“I don’t know if I can put into words what Don (Baizley) meant to the game. I don’t know if there’s any one individual I’ve met in my life who’s had a more meaningful, more profound impact on the modern game of professional hockey.”
—Mark Chipman, co-owner of the Winnipeg Jets
Don Baizley is not in the Hockey Hall of Fame, nor the International Ice Hockey Hall of Fame.
He should be in both. As a builder.
I bring this to your attention today because the HHofF class of 2014 is to be inducted on Monday and none of the select six is named Don Baizley, the Winnipeg-based lawyer whose 71 years of being an honest-to-gosh good guy gave way to non-smoker’s lung cancer in July 2013.
As many of you know, Baizley maintained a small stable of clients that represented a who’s who in the National Hockey League and on shinny ponds on the other side of the ocean—Joe Sakic, Teemu Selanne, Jari Kurri, Peter Forsberg, Kent Nilsson, Paul Kariya, Theo Fleury, among others. But to brand him as merely a player agent to the stars is insufficient. Baizley was a trail blazer. He helped redefine the game in the mid-1970s, prior to which both the NHL and World Hockey Association were parochial in scope. That is to say, if you weren’t Canadian or American by birth you need not apply.
Oh, sure, there were a handful of Europeans pre-1974. Pentti Lund, born in Finland but raised in Canada from the age of six, was NHL rookie-of-the-year in 1949. Slovak-born Stanislav Guoth, better known as Stan Mikita, was a much-decorated centre with the Chicago Blackhawks. Ulf Sterner played four games with the New York Rangers in 1965. Thommie Bergman was in the employ of the Detroit Red Wings in the early ’70s. Borje Salming was wearing Toronto Maple Leafs linen. Ditto Inge Hammarstrom.
Basically, however, Euros were as rare as buck teeth on a super model. The prevailing logic insisted Euros weren’t equipped with adequate-sized gonads to be successful in the NHL, where ruffians often ruled the day (see: Big Bad Bruins, Broad Street Bullies).
Then along came the 1974 Winnipeg Jets. And Dr. Gerry Wilson. And Billy Robinson. And Don Baizley.
Dr. Wilson, a surgeon whose specialty was sports-related owies, was doing a post-grad gig in Sweden in 1973 when a fleet right winger caught his attention. The name was Anders Hedberg. The good doctor also liked what he saw in a kid named Ulf Nilsson. And, hey, this guy Lars-Erik Sjoberg was none too shabby on defence. So Doc Wilson put in a call to the Jets, then the flagship franchise in the WHA, and they, in turn, dispatched bird dog Billy Robinson to Tre Kroner country for a look-see at these hot-shot Swedes. The rest, as they say, is history.
Hedberg, Nilsson, Sjoberg and goaltender Curt Larsson represented the first wave of Europeans to arrive on North American shores and, in due course, they proved beyond all reasonable doubt that their junk was plenty big enough to not only succeed, but to excel on the frozen ponds of North America.
Hedberg and Nilsson, in particular, were ceaselessly assailed by extremely disagreeable sorts such as Bad News Bilodeau and Frankie Beaton of the Birmingham Bulls, plus a boatload of barbarians employed by other WHA outfits. These “chicken Swedes,” after all, were taking jobs away from good Canadian boys. The nerve. So they were whacked, hacked and brow beaten to unparalleled levels. Their bodies were bruised as blue as the Jets jerseys they wore. Talk about culture shock. But they endured, in large part due to the guidance of Don Baizley.
Baiz’s influence on the game cannot be under-valued. He didn’t just get big bucks for his clients. He took them under his wing. He was their confidante. Their mentor. He provided them a comfort zone, a place where they could grow as hockey players and, more important, people.
His handling of the fabulous Swedes did not escape the notice of other Scandinavians. Soon Veli-Pekka Ketola was with the Jets. Heikki Riihiranta, the aforementioned Bergman, Willy Lindstrom, Mats Lindh, Dan Labraaten, Kent Nilsson were to follow. Those Euro-flavored WHA Jets played a dazzling, free-wheeling brand of hockey. Brute force gave way to beauty, which translated into titles and provided Glen Sather a blueprint in constructing his remarkable Edmonton Oilers teams of the 1980s.
So, you see, Baizley was at the forefront in the reshaping of the professional hockey landscape. He was there for close to 40 years, yet this man who helped change the face of shinny preferred to operate in the background. It was never about him. He was, if you will, the anti-Eagle.
I refer, of course, to Alan Eagleson, the notorious player agent who landed in lockup after playing fast and loose with his clients’ money. The Eagle was self-aggrandizing and self-promoting. If the Eagle was involved, everything else was background noise.
That wasn’t how Don Baizley rolled.
Baiz wanted to talk about himself like Gary Bettman wants to live in the north end of Winnipeg. He was more interested in others. He placed value on who you were and what you did. He always made you feel better about yourself and your work.
During my 30 years in sports journalism, I never met a better person than Don Baizley. Not one. So when the giants of the game gathered in July 2013 to salute another giant of the game, you had to believe them when they told you that Baiz was an honest, humble, trustworthy, humorous, generous, loving man. It’s all true.
The guy was an honest-to-gosh hall of fame person.
Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for more than 40 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old, comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she doesn’t know when to quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented to her in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C.