The Mystery of Bill Barilko

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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?

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. He also gained the nickname of Bashing Bill for his daring lifestyle off the ice, and his on-ice personality with the Leafs.

Howie Meeker, a teammate of Barilko, said running into Barilko on the ice was like running into an anvil.

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.

Sid Abel said of Barilko,

“You bet I played against Bill. He was tough, hard nosed, a guy you always had to deal with. He was an important player.”

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’ goalie Gerry McNeil. The goal, scored on April 21, 1951, won the Stanley Cup for the Leafs and made Barilko a hero among Leafs fans across the country. As he left the ice, for the last time, he was carried on the shoulders of his teammates.

A few months later on Aug. 26, 1951, Barilko left with his dentist Henry Hudson to northern Quebec for a fishing trip.

His mother begged him not to go as Barilko’s father had died on a Friday five years earlier. She did not want her son taking a chance on anything on a Friday.

She was so angry with him when he decided to go, she refused to kiss him goodbye.

Overall, the trip went well as the men captured over 150 pounds of fish. They then decided to return home, but all that fish would weigh down the plane heavily. To make matters worse, a storm was approaching.

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.”

To begin with, there was a search using six planes, but that would soon increase into a massive search and rescue operation.

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.

Flight Lt. G.J. Ruston stated,

“We inspected the area virtually inch by inch over a distance of 60 miles by 40 miles around Coral Rapids and found nothing whatever.”

Dr. Lou Hudson stated his brother buzzed his house several times on Aug. 27, but a search of the Timmins area found nothing.

James Bay Inuit were also asked to search along the shoreline for any traces of the plane or the two men who were fishing there on Aug. 26 before flying back.

Barilko’s mother flew to Timmins to aid in the search for her son. The flight was the first she ever took, and she was described as being in near hysteria over worry for her son. She had also not left her home in six years to that point, since the death of her husband. The Windsor Star stated,

“She said that with the first sure sign of sighting her lost son, she will hit the bush to help find him.”

In early September, a teepee located near Kapuskasing was searched. The teepee was near a canoe and gasoline cache and it was hoped that the men had maybe taken refuge in there.

To help raise money for the search effort, Turk Broda, the goalie for the Maple Leafs, stated he would put his National Hockey League all-star softball team against any other team to raise money for the search. Alex Barilko, the brother of Bill, would attend the charity event as well.

During the search, on Sept. 18, 1951, an RCAF helicopter crashed near Ruperts House along James Bay. Thankfully, all three men in the helicopter escaped uninjured. This was the second crash in 10 days involving the search for Barilko and Hudson. On Sept. 7, an air force Dakota crashed during takeoff, injuring two men.

A civic victory banquet that was supposed to be held to honour the Toronto Maple Leafs Stanley Cup championship on Sept. 28 was cancelled out of respect for Bill Barilko, who at that point was now believed to be dead.

Conn Smythe, owner of the Maple Leafs, said,

“Little hope is held for the safety of Barilko.”

With no clues, a reward of $1,000 was offered for information that would lead to the discovery of the two men. The reward was posted by the families of Barilko and Hudson. Soon after, the directors of Maple Leaf Gardens offered a reward of $10,000 for any information.

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.

Occasionally, the story of Barilko popped up in the news. On July 21, 1958, Dr. Lou Hudson, brother of Henry Hudson, said that he didn’t believe the pieces of yellow fuselage fabric found at a lake near Timmins were pieces of the plane his brother flew. He said,

“He couldn’t get there with the gas he was carrying. The wind was in the opposite direction. He couldn’t do it even with a heavy tail wind.”

Eleven years later on June 6, 1962, a helicopter pilot named Gary Fields discovered the wreckage 100 kilometres north of Cochrane, Ontario. He had seen a glint of something in the trees and later called it in to be investigated.

As soon as people arrived at the crash site, it was clear what they had just solved the mystery of Bill Barilko. The letters of CF-FXT were seen, which was part of the registration number of the missing plane.

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.

The searchers who found the plane said that the fuel tank had apparently exploded in the crash, and the plane was partially burned, as were the bodies inside. The plane also created a hole eight feet wide and three feet deep when it crashed. The wings were broke off in the crash.

Barilko’s mother was staying with her daughter and son-in-law. Her daughter said,

“When Bill disappeared, mother never gave up hope for a moment.”

Bill’s brother Alex stated that finding the body had opened up a lot of old wounds for the family.

Tributes for the hockey star came in from across the country. Reverend W.C. Kitto, said,

“He was exceptionally friendly. He had a smile for everyone but opposing forwards. He always played the game well.”

The funeral for Barilko was attended by 100 of Barilko’s friends and family, including several hockey players. His pall bearers included two hockey players, Allan Stanley and Harry Watson.

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.

That isn’t quite true though.

His body was found a few weeks after the Leafs won the Stanley Cup in 1962, rather than before the Leafs raised Lord Stanley’s mug.

His #5 was retired by the Maple Leafs to honour him and he is buried at the Timmins Memorial Cemetery.

Information for this piece comes from Canadian Encyclopedia,, Wikipedia, Alberta Newspaper Archive, Sportsnet, The Toronto Star, Windsor Star, Sault Ste Star, Calgary Albertan,

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