Beautiful heart

A week after signing a contract to play in the International Hockey League, a lawn mower that Jason...

A week after signing a contract to play in the International Hockey League, a lawn mower that Jason Baird was riding exploded. (Photo courtesy of the Baird family)

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:54 AM ET

Bethany Baird opens her eyes each morning in a small room at the Akron Medical Centre Burn Unit, looks up at the bed cosseting the scarred, burned body of her husband and believes that they are "blessed."

Some may look at the bandages, the happenstance, the ugly twist of fate that brought them here and feel rage. Bethany sees a "testimony of miracles."

She knows he could be dead.

One day last month, Bethany was a hockey wife and Jason Baird, 27, was a career minor-league hockey player in Youngstown, Ohio, trying to feed a family on a minor-hockey salary. The Cayuga native, who had taken a summer job with a landscaping company, had just signed a contract with Muskegon for next season.

"We were just getting ready to move," Bethany says.

Instead, she wakes to the "Beep!" of hospital monitors.

"I have a little couch right beside his bed. One person can stay in the room and I can't imagine any other place I'd rather be," Bethany said, in a phone interview. "I will never take for granted a day that I have with him."

Less than a week after signing with the International Hockey League team, the lawnmower on which Baird was working for the landscape company blew up in a fiery ball.

Nobody knows why. The mower has been taken by authorities for examination. The bizarre accident is under investigation.

One thing was certain. On July 17, the future of Jason and Bethany Baird and their three children was forever altered. Instead of fighting for a hockey job, the Cayuga native and graduate of the Mississauga Reps hockey program was fighting for his life.

"They told me not to get my hopes up," Bethany said. "The extent of his burns were over 68% of his body; most people from what I was told don't make it or certainly don't heal as fast as he has been."

She started writing a journal on the website caringbridge.org/visit/jasonbaird to keep friends updated but also, she says, because it helped her stay in touch with her own feelings.

It is a touching diary of raw emotion, hope and faith. "He was engulfed in flames. The thoughts of it, I know, are horrific. I am still in shock every minute in this surreal day-to-day zombie state that I seem to be in," Bethany wrote three days after the accident.

This week, after seven skin grafts, after the ventilator was removed 10 days ago, after she heard her husband's voice again, she wrote: "My eyes were open to many things today. Things that have humbled me and made me thankful for not only my husband's life but my children and myself. This time in our life, yes has caused stress at times and is a daily emotional battle but at the end of the day, Jason is still alive. Anyone who has sustained the injury that Jason has, has either not lived or is now battling with many things they must learn to overcome. Jason is not missing a fingernail or an eyelash and he will eventually look back at this ... with only the scars as an attachment to the memory. The Lord truly has spared my husband."

There is no talk of retribution. No public accusations of blame. It is a testimony of human endurance.

"It's such a blessing to read it," said Mike Rupp, now with the New Jersey Devils and Baird's junior teammate for three seasons with the Erie Otters. "You can see her strength. You get the sense one day that's she's broken, confused about what's going on; the next she might get news that Jason is coming off the ventilator and you can feel she's just over the top, thrilled. Little things like, he opened his eyes ... it brings home the emotions of what they're dealing with."

That Baird is recovering does not surprise Rupp: "I remember him as the agitating kind ... plays hard, does the dirty work. We were playing London in my rookie year. It was the first round of playoffs. Jason didn't like something. Instead of just trying to antagonize or fight the one guy, he dove head long into their bench. He wanted to take them all on. Guys loved playing with him. He was always no holds barred."

An indomitable spirit may always have been one of Baird's greatest assets. Still, arguably, there would seem to be room for rage and repercussion. Mowers shouldn't just blow up. Then, there is the career that never quite seemed to fulfil its promise. He certainly seemed destined for greater fame and fortune than playing for $350 to $500 a week in places such as Cincinnati or Indianapolis.

"I think he kind of got lost in the shuffle. From 1999 to 2002 we had a great run with guys like Brad Boyes and Carlo Colaiacovo, Rupp and Tim Connolly and Jason sort of flew under their radar," said Mike Jeanneret, director of media relations for the Otters. "He still ranks in the top five in our franchise in goals, assists, points and he's No. 1 in penalty minutes. I don't think he ever got credit for that because there was always a first-rounder here. But he was an integral part in the building process here."

He had 218 points in 245 games but no NHL team drafted him. None gave him a tryout. He played on. He didn't find big money. He did find Bethany. Who can say it wasn't a fair deal? "We met in Corpus Christi (Tex.) ... the week he came into town. The company I worked for sponsored the team. We always had tickets and, I don't know why but after two years I decided to go to a game. After, me and my girlfriends went to a bar and Jason was there and he just followed me (she laughs) everywhere."

They married July 30 of last year. She already had two children: Markus, 8, and Isiah, 11. Jason found room for them all in his heart on a minor-league salary. He was the team MVP one season and started Baird's Bunch in Corpus Christi, a not-for-profit group benefiting at-risk youths.

"He wants to become a coach. He'll be amazing," Bethany said. "I can't imagine a better person you'd want your child to follow ... he has a beautiful heart."

But a beautiful heart does not pay hospital bills. Neither can Jason. Last season, he played in the Central Hockey League, which provides medical insurance only during the season. The Bairds face bills that could bankrupt them for a lifetime. Last night, Rupp and the Otters held an auction of memorabilia provided by NHL players. Says Jeanneret: "The community has also stepped up here ... and he hasn't been here for seven years. But a lot of people remember what he did for the organization."

This week the Rayz in Corpus Christi are holding a benefit. Meantime in Akron, the kids get to see their father for the first time since the explosion.

"They're so excited to be seeing their daddy," Bethany said. "And our daughter Addison will be one year old this weekend, so maybe we'll have a little birthday party here."

While the "here" may be performing medical miracles, those miracles do not come without a price.

"It's going to be over $1 million in medical costs," Rupp said. "When you hear something like that you think any benefit we put together isn't even going to scratch that but someone opened my eyes and said: 'Hey, this guy has three kids and a family.' Never mind the hospital bills, they've got everyday living expenses while just trying to get through this."

In Mississauga, Linda Pinizzotto, his billet mother with the Reps, had kept in touch through Facebook and has started a website, www.jasonbaird.ca, where donations can be made to a family trust fund. It should be noted that donations made at caringbridge, which provides Bethany's journal, go to the website and not to the Baird family.

"I talked to him two weeks before the accident," Pinizzotto said. "He hasn't changed since the day I met him. He's soft-spoken but he has a tremendous will. He'll work his way through this physically, but the issue after that is debt. He's a family type of person -- his mom and dad are just small-town, ordinary people. The hospital bills are going to be unbelievable. They don't have that kind of money and neither do his parents."

Sunday, in Youngstown, Rupp and the NHL alumni play a benefit game at 1:30 p.m. Players he never has met have offered help.

"Don Cherry sent him some stuff and so did Bobby Orr; those are people who you would think are too busy to say or do something," Bethany said. "It's overwhelming. Everyone has opened their hearts. People are reading the website and sending beautiful messages and prayer. It just shows what kind of man I married. A man who really left an impact on everyone he has come across."

Says Jeanneret: "What we're seeing now is the respect players had for him as a teammate. He was quiet but he was always there when they needed him."

And now, he needs them -- last guy off the bench is a dirty, rotten ...


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