bailey’s skull had a five-inch fracture. Doctors quickly transferred him to Boston City Hospital, where he was placed under the care of neurosurgeon Dr. Donald Munro. Bailey drifted in and out of consciousness over the next few days, while medical staff performed numerous operations and procedures to relieve the pressure on his brain and keep him alive. Newspapers gave daily updates on his condition, and for the first few weeks after what became known as the “Ace Bailey Incident,” the Leafs’ forward appeared to be near death. “Nobody outside of royalty ever had so many eight-column headlines recording his condition as did Ace Bailey when it was feared his accident would prove fatal,” observed one Telegram editorial. Indeed, the Toronto Star later revealed that their staff prepared a full obituary for Bailey during this time, although, thanks the efforts of Dr. Munro, it proved unneeded.

To help offset Bailey’s medical costs, Bruins’ management announced plans to donate the receipts from their December 19 game against the Montreal Maroons. While a sellout crowd at Boston Garden would have yielded an estimated $15,000, the Shore-less Bruins, who already appeared destined for a last-place finish before the Ace Bailey incident, drew disappointingly few fans to the game, and less than $7,000 was raised.

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For his part in the fracas, the league suspended Red Horner for six games. Fans and sportswriters across the league debated the appropriate punishment for Shore. Shore was known (and loved) by fans for his intensely physical style of play, but few believed that Shore’s intention had been to specifically injure Ace Bailey. As Shore remained suspended indefinitely, fans across the league soon took up “We want Shore” chants wherever the Bruins played. Some in the Toronto press suggested that the hockey community may have been more forgiving than they would have been had it been another player who had put Bailey in the hospital. “What a different yelp would have gone up in some quarters if it had been some punk, palooka, or has-been that had pulled the Shore trick,” wrote one Mail and Empire editorial.

(Right: Eddie Shore, ca. 1934. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

In early January, the NHL chose to cap Shore’s suspension at 16 games, which some Toronto newspapers deemed to be unreasonably light. The Mail and Empire cited several other examples of Shore’s violent actions in earlier games, and argued that Shore should have been suspended for the remainder of the season. Several of the newspapers suggested that Shore’s reinstatement was partially motivated by concern over poor attendance at Bruins games with Shore out of the lineup. The Globe quoted Leafs’ general manager Conn Smythe calling the league’s judgement “a joke,” as “there isn’t any mention of compensation for the Maple Leaf Club or for Ace Bailey.” Smythe noted that the Leafs had already spent $2,500 on Bailey’s Boston medical expenses, with more expenses expected, and were hoping for further financial assistance.

The Mail and Empire has some fun in anticipation of the Boston Bruins coming to Toronto.  The Mail and Empire, January 18, 1934.

The Mail and Empire has some fun in anticipation of the Boston Bruins coming to Toronto. The Mail and Empire, January 18, 1934.

By Christmas it became apparent that Bailey would indeed survive, although it was also clear that his playing days were over. The Toronto press continued to report on his progress, including visits from family members and other hockey players. He managed his first interview on January 4, in which he absolved Shore of any intentional wrongdoing. Bailey also revealed that he had almost no memory of the December 12 game, and that he had pieced together what had happened from conversations with his teammates and Bruins’ coach Art Ross.

Bailey and his family did not return home until January 18, more than a month after his NHL career had been brought to an abrupt halt. Conn Smythe greeted Bailey at the train station and personally drove him to the Bailey home in Swansea. His recovery remained front page news in Toronto even after his return. “Yesterday afternoon,” reported the Globe‘s Bert Perry on January 19, “following a short sleep, Ace took a medium-cold bath and then came downstairs to pose for more pictures. While the cameraman was getting ready, Hap Day, King Clancy, and Buzz Boll arrived. Clancy and Day, who had last seen Ace in Boston City Hospital, were delighted with his improved appearance. ‘He looks great,’ was King’s comment.”

Ace Bailey at home on Armadale Avenue, just south of Bloor, with his wife, daughter, and teammates, on the day of his return.  The Globe, January 19, 1934.

Ace Bailey at home on Armadale Avenue, just south of Bloor, with his wife, daughter, and teammates, on the day of his return. The Globe, January 19, 1934.

Credit for suggesting that the NHL hold a special benefit game for Ace Bailey is usually given to Walter Gilhooly of the Ottawa Journal. However, the notion of a benefit game was not unknown in sports. In 1908, the Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association had held an all-star benefit game for deceased Montreal Wanderers player Hod Stuart. The Telegram also noted that the notion of a benefit game was also well established in English football as a means of honouring veteran players. “The proceeds from such a match will vary,” wrote Ted Reeve, “but Bill Fenton, our expert in Old Country sport, says that a player will sometimes receive as much as four thousand pounds from one of these extremely beneficial matches.”

