How To End the Toronto Maple Leafs' Stanley Cup Curse

Martin AverySenior Writer IFebruary 1, 2009

How To End the Leafs Curse

Would the Curse of the Toronto Maple Leafs be broken if they retired the numbers of Syl Apps, George Armstrong, Johnny Bower, Turk Broda, King Clancy, Wendel Clark, Charlie Conacher, Hap Day, Doug Gilmour, Tim Horton, Red Kelly, Ted Kennedy, Frank Mahovlich, Borje Salming, and Darryl Sittler?

The first team to retire a number was the Toronto Maple Leafs, who retired Ace Bailey's No. 6 on Feb. 14, 1934, prior to an All-Star game in his honor. Years later they retired Bill Barilko's No. 5.

There are currently 96 retired numbers in the NHL.

The Leafs have honoured 13 numbers, instead of retiring them, as other teams do.

The Leafs have won the Stanley Cup 13 times.

Since No. 13, they have been cursed, some say, and have remained that way since Canada's Centennial Year, 1967.

Ace Bailey was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975. He was born in Bracebridge and played eight NHL seasons from 1926 to 1934, totalling 111 goals and 82 assists in 313 games.

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In 1926, he was signed by the Toronto St. Patricks of the National Hockey League, renamed the Toronto Maple Leafs in his first season with the team. He was the leading scorer and goal scorer in the NHL in the 1928-'29 season, with 22 goals and 32 points in 44 games. He was again the Leafs leading scorer in 1929-30 and was just one point short of repeating in 1930-31.

His No. 6 jersey was the first ever to be retired by an NHL team, and is one of only two to have been permanently retired by the Maple Leafs. Following his career-ending injury, Bailey coached the University of Toronto Varsity Blues hockey team from 1935 to 1940 and again after World War II from 1945 to 1949, winning three Canadian Inter university Athletics Union championships.

He worked as a timekeeper at Maple Leaf Gardens from 1938 to 1984, when the 81-year-old Bailey was told by Gardens owner Harold Ballard that his services were no longer needed.

Bailey's career came to an abrupt end on December 12, 1933, when he was charged from behind by Eddie Shore of the Boston Bruins. It was feared that Bailey would not survive. An all-star benefit game was held at Maple Leaf Gardens 13 years before the NHL would introduce an annual all-star game.

Ace Bailey, a scoring sensation, was sidelined by a real bone-crunching body check, and that inspired the stars of his era to get together for a benefit game. That became the first NHL All-Star Game.

Ace Bailey was really Irvine Wallace "Ace" Bailey and he was a star player for the Toronto Maple Leafs for eight seasons, from 1926-1933. He was born in Bracebridge, Ontario,  and 'Ace' starred for four seasons with the local Bracebridge Bird Mill before moving to Toronto in 1922 to attend the University of Toronto.

At that time, the 19-year-old joined the Toronto St. Mary's, a junior team run by Frank Selke, where he played for two seasons, playing junior hockey for in the Ontario Hockey Association. In 1924-'25, Bailey joined the Peterborough Seniors, playing for two productive seasons, including an Allan Cup run in his final season.

Although Frank Selke had certainly taken note of the high-scoring Bailey, it wasn't until Ace joined Peterborough that the Toronto St. Patrick's convinced him to try out for their team. He played senior hockey in Peterborough for two seasons from 1924-1926 and in November 1926 was signed by the Toronto St. Patricks of the National Hockey League. 

Late in 1926, 'Ace' Bailey was signed as a free agent by the National Hockey League team and made his debut. The Toronto St. Patricks were renamed the Toronto Maple Leafs in his first season with the team.

During Bailey's rookie season, a consortium led by Conn Smythe purchased the franchise, which had been suffering financially and threatened to move to Philadelphia. Smythe re-named the team, calling them the Maple Leafs and changed the team's colours from green and white to the now well-known blue and white.

Ace Bailey and the newly-named Maple Leafs played their first game on Feb. 17, a home win over the New York Americans.

The Toronto Maple Leafs finished last in their division, but the young rookie led the team in scoring, collecting 28 points.

Bailey's 28 points placed him in a tie with New York's Frank Boucher for sixth in that season's scoring leaders.

