Recently, I’ve heard some older people say that present-day hockey is so violent and so dirty. “It didn’t used to be like that in the six-team NHL,” is what I’ve been hearing (this, of course, is in reference to pre-1967 hockey). Sorry, folks, I beg to differ. In my opinion it was worse in the so-called “good old days.”
Prior to expansion, player unions didn’t exist. There was very little fraternizing. The players and even the owners hated each other. Many games were all-out war. There were several stick-swinging duels that would make one cringe. And what about the events leading up to the 1955 Richard Riot in Montreal where Maurice “Rocket” Richard smashed a stick over an opposing player’s back and punched out a linesman? What!
Which brings us to the frightening Eddie Shore-Ace Bailey incident, perhaps the worst on-ice spectacle in NHL history…ever.
Let’s set back the clock to December 12, 1933, in the midst of the severest year of the Great Depression. Hockey in the Thirties was a brawling, dog-eat-dog world. That particular night the rough-and-tumble Toronto Maple Leafs were on the road in Boston to play the equally-rough Bruins before a packed hostile crowd of 12,000 noisy fans. The game began with several solid bodychecks dealt out by both teams. And after that neither side would let up.
Then all hell broke loose during a Toronto penalty kill in the second period when Leafs defenseman King Clancy dumped Bruins tough guy all-star defenseman Eddie Shore at the Leaf blueline with a stiff check that sent Shore sprawling like a fish out of water. While Clancy headed up ice with the puck, Shore came to his feet and raced towards the play. The enraged Shore then decided to take out his frustration on the Leaf closest to him, forward Ace Bailey, by ramming him in the kidneys viciously from behind (possibly mistaking him for Clancy), and flipping him backwards in a somersault. (According to some reports, however, including Leafs badboy defenseman Red Horner himself, it was Horner who had hit Shore in the first place, which would mean that Bailey was subsequently mistaken for Horner, and not Clancy. By another account, Horner and Clancy each got a good piece of Shore simultaneously as he skated over the Leaf blueline. Anyway, no films survive to tell what really went down on the hit).
Getting back to Bailey, one thing was for certain: He crashed to the ice head-first. A hush fell over the crowd as he laid there with a fractured skull in two places. He was out cold, blood spurting from his head, his body convulsing. Horner skated over and thought he’d caught a smirk on Shore’s face. Horner shook Shore then crushed him with a solid punch to the jaw. Horner later said, “Shore skated away in a nonchalant fashion. I wasn’t going to let him get away with that, so I went after him.” Down Shore went, smashing his head to the ice. Now there were two bloody players laid out and unconscious. The officials and players from both sides, including Bruins mild-mannered Dit Clapper loomed around the downed players to restore order before things really got out of hand. Both Bailey and Shore were carried to their respective dressing rooms, with Shore regaining consciousness first.
Following the Shore hit on Bailey, the Boston crowd grew ugly. In one of the packed corridors, a leather-lunged Boston fan confronted fiery Leafs owner Conn Smythe to blurt out that he thought Bailey was faking the whole thing. Smythe plowed the fan, rearranging some of his teeth. (Smythe appeared in Boston court later, but the judge threw the lawsuit out because he felt Smythe’s actions were as a result of great stress. The Leafs owner did pay the man’s dental bill, though).
In the visitors’ dressing room, Bailey was still convulsing and was rushed to the nearest Boston hospital. Back in Toronto, Bailey’s father had been listening to Foster’s Hewitt’s radio broadcast of the game. He immediately grabbed a revolver and jumped on a Boston-bound train. Smythe and his assistant, Frank Selke, got wind of Mr Bailey’s intentions. Knowing a Boston policeman, Selke contacted him to intercept the revolver-wielding father. One story version is that the cop liquored up the father while the two of them were in a bar close to the Boston Garden, then he took the gun from him.
At the hospital, Bailey was listed in critical condition. The next morning, his death was reported by several Boston papers in their morning additions. It wasn’t true. Two brain operations in the next 10 days would save him, but he would never play hockey again. After seven stitches to his head to close a three-inch gash, Shore was suspended for 16 games, and Horner received six games for his KO shot on Shore. Once coherent, Bailey threatened to sue Shore, until the NHL stepped in by organizing two benefit games for Bailey and his family. The first one was held in Boston where the team offered all the profits for a game between the Bruins and the Montreal Maroons, but the crowd turnout was minimal and only $6,000 was raised.
Then on February 14, 1934, at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, the Leafs played an All-Star team--NHL’s first All-Star Game actually--from the other clubs with all the proceeds going to Bailey. During the pre-game ceremonies, with emotions on edge in front of a quiet crowd, Shore skated over to Bailey by the boards near center ice and offered his hand. Not hesitating one bit, Bailey smiled and shook it vigorously, as the crowd of 14,000 roared its approval. Shore was forgiven. The Leafs won 7-3, and the game raised almost $21,000. With the money, Bailey paid cash for a house and still had some left over.
It took Shore about a year to return to his previous robust play. He won three more Hart Trophies in the Depression as the league’s MVP, along with his already 1933 award. Horner didn’t really let up with his style either. He led the NHL in penalty minutes eight straight years up to 1940. As a result of his head injury, Shore began using a padded, leather helmet, crude by today’s standards. Ahead of his day, he wore it for the rest of career and encouraged others to use a similar device for head protection. But the game wasn’t ready for such change.
From 1938-1984, Bailey was employed at Maple Leaf Gardens as a timekeeper, until fired by Leafs owner Harold Ballard for no apparent reason, except maybe age. All three players--Shore, Horner, and Bailey--along with King Clancy, are in Hockey’s Hall of Fame.
So, given all the factors, would an incident like this occur today? I think not. Sorry, old folks.