In late January, the structure of the Ace Bailey Benefit Game was established as an “all-star” game, to be held at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Maple Leafs would play against a team made up of top players selected from the league’s other eight teams. All the proceeds of the game were to go to Bailey and his family, who, despite contributions from both the Bruins and the Leafs, still had outstanding expenses connected with Ace’s medical care and extended time in Boston. In his 2010 biography of Eddie Shore, C. Michael Hiam observes that “this way, the fans would pick up the [hospital] tab, while the owner[s] would only have to donate the volunteer services of the players. Those wealthy men thought it an ingenious solution, and the idea was enthusiastically approved.”

The Mail and Empire, February 14, 1934.

The Mail and Empire, February 14, 1934.

The prospect of a contest featuring so many of the league’s biggest stars prompted the Toronto press to promote the game as “the greatest hockey match ever staged.” Although hockey writers had already been naming an annual “first” and “second” team of NHL all-stars for several years, no game featuring NHL all-stars had ever been staged. All-star selections for the Bailey benefit game were made by league executives, and the resulting team included many of the NHL’s best-known players, including Lionel Conacher, Aurèle Joliat, and Howie Morenz. Also named to the team was Eddie Shore. Most of the Toronto sportswriters agreed that including Shore was appropriate and fitting, although the Toronto Star was not convinced. One editorial, likely written by Lou Marsh, observed that the official decision to include Shore on the roster “fails to mention whether the decision is ‘in response to public demand.’ So far, there have been just as many voices raised in protest against including Shore on the lineup as for it.”

Tickets sold out in under an hour. “A sellout was anticipated from the moment this game was first suggested,” declared the Globe. “It was Toronto’s response to the call of a worthy cause, but it need not be regarded in that light. It is an attraction such as hockey has never before offered…It would have attracted a capacity attendance had it been played without the excellent reason which prompted the proposal that it be arranged.”

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The Maple Leafs produced special jerseys for the game, with Ace’s name on the front, and Harry McGee, one of the directors of Maple Leaf Gardens, commissioned commemorative windbreakers for both squads. Léo Dandurand, owner of the Montreal Canadiens, supplied both teams with personalized commemorative medallions. The management of the Montreal Maroons furnished the all-stars with their own special jerseys for the game, which included the curious detail of a six-pointed star, not unlike a Star of David, on the left shoulder. Conn Smythe donated a trophy for the winners, to be known as the Ace Bailey Trophy, and suggested that the all-star game should become an annual affair to raise money for a special emergency fund to help players injured during NHL games.

(Left: Aurèle Joliat, of the Montreal Canadiens, shown wearing his special jersey for the Ace Bailey Benefit Game.)

For many, the highlights of the game came before the first whistle blew. Ace Bailey, making his first official public appearance since his injury, was given a grand ovation by the Toronto crowd when he first stepped onto the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens. In addition to dropping the puck at the ceremonial opening faceoff, Bailey was tasked with presenting the players with their commemorative windbreakers and medals. “The second player to step up for his mementos was Eddie Shore,” reported the Globe. “It was a tense moment, and instinctively that vast crowd hushed its hubbub. Shore advanced, Bailey extended his hand, and a cordial handshake gave mute evidence of Shore’s regret and Bailey’s willingness to forgive…When the two players met in the centre of the ice and shook hands the cheering was prolonged, and there was no doubt that Toronto fans were willing to give Shore the benefit of the doubt and consider the Boston incident closed.”

Ace Bailey drops the puck for Joe Primeau and Howie Morenz.  The Mail and Empire, February 15, 1934.

Ace Bailey drops the puck for Joe Primeau and Howie Morenz. The Mail and Empire, February 15, 1934.

After the mementos had been distributed, Conn Smythe took control of the loudspeaker, and presented Bailey with his old Maple Leafs’ jersey, bearing the number 6. “Allow me to present this sweater that you have worn so long and nobly for the Maple Leafs,” said Smythe. “No other player will ever use this number on the Maple Leaf hockey team.”

Between periods, entertainment was provided by the Toronto Skating Club, which provided demonstrations by “the foremost fancy skaters of Canada.” In previewing the Toronto Skating Club’s contribution to the event, the Telegram promised that the performers would include several national champion and local junior champion skaters, and that “Adolph Winsburger will stage his barrel act and he is credited with 35,000 falls and no serious accident in three years.”