Bailey's speed and shot had made an immediate impact, and continued into the 1927-'28 season. But in 1928-'29, Ace's third season, he finished the season as the NHL's scoring champion, winning the Paul Whiteman Trophy (a predecessor to today's Art Ross Trophy) with 22 goals and 10 assists in 44 games.

With Bailey leading the team, the Maple Leafs' record moved into the positive category for the first time. Toronto finished third, with 21 wins, 18 losses and 5 ties.

He was the leading scorer and goal scorer in the NHL in the 1928-'29 season, with 22 goals and 32 points in 44 games. He was again the Leafs leading scorer in 1929-'30 and was just one point short of repeating in 1930-'31.

After three consecutive 20-goal seasons, his offensive production cooled off notably with the 1931-32 season. In 1929-30 he enjoyed a career season that included 22 goals, 21 assists and 43 points. That season, the Leafs introduced two outstanding rookies to the Leafs line-up: Charlie Conacher and Harvey Jackson.

The impact was significant. As Conacher, Jackson, and their centre, Joe Primeau, emerged as the Maple Leafs premier offensive line, Ace Bailey's role on the team evolved into more of a defensive forward.

In 1930-'31, Bailey was second to Charlie Conacher in both goals (23 to Conacher's 31) and points (Ace's 42 was one shy of the Big Bomber's total). But 1931-32 saw Bailey's production slide to eight goals and five assists, in spite of playing in 41 contests.

Bailey's production tailed off severely in 1931-32. The Kid Line of Jackson, Primeau and Conacher finished one, two and three on the team in scoring, and finished first, second and fourth in the NHL scoring race.

Ace's eight goals, five assists, and 13 points paled considerably to Busher Jackson's league-best 53 points, and even his own 42 points of the previous season. Yet, Bailey was a key contributor to the team that year, and after a hard-fought final with the New York Rangers, the Toronto Maple Leafs collected the Stanley Cup — the first in franchise history.

He scored 10 goals and 18 points in 1932-'33, a season in which the Rangers got retribution and dumped Toronto in the final.

Then, on Dec. 12, 1933, during the second period of a game between Toronto and the Bruins in Boston, hometown hero Eddie Shore was checked hard by Toronto defenceman Red Horner while carrying the puck into the Leafs end.

Shore was having a very frustrating night, according to Red Horner. "He was playing a great game but it wasn't getting him or the Bruins anywhere. They couldn't score on us. (Coach) Dick Irvin sent out King Clancy and myself and Ace Bailey up front to kill off the (two) penalties. Bailey was a very expert stick handler, and he ragged the puck for awhile.

Eventually, Shore got his stick and the puck but Red Horner gave him a very good hip check As play moved back into the Boston end, Shore, dazed by the hit and searching for revenge, skated wildly toward Ace Bailey, likely thinking that he was charging Horner.

He charged into Bailey on an angle from the side. He hit Bailey and flipped him in the air, just like a rag doll. Bailey landed on his head. He hit the ice and went into some kind of convulsion. Bailey lost consciousness and began bleeding from a head wound.

Horner, sickened by the sight of his injured team-mate, cold cocked Shore, knocking him to the ice unconscious.

Both Bailey and Shore had to be carried off the ice by team-mates. Shore suffered a three-inch gash to his head, but Bailey's injury was far more serious.

He was being attended to by Boston doctors in the Bruins' dressing room when Shore, having regained consciousness, went over to apologize. "It's all part of the game," Bailey said before convulsing and lapsing into unconsciousness again.

A drunken fan accused Bailey of faking his injury. Incensed, Leaf manager Conn Smythe struck the man with a punch to the mouth. The fan pressed charges and Boston police locked up Smythe for the night. Conn later was released and paid the spectator's dental bills.

Ace was rushed to Audubon Hospital with a cerebral hemorrhage and by the next morning, his condition was so poor that his death seemed imminent. Dr. Donald Munro, a brain specialist, consulted with Ace's wife about a dangerous but necessary operation. In the meantime, Boston homicide detectives were interviewing Shore and other players about the on-ice incident and it became widely known that, in the event of Bailey's death, Shore would be charged with manslaughter.

When word of his son's injuries reached Bailey's father, he armed himself with a handgun and a train ticket to Boston, intent on exacting revenge on Shore.

