Bailey's big smile, heart drive Ace's Place

BOSTON -- So many stories, so many laughs, such a big life.

So let us start, then, with those who did not know Ace Bailey at all. The ones like 4-year-old Isabel Santiago, concentrating on extracting the jelly from a donut; trailing her intravenous tubes and medical machinery behind her as though they were a feather boa or a toy of some kind.

Neither Isabel nor her mother, Donna, had any clue about the man for whom the playroom at Boston's Floating Hospital For Children is named when they wandered in for the first time a few days ago. They still don't. Not really. What Donna knows is that, almost immediately, this 6,500-square-foot play area, with its bright lights and wide-open space and comfy couches and chairs and toys, has become a kind of sanctuary for Isabel. Diagnosed with leukemia, Isabel will undergo treatment at Floating Hospital for at least the next month. If the hospital has become her temporary home, then Ace's Place has become the place to come to forget that that is so.

"All day Sunday she kept asking about the playroom. She kept saying, 'Tomorrow's Monday,'" Isabel's mother says. "It's amazing, really. Her sister and her brother can come up and get time to enjoy each other."

On the wall just outside Ace's Place, pucks are arranged on the wall identifying donors to the Ace Bailey Children's Foundation, the family-run organization that helped refurbish this room and which continues to help fund projects at the hospital and elsewhere to the tune of $1.5 million. The names on the pucks -- Bobby Orr, Harry Sinden, Don Cherry, Brad Park -- are a who's who of hockey, especially in the Boston area.

On the opposite wall is a striking, three-dimensional sculpture that reveals a series of wintry scenes as visitors walk past. There's a young girl figure skating on a frozen pond and a young boy wearing a Boston Bruins jersey skating out of the background. As the frames change, he smiles, turns and appears to hop into the air.

The young boy is Ace Bailey.

"That's Ace's goal celebration," Bailey's widow, Katherine Bailey explains with a smile. "So he didn't do it very often."

In the upper right corner of the display, Bailey appears to coast by on one skate, the other foot and leg extended slightly in front of him -- a Bailey trademark. His distinctive autograph, reproduced hundreds of times during his 53 years, is there, too.

But it's the middle portion of the piece that is Katherine Bailey's favorite, Bailey's blond hair trailing over his familiar white turtleneck, eyes gleaming as he glides into a turn; the perpetual child forever welcoming children to a warm, happy respite from a sometimes unyielding world.

"Ace adored kids. He was a big kid himself in many ways and kids just gravitated to Ace," explains Bailey's sister, Barbara Pothier, the executive director of the Ace Bailey Children's Foundation.

"He wanted to play. That was Ace's thing," Pothier says.

Bailey, the director of pro scouting for the Los Angeles Kings, was supposed to fly from Boston to Los Angeles for the start of training camp the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, along with scout Mark Bavis. United Airlines Flight 175 instead ended up striking one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan.

Three times Bailey tried to call his wife from the plane, but the two did not end up speaking.

"It's a bit of a haze, I have to say," Pothier says. "It was such a shock and it was just so unbelievable."

Part of that shock was due in part to Bailey's personality.

"He was just so invincible," Pothier says. "It just seemed on 9/11 and the days after that, he'd just walk in the door. That he'd somehow pull himself from the rubble and come walking home."

Initially, the family asked that donations be sent to the Cam Neely House, a natural fit given Bailey's long association with the Bruins with whom he won two Stanley Cups as a player. But soon Katherine and the rest of the tight-knit family felt the need to do something that would both honor Bailey's love of life and make a tangible and long-lasting impact on children in need.

"It's always been important for me to hold onto Ace and hold onto him tight. You don't forget about it. It doesn't go away. Ace had such an incredible spirit. He had this intense need to make everyone around him happy. His spirit is here. We've kept his spirit alive in this room. "
-- Ace Bailey's widow, Katherine Bailey, on the importance of Ace's Place

"We wanted to make a difference. We didn't want to just throw money at something," Katherine Bailey explains.

They recall visiting the children's playroom at Floating Hospital in downtown Boston for the first time. The room, divided by walls into small, uninviting rooms, was drab and gray. The equipment was falling apart. Puzzles were missing pieces. The skylights had been painted a gray or blue, adding another layer of gloom to the proceedings.

"This was, to me, such a dark, depressing room," Katherine recalls. "The first day we came up here. We just came off the elevator and went, 'Oh dear.'"

It was perfect.

After months of planning and fund-raising, and buoyed in large part by the largesse of the hockey community, the playroom opened on March 9.

