Canada's Hockey Experience

The loss of a hero

Bill Barilko disappeared that summer, he was on a fishing trip,” Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip sings in the tune “Fifty Mission Cap”. He continues: “The last goal he scored won the Leafs the Cup.”

Indeed, on April 21, 1951, the Maple Leafs defenceman, all of 24 years old, snapped a point shot over the right shoulder of Montreal Canadiens goalie Gerry McNeil. The overtime marker would be the highlight of Barilko’s career.

It had been a career filled with hockey in Hollywood, California, time spent in the penalty box and four Stanley Cups.

As Downie recalls further in song, “They didn’t win another till 1962, the year he was discovered”.

He is referencing the Leafs next Stanley Cup win after Barilko’s goal — the exact year Bill Barilko’s body would finally be found about 100 kilometres north of Cochrane, Ont.

He had been en route to Seal River, Que. with friend and dentist Henry Hudson. On August 27, 1951, Bashin’ Bill and Hudson were at Rupert House refueling their Fairchild 24 plane. When the two took off, the little plane was heavily loaded and laboured into the sky. Visibility on that day was 9.7 kilometres. However, weather prospects later that evening were bad, with wind velocity reaching 64 kilometres per hour.

After two days with no sign of the men, they were listed as missing. For months, and later years, concerned parties sought out the downed fuselage of the plane, but to no avail.

Military officials came in to help with the search, but left Rupert House in Sept. 24, 1951. Leafs owner Conn Smythe was criticized for his hands-off approach but he eventually offered a $10,000 reward for the recovery of Barilko.

During the time between his disappearance and subsequent discovery, Barilko’s mother never gave up hope, often times leaving herself open to any leads valid or not.

A Cree language broadcast was quoted as saying, “A mother’s heart is stronger than logic. This mother won’t rest until she knows just what happened to her son”.

Faye got her answer in May of 1962. Bush pilot Gary R. Fields was on a routine trip over the area. Not marking his flight path and thinking it was a known crash site, he thought nothing of it.

However, when speaking about the wreckage with locals, interest swelled and Ray Paterick, helicopter pilot Ron Boyd and engineer Phil Weston tried to retrace Fields’s flight path.

According to Kevin Shea’s book Barilko — Without A Trace, on June 6, Boyd and Weston would find the plane aground in a muskeg soil. The men walked through the mire to the plane to find all that was left of the bodies: two skeletons, a pocket watch and a belt buckle.

Only the belt buckle identified Barilko, as he had borrowed it from his brother Alex. Hudson’s wife said the pocket watch was similar to one he had purchased in Switzerland.

It was the conclusion to a story that has captured the curiosity of many a Canadian, as evident in musician Downie’s ode 40 years later.

Sponsored by The Canadian Experience and Maple Leaf Sports + Entertainment, “Canada’s Hockey Experience: The Sport of a Country” is a unique, 20-week online series on the history of hockey.

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