Word filtered to Conn Smythe, who alerted Frank Selke. Selke contacted a friend on the Boston police force who discovered Ace's father in the bar of the Leafs' hotel and was able to convince him to abort his plot. The senior Bailey was put on a train back to Toronto and the empty gun returned by mail two weeks later.

Dr. Munro had Bailey transferred to City Hospital, where he performed two operations to relieve the pressure on his brain. After the second operation, a priest was called to read the last rites.

With a pulse of 160 and a temperature over 106 Fahrenheit, doctors were measuring Ace's life expectancy in minutes. But by the following morning, Bailey showed sufficient recovery to give medical staff hope.

In the ensuing days, Bailey grew stronger and by Christmas, Ace was expected to live. He survived two operations and one obituary in a Boston newspaper, but his hockey career was over.

NHL president Frank Calder suspended Eddie Shore indefinitely and Red Horner until Jan. 1, 1934.

Shore was not permitted to visit Bailey in the hospital, but when Boston's manager Art Ross visited the Leafs star, Ace absolved Shore of any wilful wrongdoing once again.

Shore convalesced in Bermuda for three weeks.

Once it became evident that Ace would survive but would never be able to play hockey again, Calder announced that Eddie Shore would be allowed to return to the NHL as of Jan. 28 after missing 16 games.

The Boston Bruins set aside almost $8,000 in gate receipts from a contest with the Montreal Maroons, and the money was sent to Bailey's family.

The NHL's Board of Governors announced that a special benefit game featuring the Toronto Maple Leafs facing the best from the rest of the league would be staged at Maple Leaf Gardens with the proceeds going to Ace Bailey and his family.

Prior to the game, held on Feb. 14, 1934, the All-Stars skated onto the ice in their regular team sweaters and had their picture taken as a group. They were then presented with their All-Star sweaters by NHL president Calder, Lester Patrick and Maple Leaf officials, including Ace Bailey himself.

The first in line was goalie Charlie Gardiner, who received his No. 1 jersey. He was followed by No. 2, Eddie Shore.

An apprehensive silence fell over the Gardens as Shore skated to centre ice. But as Bailey extended his hand to the Bruins star, the crowd erupted in an explosion of spontaneous cheering.

Bailey, in his street clothes, met Shore, dressed in his hockey equipment ready for the game, at centre ice. Bailey handed him an All-Star sweater with No.  2. The two shook hands and the hatchet was buried.

Bailey's extraordinary sportsmanlike gesture made clear his forgiveness of Shore. The near-tragic Bailey incident haunted Shore for the rest of his life.

Before the opening face off, Bailey gave NHL president Calder a special trophy inscribed with his own name. It had been commissioned by the Toronto Maple Leafs in hopes that it would be the prize of an annual All-Star Game that would be staged to set up a fund for injured players.

The paid attendance at Maple Leaf Gardens that night raised $20,909.40 for Ace Bailey and his family.

The NHL All-Star Game took place on a more regular basis after that game. The Leafs defeated the All-Stars 6-2.  This was 13 years before the NHL would introduce an annual all-star game.

No sweater number had ever been retired to that point in the NHL's history. Prior to the opening face off of the All-Star Game, Conn Smythe took the microphone and announced, "No other player on a Maple Leaf hockey team will ever again wear the number 6."

The crowd roared its approval.

The Toronto Maple Leafs retire very few sweater numbers. In fact, there are only two retired numbers hanging from the rafters of the Air Canada Centre—Ace Bailey's No.  6 and Bill Barilko's No. 5.

Only players who have made a significant contribution to the Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey Club and have experienced a career-ending accident while a member of the Leafs have their numbers considered for retirement. Other sweater numbers are honoured, but not retired.

Yet, in a curious but wonderful tribute, Ace Bailey took his No. 6 out of retirement for a period of time. Ace made a decision to take his No. 6 out of retirement. He went to Harold Ballard and requested that Ron Ellis be allowed to wear his retired sweater number.

Ellis's exemplary play and clean lifestyle had made an impression on Ace Bailey, and prior to the 1968-'69 season, the former star paid industrious winger Ron Ellis the highest professional compliment.

