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 being referred to as a player agent. "He was a lawyer who represented clients," chuckled CJOB sports director Bob Irving, a friend and colleague.
'Let's put it this way: If not for Baiz, Winnipeg would never have seen the likes of Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson'
Yet Baizley has long been considered a behind-the-scenes reason 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 an intentionally short list of players by mega-agent standards. His client career spanned from Hedberg and Nilsson to current Winnipeg Jets 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 now defunct Winnipeg Tribune before a two-decades-plus 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 noted 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."
Joe Sakic, executive vice-president of hockey operations for the NHL's Colorado Avalanche, spent three hours with Baizley in Winnipeg this past Sunday. Hedberg made five visits to Winnipeg in 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 adviser and quality right through. He was one of a kind. My wife (Gun-Marie) and I are very lucky to have known him and very sorry to have lost such a dear friend."
Baizley was born in Kenora and raised in Winnipeg, where he met future wife Lesley in the halls of Churchill High School. The couple wed in 1967 (this Saturday would have been their 46th anniversary), the year Baizley graduated law school. They raised two children, Marnie and Gordon. Marnie, a former national squash champion, is married to Graham Ryding and has two children, Finella and Obie. Baizley also survived by his brother, Brian (Janice Day).
Lesley Baizley admitted young Don did the chasing early on. "But," she added, "I didn't run very fast."
"Most of all, his sense of humour," Lesley replied Thursday when asked about her husband's most fetching quality. "We could make each other laugh. That was one of the things that made it all work."
Indeed, Baizley had tales to tell about five decades of pursuing some of hockey's greatest players. In 1988, he was about to get on a plane to Helsinki to sign a Finnish sensation named Teemu Selanne. Before leaving, Baizley contacted veteran scout Lawrence Johnston to double-check Selanne's much-hyped potential.
"Let me be clear," Baizley told Johnston. "So you're telling me that barring some sort of unforeseen traumatic even or tragic accident, this guy is going to be an elite NHL player for a long time?"
Replied Johnston, following a pause: "Well, it would have to be a pretty bad accident."
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 chose to stay in Winnipeg.
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 airport in 20 minutes. You tell me what that would be worth in Toronto?"
Baizley turned down the job.
"What if we'd ever left Winnipeg?" Lesley said. "We have hundreds and hundreds of fabulous friends. We'd ask ourselves, if we didn't have them, how would we get through this?"
From the outset of informing his close circle of friends about the cancer diagnosis last spring, Baizley cautioned that "all I can do is control my state of mind."
"And he did that to his last breath," Lesley said. "The last thing he said to the three of us was, 'No regrets.' "