All-star game is hardly a game

 

MONTREAL -On Dec. 12, 1933, the Toronto Maple Leafs were in Boston to face the Bruins in a game that for decades was to be remembered as a black night which almost cost the life of one of the team's most promising players.

 
 
 

MONTREAL -On Dec. 12, 1933, the Toronto Maple Leafs were in Boston to face the Bruins in a game that for decades was to be remembered as a black night which almost cost the life of one of the team's most promising players.

Ace Bailey, 30, was a splendid right-winger who came out of nowhere in the 1928-29 season to become the first Maple Leaf to lead the league in scoring. Four seasons later, he played a prominent role on the Leafs' first Stanley Cup-winning team.

Then, as now, cheap shots occurred frequently. Top players were fair game and nobody on the Bruins was as good or tougher than Eddie Shore, a legendary defenceman who to this day is considered one of the best in NHL history. Woe betide any opponent who challenged him.

So it was no surprise that after being bodychecked to the ice by Leafs defenceman Red Horner, Shore lost it. The moment he was back on his feet, with fire in his eyes, he went after the first Leaf who crossed his path: Bailey.

Shore hit Bailey from behind, flipping him over backwards and fracturing his skull. Bailey had hit his head so hard on the ice, a priest in attendance gave him last rites.

Shore was suspended for 16 games of a 48-game schedule, but salaries being what they were in those years, Leafs management organized a benefit game for Bailey and his family. The game was held at Maple Leaf Gardens on Feb. 14, 1934, with the Leafs taking on an all-star team of players from the NHL's remaining teams.

Reports on the game, won 7-3 by the Leafs, noted that one of the more memorable moments occurred before the game when Bailey presented Shore with his all-star jersey showing the public that he had clearly forgiven him for assault. Bailey also presented a trophy to NHL president Frank Calder in the hope it would go to the winner of an annual all-star game for the benefit of injured players.

History tells us that there have been many changes with the all-star format - some good, others bad. However, the first one in 1934 was an unofficial one. Two other unofficial benefit games were played in the 1930s for the families of Howie Morenz and Babe Siebert, but the all-star game did not become an annual tradition until the 1947-48 season. Its format remained the same with two exceptions, until the 1967-68 season, which called for the defending Stanley Cup champions to play against a selection of players from the other teams.

Since then, it has been played every year, except in 1966, when the all-star game was moved from the start of the season to its current position in the middle of the season; 1979, with the Challenge Cup series; 1987, with Rendez-vous '87; 1995, with the season shortened by a lockout; and 2005, when the season was cancelled altogether because of another lockout.

Fast forward now to tonight's 56th NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta. The best from the Eastern and Western conferences will be there, minus those players who are injured or have something more important to do, but anyone who decided to call it a game must have had a vivid imagination.

It's a charade of what hockey is all about. No hits. No blocked shots. No penalties. No emotion.

Once, when the all-star format called for the reigning Stanley Cup champions to face the best of the rest, the competition was there. Pride in winning was there. Competition was there. Now, it's mostly a party for players and an opportunity for the NHL to show its major sponsors how much they appreciate the millions they pour into the game each year.

It's why the last time I covered one was in 1972, when the teams met on a bitterly cold night in Minnesota.

Bobby Orr was there. Bobby Hull, too. Ken Dryden played in his first of five all-star games, starting in four and posting a 2.40 goals-against average in those appearances. Other Canadiens were Frank Mahovlich, J.C. Tremblay and Yvan Cournoyer. Phil and Tony Esposito were there, and so were Bobby Clarke, Gilbert Perreault and Brad Park.

Twenty-one of the 38 players who were to meet the Soviets in the '72 Summit Series were there. Al MacNeil and Billy Reay were the coaches. Competitors all.

Hull scored the only goal for the West the first period, Simon Nolet lifted his team into a 2-0 lead in the second before Jean Ratelle and John McKenzie delivered goals for the East. Phil Esposito got the winner in the third with assists from teammates Orr and Dallas Smith.

East 3, West 2.

A game.

Last year, the West beat the East 12-9.

In 1993, the last time the all-stars were in Montreal: Wales 16, Campbell 6. A game? Humbug!

I remember the '72 game mostly because of Orr, named the most valuable player, and Hull. That year, the fire still burned brightly.

There was a point in the game when Hull was deep in the East's zone. Orr was waiting for him and when Hull brought his stick back, Orr dropped to the ice to block the shot. The puck struck his ankle and almost immediately, Orr was on his feet limping his way to the players' bench and then headed directly for the dressing room.

The late Sam Pollock hurried after him. His face was the colour of chalk. Imagine, for example, having to tell Bruins management that the world's best player had suffered a broken ankle in an all-star game!

Happily, Orr was back on the ice a few minutes later. Once again, he was ready to compete.

The NHL has made it abundantly clear it likes what it has now: sellouts year after year in arenas charging sky-high prices. It likes the skills competition and loves the outpouring of goals that have become the rule rather than the exception.

There is no interest in putting "game" back into the all-star game. If there were, the best way to do it would be to return to the format of having the Stanley Cup champions compete with the best of the rest.

Montreal Gazette

rfisher@thegazette.canwest.com

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