Don Baizley died the way he lived: with dignity, with compassion for others and without fanfare.
"He was probably the most honest, caring and compassionate individual I know," offered lifelong friend Vic Grant. "I’ve known Don a long time, but he’s taught me a lot in the last 14 months. All through this, he’s only been worried about others."
Baizley, 71, passed away early Thursday morning after a battle with non-smoker’s lung cancer, leaving behind a legacy as one of the most powerful, yet unassuming, members of Canada’s professional hockey community.
Baizley first gained prominence in the early 1970s as the agent for WHA Winnipeg Jets’ superstars Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and Lars Erik Sjoberg before going on to represent a who’s-who of NHL stars, including Teemu Selanne, Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Paul Kariya and Theoren Fleury.
But Baizley loathed to be referred to as a player agent. "He was a lawyer who represented clients," chuckled CJOB sports director Bob Irving, a friend and colleague.
Baizley has long been considered a behind-the-scenes foundation for the success of the original WHA Jets, who eventually were absorbed into the NHL in 1979. Baizley’s relationship with Swedish and Finnish players, in particular, was the backbone of a intentionally short list of players, by mega-agent standards. Baizley’s client career spanned from Hedberg and Nilsson to current Winnipeg Jet defenceman Toby Enstrom.
"Let’s put it this way: if not for 'Baiz' Winnipeg would never have seen the likes of Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson," said Grant, who first met Baizley when both were high school field lacrosse players. Their relationship grew when Baizley began representing WHA players while Grant covered the Jets for the Winnipeg Tribune, before a two-plus-decade radio career with CJOB.
"He was instrumental in that movement of Swedish and Finnish players (to North America). With him getting those players to come over... that was a main building block to what we have today."
Baizley was notorious in the hockey industry for shunning publicity.
"He was just so genuine," Irving said. "He was humble. He never, ever wanted to be in the limelight. He had the most integrity. He’s one of the most super people I’ve ever met in my life. He was just the epitome of a nice guy."
Added Grant: "He was not only a hockey mentor to these players, he was a family mentor, too."
In fact, Joe Sakic, now Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations of the Colorado Avalanche, spent three hours with Baizley in Winnipeg this past Sunday.
Anders Hedberg made five visits to Winnipeg over recent months to visit his ailing friend. Kariya and Minnesota Wild captain Mikko Koivu also made treks to see Baizley.
In an email to the Free Press, Hedberg wrote: "Baiz, as we always called him, was honest, funny, smart, a listener and advisor and quality right through. He was one of a kind. My wife (Gun-Marie) and I are very lucky to have know him and very sorry to have lost such a dear friend."
Baizley’s fondness for his hometown was also legendary. Over the years, according to Irving, he grew tired of trying to explain to his NHL contemporaries why he choose to stay in Winnipeg, along with wife -- high-school sweetheart Lesley — and daughter Marnie and son Gord.
Once offered a job as a top NHL-level executive that would require relocating to Toronto, Baizley reportedly replied: "I have a home on a lake that’s a 65-minute drive. I can get to my office in 10 minutes. I can get to the rink in 15 minutes. I can get to the airport in 20 minutes. You tell me what that would be worth in Toronto?"
Baizley turned down the job.
"You think you’re prepared for something like this," Grant concluded. "(Wednesday) we said goodbye to each other because he recognized that his time was extremely short. He was thanking me for being his friend. Yet it was him who taught me a lot about life. We’ve lost a gentleman and a person who I was so appreciative to call a friend."