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Fifty Mission Cap – The tragic story of Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Bill Barilko

May 2021

On 21 April 1951, the 24-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Bill Barilko scored the winning goal in overtime for Toronto at the legendary Maple Leaf Gardens, during the 1951 Stanley Cup final game, when a back-handed shot got past Montreal goalie Gerry McNeil.

The 5’11”, 180 lb native of Timmins, Ontario, William “Bashin’ Bill” Barilko, wasn’t a particularly remarkable player. He could barely skate, and would more run on the ice that properly skate. During his brief 5-year career, all played with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team won the Stanley Cup four times: in 1947, 1948, 1949, and 1951.

On 26 August 1951, four months after scoring the winning goal, Barilko and his dentist and friend, Henry Hudson, were returning from a fishing trip in Rupert House, Quebec to Barilko’s home in Timmins, Ontario. The Fairchild 24 floatplane, piloted by Hudson, disappeared over northern Ontario. No trace of the plane or its occupants were found at the time.

He left behind his mother Fay, brother, Alex, sister, Anne and fiancée Louise Hastings. His father had pre-deceased him.

On 6 June 1962, helicopter pilot Ron Boyd reported seeing what appeared to be the wreckage of an airplane in a dense forest, around 62 miles north of Cochrane, Ontario. It turned out to be Hudson’s airplane, revealing that the plane had gone off course by around 35 miles.

Inside the wreckage were the remains of Barilko and Hudson, still strapped into their seats.

Hauntingly, the Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t win the Stanley Cup again after the 1951 season………until 1962.

Barilko’s remains were brought back to Timmins, and buried at the Timmins Memorial Cemetery.

During Barilko’s last season, he wore number 5, after having previously work numbers 21 and 19. Number 5 was retired by the Leafs, and now hangs in the Scotiabank Centre, the Leaf’s home arena.

A Barilko memorial

In 2011, Timmins resident and author Kevin Vincent, led team into the dense bush to recover the wreckage of Hudson’s airplane. Vincent’s feared that a nearby mining project development would lead to souvenir hunters descending on the otherwise remote area.

A short documentary, The Mission, aired on The Sports Network (TSN), which profiled the recovery project.

The wreckage was transported out by helicopter to a storage facility outside of Timmins, where it remained for the next nine years. Plans for a museum dedicated to Barilko in Timmins have failed to come to fruition.

Toronto resident and Maple Leafs fan Mark Fera created his own Leafs museum in his basement, containing around 3,000 artifacts, that includes nearly 300 items related to Barilko. His collection includes things like the authenticated game-winning puck, gloves, skates, a copy of Barilko’s contract with an $8,000 base salary, signed programs with Bill and brother Alex from the minor league Hollywood Wolves, his ’51 Cup ring and the only known ticket stub from the game, promo mini-sticks from the brothers’ electronics store on The Danforth in Toronto.

The story of how the game-winning puck was preserved is an interesting one too. In the excitement as the Leafs and Barilko celebrated, 16-year-old fan Harry Donohue plucked the puck from the Montreal net before saw the referee could grab it. For decades after the game, it sat on the fireplace mantle in the Donohue home in Hamilton, Ontario. Another puck was thought to be the actual game-winner for many decades, but the Donohue family was able to authenticate their puck as being the real one.

However, the centrepiece of the collection is sections of Hudson’s Fairchild 24 airplane: the crumpled and faded yellow framework of the fuselage, pontoon, landing gear, exhaust system and even the passenger seat frames when Barilko and Hudson lay for 11 years.

Fera acquired the airplane remains from Vincent in 2020. Since then, he has been in talks with the Leafs about a Barilko memorial of some sorts, but feels a travelling exhibit may be the best he can do for now.

Pursuing the project has been somewhat therapeutic for Fara, a survivor of the Maple Leaf Gardens sex-abuse scandal, calling it, “…a great chance for me to celebrate the history of the team on a positive side.”

His abuser, former Maple Leaf Gardens usher John Paul Roby, died in prison in 2001.

Other tributes to “Bashin’ Bill”

On 26 August 2020, a small-scale highway billboard that Kevin Vincent and Mark Fera helped fundraise, was unveiled on Highway 101, east of Timmins, across from a small park on the shore of Porcupine Lake.

Barilko was immortalized the song “Fifty Mission Cap”, by Canadian band The Tragically Hip, from the band’s 1992 album, Fully Completely.

The song is routinely played as during the Leaf’s warm-up, and the players’ lounge at the Scotiabank Centre features a framed, handwritten copy of the song lyrics, written by The Tragically Hip’s lead singer Gord Downie.

Fifty Mission Cap (partial lyrics):

“Bill Barilko disappeared that summer
He was on a fishing trip
The last goal he ever scored
Won the Leafs the cup
They didn’t win another till nineteen sixty two
The year he was discovered
I stole this from a hockey card
I keeped tucked up under”

Sources: Bill Barilko – Wikipedia, Barilko collection revealed 70 years after Maple Leafs legend’s death | Toronto Sun, Bill Barilko, The Hip & the Most Famous Goal in Maple Leafs History (thehockeywriters.com), Who Was Bill Barilko? | Canadian History Ehx (canadaehx.blogspot.com), Bill Barilko billboard sign welcomes people to Timmins | CTV News.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/fifty-mission-cap-the-tragic-story-of-toronto-maple-leafs-defenceman-bill-barilko/

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