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If you are Canadian, you have heard the name Bill Barilko. Even if you never saw the man play, you will know his name thanks to the Tragically Hip song that mentions him.
Who was Bill Barilko though?
In this episode, let’s dive into the man that became a myth.
Bill Barilko was born in Timmins, Ontario on March 25, 1927 during the years when it was a boom town. Throughout The Great Depression, the mine helped keep people employed and sheltered away from the troubles of the economic depression that gripped North America.
When his father died, his mother took over the role of raising Bill and his two siblings.
As a young child, like so many Canadian children, Barilko found hockey but he was not a good skater. As a result, he was put in goal, a position he hated. He then moved to defence and began to excel as a hockey player.
In an article published in the Timmins Daily Press, his skill was already evident to those around him.
“Chuck Jemmett, who handles Timmins Air Cadets, made no mistake when he picked up Bill Barilko after Holman Plumbers found they couldn’t make best use of his services. The bespectacled rearguard, a brother of Army’s Alex, is a real ice general, something the Airmen have lacked so far, and adds size to the lineup that has a lot of midgets.”
At 11-years-old, Barilko became a town hero off the ice when he saw a 14-year-old boy break through the ice while riding his bike. Barilko rushed out to save the young man, and broke through the ice himself.
Barilko would begin his professional hockey career playing for the Hollywood Wolves of the PCHL in 1945-46. Playing in 38 games, he registered nine points and 103 penalty minutes. The following year with the team, he played 47 games and registered 11 points with 69 penalty minutes.
In 1946-47, he would be called up to the Toronto Maple Leafs for 18 games, registering 10 points. Never again playing in the minors, Barilko would play the next four seasons with the Leafs. He would earn All-Star honours in 1947, 1948 and 1949.
In the pros, he was well known for being an attractive man, which resulted in getting a lot of fan mail from women from around Canada and the United States.
Barilko was well known for his hard edge play. In 1947-48, he had 147 penalty minutes. This earned him the title as a “bad man” on the ice.
Over the course of those five seasons with the Leafs, Barilko would lift the Stanley Cup four times, from 1947 to 1949 and in 1951. It is in the last Stanley Cup win for Barilko that he cemented his legacy. He would score the overtime winning goal against the Montreal Canadiens. The goal, scored on April 21, 1951, would win the Leafs the Cup.
A few months later on Aug. 26, 1951, Barilko left with his dentist Henry Hudson to northern Quebec for a fishing trip. On the return trip to Porcupine Lake, the plane disappeared and the passengers were listed as missing.
The last sighting of Barilko was near James Bay where Eva Williams, the wife of the local Anglican missionary Albert Williams, was standing on a hill overlooking the dock where the plane was for a time. She shouted to Barilko that he must like the country up there, to which he responded “I sure do.”
In a note written by Faye Barilko, his mother, she states:
“I had a premonition something would happen. I was very angry with him when he said he was going fishing by air to that wild bush country. I always make him a lunch but this time I was so angry with hi, I had his sister Anne make his lunch. At 8 a.m. Friday, he came into my bedroom and for the first time in my life I didn’t say goodbye or ask him if he had warm clothing, matches and a flashlight. I was so angry. I told him I would rather die than see him take this trip, he doesn’t know that country. My poor Billy.”
One of the men taking part in the search for Barilko as Flight Officer Shep Mayer of the 408 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force. He had played for the Toronto Maple Leafs for two games, registering three points.
In all, the Royal Canadian Air Force searched an area of 78,000 square kilometres, including flying at 500 feet to see everything they could. In all, the two month search cost $385,000, or $3.7 million in today’s funds.
Rumours abounded over what happened to Barilko with some saying that he had smuggled gold out of northern Ontario into the United States, and another that said he defected to the Soviet Union to teach Russians how to play hockey.
Eleven years later on June 6, 1962, a helicopter pilot named Ron Boyd discovered the wreckage 100 kilometres north of Cochrane, Ontario. Both men were still in their seats, strapped in and were believed to have been killed on impact. They still had the remains of fish in their pontoon. This was a full 56 kilometres off course. The cause of the crash was listed as pilot inexperience, weather and too much cargo.
As anyone who has heard Fifty Mission Cap by the Tragically Hip knows, the Leafs didn’t win the Cup for 11 years, until Barilko was found.
Barilko is buried at the Timmins Memorial Cemetery.
Information for this piece comes from HockeyDB.com, Wikipedia, Alberta Newspaper Archive, Sportsnet, The Toronto Star