Ace Bailey was part of the first-ever Maple Leaf Stanley Cup victory in 1932, and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975. He was joined that year by George Armstrong, Gordie Drillon, Glenn Hall and Pierre Pilote.

Over his career, Bailey totalled 111 goals and 82 assists in 313 games.
Following his career-ending injury, Bailey asked the NHL if he could work as a linesman, but he was turned down. He coached the University of Toronto Varsity Blues hockey team from 1935 to 1940 and again after World War II from 1945 to 1949, winning three Canadian Interuniversity Athletics Union championships.

He also worked as a timekeeper at Maple Leaf Gardens from 1938 to 1984, when the 81-year-old Bailey was told by Gardens owner Harold Ballard that his services were no longer needed. Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard dismissed Bailey from the position he enjoyed so much.

The Toronto Maple Leafs planned to honour both Ace Bailey and the late Bill Barilko in a pre-game ceremony on Apr. 1, 1992 to officially retire both sweater numbers. But a players' strike shut down the league for ten days beginning on Mar. 30. Bailey suffered a stroke on Apr. 1 and died at the age of 89 on Apr. 7, 1992.

He never got to see his sweater raised to the rafters.

A memorial service was held at St. James-Bond United Church in Toronto on May 1, 1992. One of those who spoke at the service was Ron Ellis. In 1992, Bailey's No. 6 and Barilko's No. 5 were finally hoisted to the rafters of Maple Leaf Gardens. Ron Ellis was on the ice along with Ace's daughter Joyce during the emotional ceremony.

Bailey died in 1992 at the age of 88. From being near-death at the age of 30, Bailey was thought to be the oldest living Leaf in the year before his death.

William "Bashin' Bill" Barilko was born Mar. 25, 1927 in Timmins, Ontario and died Aug. 26, 1951 near Cochrane, Ontario. He was a Canadian hockey player of Ukrainian extraction who played his entire National Hockey League career for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

In February 1947, Barilko was called up for the Leafs from the Hollywood Wolves and played for the Maple Leafs until his death.

His sweater number was 21 when he first donned the blue and white during the 1946-'47 and '47-'48 seasons. He was promoted to No. 19 for the '48-49 and '49-50 seasons. The No. 5 was only worn by Barilko for one season, 1950-51.

During that span of five seasons, Barilko and the Toronto Maple Leafs were Stanley Cup champions on four occasions. Barilko scored the overtime goal against the Montreal Canadiens' Gerry McNeil in Game Five of the Stanley Cup final on Apr. 21, 1951 to clinch the Cup for the Maple Leafs.

The Leafs and Habs met in the finals in 1951, with all five games going to overtime. Ted Sloan scored with 42 seconds left in the third period of game five to send it to an extra period, and defenceman Bill Barilko, who had scored only six goals in the regular season, scored the game-winner to win Toronto their fourth Cup in five years.

Four months later, on August 26, 1951, he joined his dentist, Henry Hudson, on a flight aboard Hudson's Fairchild 24 float plane to Seal River, Quebec for a fishing trip. On the return trip, the single-engine plane disappeared and its passengers remained missing.

On June 7, 1962 a helicopter pilot (Ron Boyd) discovered the wreckage of the plane about 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Cochrane. The cause of the crash was deemed to be combination of pilot inexperience and poor weather.

The Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup that year, after not winning it at all during the eleven years that he was missing.

The Tragically Hip's song "Fifty Mission Cap" (from their 1992 album Fully Completely) features Barilko's tragic story and the absence of the Leafs championship until the year he was found (1962).

Barilko's story was published in the 2004 book, Barilko—Without A Trace by Kevin Shea, and the 1988 book Overtime, Overdue: The Bill Barilko Story by John Melady.

He is the focus of the song "50 Mission Cap" by the Canadian band, The Tragically Hip.

Honoured numbers
Name       Number       
Syl Apps        10     
George Armstrong    10   
Johnny Bower        1     
Turk Broda        1     
King Clancy        7     
Wendel Clark        17     
Charlie Conacher    9     
Hap Day    Toronto     4   
Doug Gilmour        93     
Tim Horton        7   
Red Kelly        4     
Ted Kennedy        9     
Frank Mahovlich        27     
Borje Salming        21     
Darryl Sittler        27     

(Wayne Gretzky's No. 99 was retired league-wide.)

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