A new pool table replaced the old one whose pockets used to spit balls out onto the floor. There's a popular table hockey game (naturally), a crafts area and floor pads for younger children. There's a computer that on this day is eliciting squeals of delight from a young patient.

On one portion of the wall hang paintings created by patients.

Parents relax on a nearby couch while their children pretend they're making lunch with plastic utensils and food.

Beyond the toys and games, Ace's Place is an integral part of the hospital machinery. This is a place where hospital staffers use stuffed animals or dolls to explain elements of treatment to youngsters and their parents. This is a place where brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, can play together and, for a moment, share in the kinds of social time that most families take for granted.

"It doesn't all have to be sitting by a bedside explaining what the doctors are going to do next," explains Deb Taft, vice president for development at Floating Hospital For Children.

Staff from other areas of the hospital sometimes stop by the playroom simply to take in the positive sights and sounds that are part of the daily traffic there, she says.

One might imagine taking on a project like this would be like prodding a great wound on an almost daily basis. But that suggests the wounds the Bailey family carry are the kind that heal, that go away. They're not.

So rather than put the memories of 9/11 behind them, Katherine Bailey and her family chose to embrace them.

"It's always been important for me to hold onto Ace and hold onto him tight," she explains. "You don't forget about it. It doesn't go away.

"Ace had such an incredible spirit. He had this intense need to make everyone around him happy. His spirit is here. We've kept his spirit alive in this room. Every day here, he's doing what he was doing when he was on this earth."

"The memory is always here anyways," Pothier adds. "He's in our mind all the time. It just feels good to be putting his glow around. He is the wind in the sails of the foundation."

It doesn't end here, in this room.

The Manchester Monarchs, the Kings' AHL farm team, hold an annual golf tournament that has raised almost $200,000. Initially, some of those funds went to support Ace's Place and now they go to children's health care at a regional hospital in New Hampshire.

There is a skills competition, Got Skills, a grassroots program presented by the foundation for pre-teen kids and endorsed by the NHL. This season, skills events will take place in about a dozen NHL cities and any proceeds will remain in those communities.

Now that Ace's Place is up and running, the foundation has embarked on a new project at Floating Hospital which will help refurbish and re-design the neonatal intensive care unit. At the heart of the project will be an effort to make the unit more parent-friendly and offer more privacy for often distraught and emotional parents.

"They came to me and said, 'What next,'" Taft recalls. "I thought, 'Wow, they want there to be a next.' It's a defining program for the hospital."

Bailey, a bruising forward from Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, met his wife in typical Bailey fashion. Katherine was a flight attendant on a flight on which Bailey and the Boston Bruins were traveling. As Katherine finished her final pre-flight preparations, Bailey waved at her. Then, as the plane was taking off, Bailey bolted from his seat and sat next to Katherine in the jump seat.

"He actually sort of tumbled onto the seat next to me," she recalls with a laugh. "I said, 'You can't do that.' And he said, 'I just did. I'm Ace, who are you?'"

"And that was it," Katherine says. A steadfast personal rule never to give out her number to passengers went right out the window. "For some reason, I couldn't resist the dimples and the blond hair."

That was some 35 years ago. The pair soon got married in June 1972.

As for the wedding, Katherine rolls her eyes. She recalls threatening teammate and close friend Wayne Cashman within an inch of his life if the exuberant Bruins forward didn't behave, which he did, sort of. During the wedding rehearsal, Cashman and members of the wedding party did jump over the pews as though they were changing lines on the fly.

Although Bailey knew little of the domestic arts when he first met Katherine, he soon developed a passion for food and cooking, in part because it dovetailed so nicely with Bailey's love of fellowship and a good time. Bailey's favorite dish was game hen with orange sauce, which he made, well, a lot. Over time, Bailey would develop a long-standing love of turkey and other fowl, and kept livestock around the house. Sometimes, the chickens or turkeys would get out and follow Bailey around as though he was their mother, Pothier recalls.

"He'd be out there with his big hockey butt sticking out," she calls with a laugh.

Hall of Fame defenseman Brad Park coached minor hockey in Lynnfield, Mass., with Bailey. He recalls a mid-winter trip to Park's waterfront property in Maine after their boys had played in the famous Quebec City pee-wee tournament. Park took the boys out for a snowmobile ride, and when they returned, Bailey already had been to town to buy supplies and was in the midst of preparing a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, regardless of the fact there was no running water at the property.

"It's not a holiday without turkey," Bailey happily explained to Park.

