Former Youngstown SteelHound Baird remembered as competitor, family man
By Tom Williams
Asked what it was like to play with former Youngstown SteelHounds teammate Jason Baird, Brad Patterson replied with one word.
“Awesome,” the Youngstown Phantoms assistant coach said. “As a teammate and a person away from the rink, you couldn’t ask for a better person.”
Chris Richards, the SteelHounds captain when Baird was traded to Youngstown in November 2007, said, “Baird-y was a guy I had played against for number years and I hated the experience every time.
“So when we were able to [trade for] him, we jumped,” said Richards whose 12-year professional career ended in 2011.
News of Baird’s death on Friday in Texas came as a sad surprise to Richards, whose family moved back to Austintown last year.
“Big shock,” Richards said. “I was aware he was hospitalized [recently], but was hoping everything was going to be OK.”
In July 2008, Baird was working for a landscaping company when the riding lawn mower he was operating exploded. The hockey player suffered burns over more than 60 percent of his body.
His death has been attributed to complications from pancreatitis. Baird was 33.
Surviving Baird are his wife Bethany; sons Isaiah and Marcus; and daughter Addison.
Patterson said Baird channeled his on-ice toughness into his medical battles.
“Obviously, he went through some things that you don’t wish upon anyone and met that head on,” Patterson said. “He was living a good life when things were not always the best for him.
“You can’t speak highly enough of him as a family man, as an athlete, as a friend. It’s definitely a tough loss.”
The first hockey tenant in the (now) Covelli Centre, the SteelHounds’ three seasons in the Central Hockey League came to a crashing halt in June 2008 when the league banished the team over financial issues.
In July 2008, Baird signed a contract with the International Hockey League’s Muskegon Fury. Six days later, he was injured in the horrific fire.
In November 2007, Baird was traded to the SteelHounds by the Corpus Christi Rayz. He played 45 games for the SteelHounds, scoring 13 goals and making 23 assists. His 36 points made him the fifth-leading scorer on the team.
A native of Cayuga, Ontario, Baird was treated at the Akron Burn Center.
After the SteelHounds folded, Richards signed with Corpus Christi and played two seasons for the Rayz. His final season was with the Mississippi RiverKings where he was reunited with former SteelHounds coach Kevin Kaminski and captain Jeff Christian.
“It was going to be the perfect thing to play with JC and Kevin again,” said Richards, who played for Ohio State before turning pro. “But it didn’t work out.”
Kaminski, the former NHL player, was the SteelHounds coach in their second and third seasons. In the 2010-11 season, the RiverKings dismissed him in midseason. Richards retired at the end of that season.
Baird’s family moved back to Corpus Christi in 2009.
“He was able to get back on the ice, but was never able to play,” Richards said. “He was able to golf again, but between his tight skin and the hot weather, it wasn’t easy,”
Baird eventually was able to serve as a volunteer coach when the CHL Rayz converted to the junior hockey team Corpus Christi IceRays in the North American Hockey League.
Patterson wasn’t surprised.
“Just doing things the right way — he did that on the ice as well as off the ice,” Patterson said. “He was always good [with] teammates, whether it was about scoring goals or sticking up for you.”
In August 2008, Kaminski put together a benefit hockey game at the Chevrolet Centre. Among those who played were several SteelHounds and Mahoning Valley Phantoms as well as former Penguins Phil Bourque, Troy Loney and Mark Kachowski.
“You never like to have to play in those things, but it was for such a good cause,” Richards said.
Dave Hanson, one of the Hanson brothers in the movie “Slap Shot,” was there as was Mike Rupp, then a New Jersey Devil and later a Penguin.
Jordan Klucinec, owner of the Draught House, donated $3,500 to pay for the ice rental. The benefit included an auction of autographed memorabilia and raised $34,000.
“It’s a beautiful day to know that this is all taking place,” Bethany Baird said at the benefit. “That’s amazing — Jason brought hockey back to Youngstown for a day.”
Of Bethany, Kaminski said, “She is so strong. We like to think of hockey players as being tough, but she has been absolutely phenomenal.”
Patterson said Baird should be remembered for not backing down.
“Obviously, the way that he battled and played as a competitor, as a hockey player, he brought that competition off the ice,” Patterson said.