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That Time When the Caps Had an Ace up their Sleeve

2014-15 marks the 40-year anniversary of the Washington Capitals' inaugural season, and with each year that passes, more and more stories from the early years get forgotten or otherwise lost. Let's try to change that. This is Throwback Tuesday... because who wants to wait 'til Thursday?

Ace Bailey takes on the mighty Montreal Canadiens
Ace Bailey takes on the mighty Montreal Canadiens
George Henschel

As noted in last week's Throwback Tuesday post, the expansion Capitals' roster was so bad that less than two months into that woeful campaign, general manager Milt Schmidt was begging for help. He didn't get much in the way of aid (or, presumably, sympathy).

But on February 10, 1975, he was able to trade Denis Dupere and his amazing mustache to St. Louis for Stan Gilbertson and Garnet "Ace" Bailey. Gilbertson would be flipped to Pittsburgh the following December, but Bailey hung around through the end of the 1977-78 season. When he left for WHA Edmonton, Bailey was fourth in franchise history in games played, goals and points, but had an even bigger impact on the fledgling organization than those marks would indicate.

We all know how tough those first seasons were for the Caps. But with Ace Bailey around, they were a little more bearable, especially when it came to dealing with head coach Tom McVie. Ron Lalonde recalled an early morning in Vancouver when Bailey helped his teammates catch some Z's:

"Tommy McVie had booked ice time at 4 a.m. We were up waiting in the lobby for the bus. What we didn’t know was that Ace had called the bus company and cancelled the bus. It didn’t show up and we went back to bed. We were pretty happy about that."

And that's not the only time that Bailey, um, did his own thing in the face of McVie's tough conditioning regimen:

Bailey received a four-inch-manual from Washington coach Tom McVie, telling him how to get into condition to play. Bailey used the manual to prop up a beer keg in his bar. On the first day of training camp, according to Tom FitzGerald in the San Francisco Chronicle, Bailey beat several other players in a footrace, and McVie said approvingly, "Ace, I can see you used your book this summer." Bailey replied, "Coach, I used it every day."

As difficult as things were for the Caps on the ice, they were no picnic off of it either, as the team constantly faced monetary limitations and restrictions... something that sometimes played out in the transportation they used, the commercial flights used by the teams back then a far cry from the comfortable chartered-jet travel to which today's NHLers are accustomed.

Caps Hall of Fame radio broadcaster Ron Weber recalled this Bailey anecdote:

"The VIP travel agency that handled the Capitals and the Bullets in those days were told that other things being equal, take the cheapest flight there. So they got us a good rate on a TWA flight from Kansas City to Los Angeles, only the reason it was cheap is that they had instituted a new ‘no frills’ thing where you could actually get tickets that had no food. In those days, everybody got a meal on the plane.

"So we lose to the Kansas City Scouts one night and the next morning there is a practice from like 10 to noon, and then we head to the airport for this flight to LA, without lunch. We were going to eat on the plane, right? Only we had been booked in the ‘non food’ section. We were sitting in the back of the plane and the galley was right behind us. As they were bringing the food up that we were not to get, [Bailey] says to the flight attendant, ‘Could you slow down please, so I can sniff it?’

"And then he goes up to Milt Schmidt, the general manager and says ‘Milt, do you know a good shoe store in Los Angeles? I might need to get a comfortable pair of shoes because we might be standing up on the next trip."

All in all, Ace Bailey was the perfect player for those early Caps' squads (and speaking of perfect fits, if you have $99,000 lying around, you can buy yourself a game-worn Ace Bailey Caps sweater) - and the relationship was mutually beneficial, as Bailey got opportunities he probably wouldn't have gotten on too many teams.

As Joe Pelletier notes:

While the 1970s Capitals were perhaps one of the worst teams in hockey history, it was a good fit for Bailey, who got to play a lot more than he did with Boston.

The fact that the Capitals General Manager at the time was Milt Schmidt, the former Boston Bruin legend who Bailey had worked with before during the two Stanley Cup championships in the early 1970s.

"Ace is the kind of player you need when you're building a team," Schmidt said. "He's a good checker, a hard working digger and he can play center or the wing, whichever you want."

Bailey's leadership - and antics - didn't stop when he left Washington, either, as he headed to WHA Edmonton, where he mentored a 17-year-old who would go on to make something of himself in the NHL:

An interesting story about Bailey occurred in the WHA where the likable veteran made a great impression on a young Wayne Gretzky.

The two were roommates and on one occasion overslept their pre-game nap. They woke up with just minutes before game time.

Gretzky, just a rookie, was in a natural panic, but the wily veteran Bailey seemed not too worried. He helped Gretzky get going and told him to go ahead and not worry about me.

Gretzky frantically made his way to the rink and got there just in time for the pre-game warm-up. The team skated for approximately 45 minutes, yet Bailey never showed up, much to Gretzky's dismay.

When the team left the ice, Gretzky walked back into the dressing room and was shocked to see Bailey sitting in his stall - fully equipped and sweating like he was out on the ice with the rest of them.

Gretz whispered into his ear "Ace, I didn't see you on the ice. Where were you?"

Even quieter, Bailey whispered back "I didn't get here until 5 minutes ago. So I put on my equipment and went into the shower and got all wet. They never even missed me!"

It wasn't all pranks, of course:

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.

And a bit more Gretzky on Bailey:

"Ace may have not been the greatest athlete to play in the NHL, but he taught many players how to be champions, and more importantly, he was a winner as a person."

Lastly, AHL President Dave Andrews summed up Bailey's impact:

"Ace loved children and Ace never really lost the child in him. 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."

And yes, that's the past tense that Andrews used in describing his friend. As you likely know, Bailey, along with fellow Kings scout Mark Bavis, was on United Airlines Flight 175 on September 11, 2001 (a flight which has another connection to Capitals history).

Ace Bailey was a good Capital on some bad Capitals teams. More importantly, Ace Bailey was a good human being. And through the Ace Bailey Children's Foundation, that legacy lives on.