Bailey played in 568 regular-season NHL games and 15 postseason contests. He earned two Stanley Cup rings with the Bruins and then went on to be a successful scout with Edmonton and Los Angeles. His name appears on the Cup five more times as a scout with the Oilers.

Bailey also played one year with the Edmonton Oilers in the World Hockey Association. At the time, Baileys took in a teenage rookie named Wayne Gretzky.

Immediately, Bailey assumed a variety of roles in the young star's life not the least of which was protector, regardless of whether that meant in the corners on the ice or in the world off it.

"I was more like a son to him than a teammate," Gretzky recalls.

As well as living with the Baileys, Gretzky roomed with Bailey on the road and the two became fast friends. Years later, Bailey would join his old friend with the Kings organization as a scout. This time, Bailey, often with son Todd in tow, would stay with Gretzky in Los Angeles, but Bailey always did the cooking. Naturally.

"I always said to him, 'If you were half as good a hockey player as you are a cook you'd be in the Hall of Fame,'" Gretzky says with a laugh.

It's often said of the deceased that they were loved by all, Gretzky says. "But in this case, there's no question."

Whether it was an icon like Gretzky or Bobby Orr (with whom he shared a similar relationship in Boston) or whether it was the guy driving the Zamboni or the locker room attendants, Bailey saw not the pedigree but the person.

At a memorial service for Bailey in Boston, Katherine and the family were surprised to see what appeared to be a group of disheveled homeless men waiting outside. Suddenly, one addressed Katherine by name. It turned out they were the workers in the physical plant at the old Boston Garden. Bailey knew them, of course, and they had come to honor that friendship.

There are a million Bailey stories. Everyone who met him has them.

"When I think of Ace, I smile," says Dave Taylor, former GM of the Los Angeles Kings, who worked closely with Bailey during his time with the team. "He lived a lot of years in the time that he had."

Dave Andrews, the commissioner of the American Hockey League, goes back to Bailey's first days as a scout with the Oilers and called him a close friend. He says the charities connected to the foundation are a perfect fit.

"Ace loved children and Ace never really lost the child in him," Andrews recalls. "He had a terrific sense of humor. This is a tough business and it can become a grind. But when you were around Ace, it was never a grind."

Five years ago, the Bailey Family began a journey they never imagined making. In some ways, it is the same kind of unimaginable journey that confronts every family that walks into Ace's Place.

Take Steven Zaniboni.

When Zaniboni's infant son, Nick, was diagnosed with fluid on the brain, the family would find themselves regular visitors to the Floating Hospital. Nick, now 13, has undergone a dozen operations to alleviate fluid build-up, install shunts or remove broken or blocked shunts in his brain.

During that time, he and the family not only watched the transformation of the playroom, but in some ways became transformed themselves. Zaniboni helped secure and then physically deliver the new pool table to the playroom and now holds a fund-raising event that brings in $12,000 to $15,000 annually.

"Nick said 'I don't mind getting sick now,'" Zaniboni recalls with a laugh.

He has known Pothier and Katherine Bailey for a relatively short period of time, but somehow time in hospitals has a habit of becoming elastic, meaningless, and Zaniboni now counts the Baileys among his friends and they likewise.

"It feels like I've known them for years," he says.

Whatever it was that set Ace Bailey's family on this path -- honor, grief, duty -- they have come to a place they never imagined, a place that not only keeps alive the memory and spirit of a much-loved man but has also helped fill their lives with new, powerful memories, friendships, meaning.

"There's one woman. Every time I see her she says 'I just have to hug you again,'" Katherine says with a smile and the hint of a tear.

The Bailey clan gathers often, usually at the home that Katherine and Ace shared for so long in Lynnfield. It never fails, says Pothier, that at some point, great ripples of laughter will erupt and the source will be a story featuring Ace.

Such a gathering is planned for the coming days and among those who will be invited is Alex Piccuito.

Piccuito first arrived at Floating Hospital as a 14-year-old not long after 9/11. Suffering from a host of ailments, including a severe bowel problem that prevented him from eating normally for two years, Piccuito became the unofficial mayor of Ace's Place. During a fund-raising event, Piccuito clambered onto a table beseeching the guests, including many of Bailey's old teammates, to keep bidding, that he needed a new pool table.

He's 19 now and in good health, working just outside Boston as a teaching assistant at a school for children with special needs.

Funny thing, though, what Piccuito remembers most isn't the stuff in the room but the people. "That family's amazing," he says. "They always cheered me up."

You can almost imagine Ace Bailey giving a wink in approval as he makes another turn outside the room that bears his name.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.