The "three stars" of the game, as selected by former Toronto St. Patrick's executive Charles Queerie.  The Globe, February 15, 1934.

The “three stars” of the game, as selected by former Toronto St. Patrick’s executive Charles Queerie. The Globe, February 15, 1934.

The game itself set the standard for future all-star games: a relatively high-scoring game with no penalties. The Mail and Empire described it as “a fast and clever exhibition of the winter pastime with the rugged checking and constant use of the body removed.” Play was tied midway through the contest, but the Leafs scored four unanswered goals in the later periods to triumph 7-3. The score that could have been considerably higher but for stellar goaltending from the Leafs’ George Hainsworth and Chicago’s Charlie Gardiner, as the two teams reportedly combined for 93 shots.

At the end of the night, a reported total of $20,909.42 was raised at the game for Bailey and his family.

Despite speculation that an all-star game would become an annual affair, the NHL did not begin holding a regular, annual all-star game until 1947.

Ace Bailey, now an employee of the City Dairy and owner of a new Pontiac.  The Globe, February 24, 1936.

Ace Bailey, now an employee of the City Dairy and owner of a new Pontiac. The Globe, February 24, 1936.

Accounts of Bailey’s injury and the subsequent benefit game have been written up in numerous articles and histories of the Maple Leafs, and it has come to be viewed as part of the team’s lore. In 2013, the Star‘s Brendan Kennedy suggested that it helped form the identity of “Leafs Nation,” calling the Ace Bailey incident “the emotional rallying point that galvanized Toronto around its beloved Blue and White.”

“At the request of Dr. Donald Munro of Boston…please announce to Ace’s friends never to bring up the subject of his injury,” Conn Smythe told the Toronto press just prior to Bailey’s return to Toronto in January 1933. “Let him forget he ever had a fractured skull and let him forget hockey, and the chances are that he will live a long and normal life.” Despite these words, Bailey continued to be associated with hockey, and gave numerous interviews about his career and his injury for the rest of his long life. He spent many years coaching hockey for the University of Toronto, and worked at Maple Leaf Gardens for many years as an off-ice official until being unceremoniously let go by Harold Ballard in 1984. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975.

Ace Bailey's Leafs' office in 1969.  City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 2370.

Ace Bailey’s Leafs’ office in 1969. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 2370.

Ace Bailey died in 1992 at the age of 88. He had outlived every single one of the all-stars who had been selected by the league to play in his 1934 benefit game, including Canadiens star Howie Morenz, whose death in 1937 following an on-ice collision would prompt another all-star benefit game, featuring several of the same players. In fact, of all the players who played in the 1934 Ace Bailey Benefit Game, the only one to outlive Bailey was Leafs’ defenceman Red Horner, who died in 2005 at the age of 95.

In his later years, Bailey gave periodic interviews with the Toronto Star in which he talked about his career, the injury, and what he thought of the modern game. “I watch hockey on TV all the time…and sometimes I wonder if these guys are getting paid to play hockey or fight,” he told Milt Dunnell in 1990. “Maybe the owners think they need those brawls to fill their buildings, but I don’t think they do.”


Additional material from: The Globe (December 13, December 14, December 15, December 18, December 19, December 20, December 21, December 25, 1933; January 4, January 5, January 9, January 11, January 13, January 16, January 19, January 25, January 29, February 13, February 14, February 17, February 19, July 25, 1934; February 24, 1936; March 77, 1983; April 8, 1992); C. Michael Hiam, Eddie Shore and That Old Time Hockey (McClelland & Stewart, 2010: Toronto); The [Toronto] Mail and Empire (January 4, January 5, January 15, January 18, January 19, January 25, February 8, February 9, February 13, February 14, February 15, Februay 16, 1934); Brian McFarlane, The Leafs: Brian McFarlane’s Original Six (Stoddart, 1996: Toronto); Andrew Podnieks, The NHL All-Star Game: 50 Years of the Grand Tradition (HarperCollins, 2000: Toronto); The Toronto Star (December 13, December 14, December 15, December 16, December 18, December 21, December 22, December 27, December 30, 1933; January 3, January 4, January 5, January 9, January 11, January 15, January 18, January 26, February 7, February 8, February 13, February 15, 1934; January 13, 1988; January 21, 1990; April 8, 1992; January 31, 2000; December 12, 2013); The Toronto Telegram (January 4, January 5, January 18, January 19, January 25, February 1, February 7, February 9, February 13, February 14, February 15, 1934); Eric Zweig, Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built the Bruins (Dundurn, 2015: Toronto).


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